John Rawls’s Theory of Justice



Justice is of central importance in political practice and theory. In defending or opposing laws, public policies and administrative decisions of governments, appeals are made to notions of justice. Justice is also invoked in social and political movements, civil disobedience and satyagraha campaigns. Thus, the civil rights or civil liberties movements are essentially movements for justice. So are the dalit, feminist and environmental movements.

While a decent or good society or polity must have several virtues, justice is, according to widespread view, the first of them. In the word of the leading contemporary moral and political philosopher, John Rawls of Harvard University, “justice is the first virtue of social institutions.” He made that statement in his book, A Theory of Justice, which was published in 1971. Some two decades earlier, it was proclaimed in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution that the Democratic Republic of India stood committed to securing to all its citizens “Justice, social economic and political.” It is noteworthy that the Preamble lists justice above the other moral-political values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Rawls’ book inaugurated what has been rightly called “a golden age in theorizing about justice.” Consequently, justice, as noted by Tom Campbell, is today “the central and commanding concept of current mainstream normative political philosophy.” In his edited volume, entitled John Rawls and the Agenda of Social Justice, B.N. Ray observes that Rawls’ book has renewed not only scholarly interest, but also popular interest in justice.

While there is a widespread agreement among ordinary peoples, politicians and philosophers about the centrality of justice as a moral-political value, there is no such agreement among them on its meaning and scope. On these, there are very major differences in the views of the liberal, utilitarian, liberal-egalitarian (i.e. Rawlsian), libertarian, communitarian, Marxist and feminist theorist. Of them, the liberal-egalitarian theory of social justice propounded by Rawls has come to occupy a deservedly central position. Those who advance alternative or competing theories of justice feel compelled to present their worth or merit in comparison and contrast with Rawls’s of theory.


1. Critique of Utilitarianism

Rawls’ principles of social justice are corrective to the liberal-utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What then are his objections to utilitarianism? Rawls recognizes that liberal utilitarianism marked a progressive, welfare-oriented departure from classical liberalism’s preoccupation with individualistic rights. Yet, utilitarianism is, in Rawls’ view, a morally flawed theory of justice. Its moral flaw is that it justifies or condones the sacrificing of the good of some individuals for the sake of the happiness of the greatest number. For the utilitarians, the creation of justice in a society is the aggregate sum of utility or happiness or welfare it produces, and not the well-being or welfare of each member of the society.

In his critique of, and alternative to utilitarianism, Rawls derives inspiration from Immanuel Kant’s moral idea of the freedom and equality of every human being. According to Kant, every human being is to be treated as an end in himself or herself and not as means to the ends of others. It is liberal-egalitarian moral principle, which is violated by utilitarianism and which Rawls reinstates in his theory of social justice and, consequently, in the content or substance of those principles, Rawls tries to give centrality to the moral principle of the freedom and equality of every person.

2. Rawls’s Liberal-Egalitarian Principles of Justice

According to Rawls, a stable, reasonable well-off society is “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.” Along with cooperation, there is also conflict among its member regarding their share of the burdens and benefits of social living. The purpose of principles of social justice is to ensure that the distribution of the benefits and burdens of society is just or fair to all its members. The basic institutions of society should, according to Rawls, be so constructed as to ensure the continuous distribution of “social primary goods” to all the member of society in a fair or just manner. “Social primary goods” are goods, which are distributed by the basic structure of a society. They include rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, and income and wealth. Rawls argues that the distribution of these social primary goods among the members of a society is just, if that distribution is made in accordance with the following principles of justice:

a. Principle 1 (Principle of Equal Basic Liberties)

Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, scheme which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.

b. Principle 2 (Fair Equality of Opportunity and Difference Principle)

Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.

These principles are listed here in the order of their lexical priority. By “lexical priority”, Rawls means that the first principle must be fully satisfied before the next principle is applied. It means, for instance, that “liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty”, and not, say, for the sake of income or wealth. It must, however, be noted in this context that Rawls assumes that society (his own society, in fact) to which his principles of social justice are to be applied is one which is reasonably well-off and in which the basic material needs of all are provided for.

