Potential Essay Questions

  • Is Rawls' theory of justice a defense of the welfare state in its current version?
  • What is the original position, and why does Rawls think that it illustrates what justice requires?
  • What is the subject of justice? How does Rawls defend this choice?
  • What does Rawls' difference principle say? How does Rawls justify its choice in the original position?
  • Does the difference principle have any implications for our current socioeconomic arrangements?

Study and Discussion Questions

There are two central ideas underlying Rawls's theory of justice (which he refers to as justice as fairness), viz., the original position and the veil of ignorance.

According to Rawls, the best approach to discovering principles of justice that are fair is to imagine the principles being determined by people unaware of the consequences of the principles for themselves. The methodological approach used by Rawls is a thought experiment whereby people select principles of justice in an original position (akin to the state of nature in social contract theory), behind a veil of ignorance. That is, I understand the original position to be a hypothetical situation where rational actors negotiate principles of fairness behind a veil of ignorance. According to Rawls, the essential features of this situation include:

"that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance." (p. 11)

The objective behind Rawls's thought experiment is, assuming people are dispossessed of any knowledge that would assist in distinguishing them from one another, to identify the basic structure of society people would, hypothetically speaking, agree or contract for, as free and equal citizens. From here Rawls assumes this will lead to just and fair principles for all (given that no individual is advantaged by particular knowledge), especially maximising justice for the least well off. Rawls contends that his most important justices are the guarantee of basic liberties such as the freedom of speech, movement, or what Berlin calls, negative freedoms. And social and economic justice which is essentially the attempt to make sure that offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fairness and that there should be an attempt to keep the gap between rich and poor as close as possible.

Although I agree that Rawls's justices are universal in the sense that they would be called natural rights in the Lockean tradition if we were to return to a state of nature, under the hypothetical model proposed by Rawls persons who are stronger and more talented would be able to coerce the weaker and disabled by virtue of the proccess of natural selection.

In regards to traditional justice, is a jury not already a kind of veil of ignorance? In New Zealand for example 12 randomly selected individuals with no connection to the case are selected, presented evidence and then make a judgement based on the available facts.

In “A Theory of Justice” Rawls succinctly makes the point that “[i]t is irrational to advance one end rather than another simply because it can be more accurately measured” (p. 91). Although this point is made within the specific context of the basis of expectations, it is valid in more general contexts as well.

This point may seem self evident, however, there is a trend in the social sciences towards more scientific methods. This is not a problem in itself, but an attempt to increase the calculability of outputs within disciplines can cause them to overlook their original objective. Prioritising calculability can lead to a situation where the outcomes generated are precisely inaccurate rather than approximately accurate. It can also create situations where outputs are valued over outcomes. This is common in bureaucratic organisations and is known as goal displacement. This phenomenon can be partially attributed to the ongoing liberal project and the higher esteem which the natural sciences are accorded over the social sciences.

It is reassuring that Rawls recognises (and reinforces) this point, as the way in which he deals with the subject of justice could easily be distorted so that its focus was on calculability at the expense of accuracy. This suggests that Rawls is unwilling to modify his views on justice and it’s components to achieve a more calculable output, thus preserving the integrity of the position which he advocates.

Hana: A contribution towards understanding Rawls' vocabulary
Reflective equilibrium: this is when all the beliefs of an individual are perfectly coherent on all levels of generality. That is to say that in reflective equilibrium, the individual’s specific political judgements are consistent with her more general political beliefs which in turn are consistent, and support, her abstract beliefs about the world. For Rawls, the closer the individual is to reflective equilibrium, the more justified her political beliefs are. Although complete reflective equilibrium is impossible to achieve, by attempting to attain it the justifiability of beliefs can be increased. The method of reflective equilibrium consists of beginning with one’s specific political judgements as provisional fixed points and then bringing one’s more general and abstract beliefs into line with the other beliefs, revising them where necessary. No beliefs are held to be sacred and any may be subject to revision in order to reach coherence. Rawls puts forward the concept of the “original position” as a way of reaching greater reflective equilibrium.

On Benevolence and altruism

I am particularly interested in the way that in “A Theory of Justice” Rawls has avoided the concept of benevolence in his conception of justice. He avoids its use on the basis that it is unnecessary given the expected actions of rational actors in the original position (p.148). He suggests that a combination of the veil of ignorance with that of a rational self-interested actor will result in similar outcomes to that of individual acting in a benevolent manner (and, for that matter, a benevolent individual acting under the veil of ignorance). The basis of excluding the principle of benevolence seems to be due to the ability to achieve the same (or very similar) outcomes with a framework that is more basic, easier to define and easier to apply, rather than that it is incorrect.

Regarding altruism, Rawls goes further. He adds that due to the nature of justice – that it requires conflicting wants, the interactions with regard to two perfect altruists cannot be seen to satisfy this requirement (p.189). Therefore the actions of perfect altruists cannot be the basis for a conception of justice.

It seems, then, that the principles of justice of fairness do not require acts of benevolence and that they cannot actually exist under conditions of perfect altruism, as there would be no need for conceptions of justice as there would be no conflict of interests. I believe that this is an important difference between the work of Rawls and more abstract conceptions of justice which appeal for benevolent action and in some cases even altruism. As mentioned above, these types of appeals may result in similar outcomes to Rawls' conception, but they are far more difficult to justify, explain and defend as they seem to be based on intuition rather than rational reasoning.