The main purpose of the rule of priority is to assign greater importance to equal liberties than to other primary social goods. In “basic liberties,” Rawls includes freedom of conscience, freedom of though, freedom of the person along with the right to hold personal property, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention or, in other words, the freedom of the rule pf law, freedom of speech and assembly and political freedoms.

Rawls’s principle of fair equality of opportunity stipulates that the state should ensure fair equality of opportunity in the educational and economic spheres as well as provide unemployment and sickness benefits. These require an interventionist, welfare state to run or aid school, to regulate the economy, etc.

The principles of justice have been described by Rawls as “special: formulation of a “general” conception of justice. This general conception is stated as:

“All social primary goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured.”

What Rawls means by this general conception of justice is that only those inequalities are unjust which, as in the case of utilitarianism, put some members or the society at a disadvantage. This “general” conception of justice, however, does not differentiate between the different social primary goods. It does not say, for instance, how to resolve the conflict, of any, between the distribution of income and the distribution of liberty. It is to meet this difficulty that Rawls divides the general conception into a “special conception” of the two principles, which I have discussed above.

3. The Social Contract Procedure

Briefly stated, Rawls’s response is that a social contract method or procedure of political deliberation respects the Kantian liberal-egalitarian moral idea of the freedom and equality of all persons and that an agreement or contract arrived at through such a method or procedure is just or fair to all the parties to that contract. He, in fact, adopts such a procedure and argues that all the contractors would agree to the above-mentioned general and special formulations of the principles of distributive justice – principles, which he espouses and defends as the liberal-democratic-egalitarian principles of social justice.

His social contract is hypothetical and not historical or actual. It is only meant to be a hypothetical assembly or “original position” of “heads of families.” They hypothetically assemble (before the formation or organization of their society) in order to enter into an agreement or social contract on the general principles of distributive justice, on the basis of which the institutions of their society are to be constructed.

Taken together, Rawls’s principles of social justice, ranked in the order of their lexical priority, embody the liberal-egalitarian moral injunction of Kant; namely, that human beings are always to be treated as ends in themselves and never as mere means to the ends of others. From this perspective, it would be unjust to sacrifice the basic rights and liberties of some persons for the sake of any majoritarian or utilitarian conceptions of the good. Unlike liberal-utilitarian justice, Rawls’s liberal-egalitarian justice is marked by its concern for the equality and welfare of everyone, including, especially, the least advantaged members of the society.

4. The Basic Structure of Society

Rawls has persuasively shown that social justice is of crucial importance to social life and that it should inform constitutions, laws, policies, legal processes, etc. In fact, according to him, the primary subject of justice is the basis structure of society. His principle of social justice justifies, and is justified by, liberal democracy, a regulated market economy and the liberal-egalitarian welfare state. He states that for translating his Difference Principle into practice, the government should have four branches, viz., (1) an allocation branch “to keep the price system workably competitive and to prevent the formation of unreasonable market power”; (2) a stabilization branch to bring about “reasonably full employment” and, jointly with the allocation branch, to maintain the efficiency of the marker economy; (3) a transfer branch to attend to “the claims of need and an appropriate standard of life”; and (4) a distribution branch “to preserve an appropriate justice in distributive shares” by taxation measures and adjustments in property-rights.


1. The Libertarian Critique

As mentioned above, Rawls’s liberal-egalitarian conception of social justice occupies a central position within contemporary political philosophy. But it is not an unchallenged or unopposed conception. Many political philosophers have criticized it and have advanced alternative conceptions of justice. Some of these criticism and alternatives are indicated below.

Rawls’s liberal-egalitarian conception of justice has been subjected to a rigorous libertarian critique by his late colleague, Robert Nozick. In his book, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Nozick draws a distinction between “end-state” and “patterning” conceptions of justice on the one hand and “historical” and entitlement-based conceptions of justice on the other. The former types of justices call for social reconstruction or patterning by the state in the name of some end-stage goal. Raws’s conception of justice is, according to Nozick, such an end-state and patterning conception, which by undermining the liberty rights of the individuals is unfair or unjust to them. Instead of prescribing any end-state or patterning principles of distribution, Nozick looks for justice or injustice in the history of the acquisition of the titles to our property holdings.

According to him, the individual has absolute liberty rights, including the right to own property and exchange it in the market, regardless of the end-states or pattern of distribution it may lead to. This entitlement theory of justice, however, includes a principle of rectificatory justice, which is meant to correct past injustices, if any, in the acquisition or transfer of property. It can be seen that Nozock’s libertarian conception of justice is a defense of free-maerket capitalism. While it is eloquent on the defense of individual rights from state interference, it is silent on the undermining of individual freedom and equality by very rich people or corporations.

2. Some Marxist Criticism

Many Marxist criticize liberal egalitarians for their preoccupation with just or fair distributions within the capitalist system and their failure to address its underlying or inherent exploitative or alienating inequalities between the capitalist and the workers. The ideal communist society which Marxism seeks to bring about through the destruction of the system of private ownership of the means of production is envisaged as a society in which there will be no scarcity, no limits to human benevolence and no state. Since the scarcity of social primary goods and the limited nature of human benevolence are the “circumstances of justice” for Rawls’s theory, their (presumed) absence in the communist society makes any principles of fair just distribution irrelevant to such a society. Instead of any such juridical, superstructural distributive principle, the higher form of communist envisaged by communism will function according the principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” In the socialist phase, which precedes and gives birth to the higher and final communist phase, a work-based or contribution-based principle of distribution will prevail.

The collapse of Soviet communism and the growing pace of “liberalization” in country after country, each with its own pattern of inequalities, have served to cast doubts on the “realism” of the traditional Marxist hope for the elimination of the “circumstances” of injustice and for ushering in a society in which social or distributives justice is irrelevant. In fact, departing from traditional Marxism, some contemporary Marxist interpret the extraction of surplus value from the workers by the capitalists as a derived form of injustice, which, according to them, rests on a prior and larger injustice in access to the means of production. In this way, the agenda of liberal-egalitarian social justice that has been launched by Rawls seems to be having some impact on Marxism.

3. The Communitarian Critique

The communitarian theorist criticise Rawls’s liberal-egalitarian conception of justice for its emphasis on individual rights at the expense of the good of the community. In his book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), Michael Sandel, also of Harvard University, criticizes what he calls Rawls’s notion of disembodied or unencumbered self or subject, in opposition to which he advances the notion of the situated self, i.e. the self or subject, who is invariably a member of a community. While, for Rawls, the right is prior to the good and justice is the first virtue of a society, for, Sandel, justice is only a remedial virtue that is needed in an individualistic society. For Sandel, moreover, the common good of the community is prior to the rights of the individuals. Charles Taylor, who too is a leading communitarian political philosopher, bemoans liberalism’s “atomistic” conception of the self. According to him, the well-being of the individual depends on the good of his community is not less important than the just distribution of the freedom and equality rights to the individuals.


The idea and concept of justice is one of the important concepts in Political Science as well as other social sciences. There are different types of justice viz., procedural and substantive. One of the most pathbreaking works in the domain of a critique of the utilitarian conception of justice. Of course, Rawls too has had his critics. Thus, the Marxist, libertarians and the communitarians have criticised the Rawlsian frameworj on different grounds. Be that as it may, Rawls’s theory its non standing contemporary political discourse.


One thought on “John Rawls’s Theory of Justice

  1. I’m curious to find out what blog system you have been utilizing? I’m
    experiencing some small security issues with my latest blog
    and I would like to find something more secure. Do you have any solutions?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s