In section 3 of the first chapter, Rawls outlines the main idea behind his theory of justice, which he calls justice as fairness. He is not trying to equate the two terms; instead he is trying to convey the idea that the principles of justice that are agreed upon initially are fair. Like Locke and other classical philosophers, Rawls's theory starts at the analogous state of nature. Justice as fairness in this initial state of nature is when the principles of justice, or “the fundamental agreements reached” are fair. The reason that Rawls thinks that it is important to have this original position, this analogous starting point, is that the conditions and principles decided on in this state are ones that we do actually accept, and if we don’t accept them, then we can be persuaded to by philosophical reflection on them. The original position is used to explain the principles, and show their likely consequences for actual society. For example, on Pg. 25 Rawls explains that the notion that most of us have that justice does not allow for the loss of freedom for some in order to fulfil the greater good. “…In a just society the basic liberties are taken for granted and the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” Justice as fairness, according to Rawls, shows that this view is a result of the principles that would be chosen in the original position.

Although I have only read up to pg. 46, there are a couple of interesting aspects of Rawls’s introduction to his theory. One is his discussion of the distinction between concepts and conception. He says that it is apparent that a well-ordered society must be a just society. People in society have a general understanding that there is a code of justice that should be adhered to. People differ, however, as to what conception of justice should be followed. This is similar to an argument of Dworkin, made in his analysis of the interpretation of law by judges. He claims that the law gives us a concept that we must uphold. Such as the concept of justice, or fairness; the key though is what conception should be used in upholding the law. This according to Dworkin, can and should change over time in light of new facts and further consideration. One of my initial questions about Rawls’s theory is whether or not he sees the conception of justice as fairness as being able to evolve with changes in society, new information, etc., or whether the principles that are agreed upon should remain fixed through time?

One part of Rawls’s Theory of Justice that interests me is his emphasis on equality of opportunity. He says that everyone should have an equal chance to attain higher positions in society, regardless of their current station in life. On p. 76, he explains that this cannot be put down only to efficiency. Instead, he argues that even if excluding some people or groups from certain positions would benefit everyone, those who were excluded would still be right to feel that they had been treated unjustly. Not only would they miss out on the benefits that come from important positions, but that would have been denied the realisation of self that comes from “skilful and devoted exercise of social duties” (p. 76).

We can imagine times when this has obviously taken place – in many colonial societies, including New Zealand, the white colonisers thought the indigenous people to be incapable of ruling themselves and denied them access to the political system, let alone high positions. The same thing has occurred in relation to gender; women were thought to be inferior and it was said be in their interests to defer to men. Rawls would say that even if it were better for everyone to have one group (whether it were men, or a particular race or social class) ruling and taking all of the important positions in society, the rest of the people would still be being treated unjustly. We can now see that it would be difficult to argue that this situation would be in everyone’s best interests anyway, but Rawls makes the point that it is the opportunity for self-realisation that is important.


Primary Sources

  • Rawls, John. 1971. Revised edition 1999. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Rawls, John. 1999. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Rawls, John. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Edited by E. Kelly. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

General Introductions

Other Works

  • Amdur, Robert. Review: Review: Rawls' Theory of Justice: Domestic and International Perspective Reviewed work(s): The Liberal Theory of Justice: A Critical Examination of the Principal Doctrines in a Theory of Justice by John Rawls. by Brian Barry. Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls' a Theory of Justice. by Norman Daniels. A Theory of Justice. by John Rawls. Source: World Politics, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Apr., 1977), pp. 438-461. Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls seeks to derive principles of justice from the agreement of rational, hypothetical individuals, each concerned to further his own interests. From a carefully defined initial situation of choice, Rawls derives two basic principles: one demanding equal liberties for all, the other permitting inequalities in wealth and authority only when they serve to maximize the expectations of those who are left worst off. This article explores the political and social implications of Rawls' theory. It is argued (1) that the theory requires a constitutional democracy, offering very strong protection to political and intellectual liberties; and (2) that it also requires a highly egalitarian distribution of wealth and income. Although Rawls does not discuss international distributive justice, there are good reasons for concluding that his distributive principles ought to apply globally.

  • Chapman, John W. "Rawls's Theory of Justice" The American Political Science Review, Vol. 69, No. 2 (June 1975), pp. 588-593

This is a review of a Theory of Justice by John Rawls. In this Chapman discusses the diverse interpretations that Rawl's theory has invoked, mainly because of the complexity of his arguments, and because of the different social and psychological assumptions and claims that Rawls has put forth. Chapman also discusses how Rawl's theory fits in with the history of philosophical thought, comparing his views on justice and society mainly with Rousseau, but also with Kant and Hegel. However, Rawls's case goes well beyond that of Rousseau in some respects. For example, Rawls claims that in a modern society that is based on justice, people "... will acquire a will for justice that is enduring. " (590) Whereas Rousseau claimed that, "...to generate and to sustain a sense of justice, the individual not only had to properly brought up... but he must also be active politically." (590).

This article was useful, because it gave a broad context as to where Rawl's theory is similar to other philosophers, but also how he differs from defenders of classical liberalism such as Hayek.

  • Bloom, Alan. “Review: Justice: John Rawls vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy”, The American Political Science Review, Vol.69, No.2 (Jun., 1975), pp. 648-662, available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1959094

In this article, Bloom (from the University of Toronto) provides a highly critical review of Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Bloom identifies the need for a defence of liberal democracy and expresses disappointment that Rawls fails to even identify this need, let alone respond to it. He states that Rawls does not recognise that the basic conviction that liberal democracy is good or just has been profoundly challenged during the 20th Century, both practically (e.g. Hitler, Stalin) and theoretically (e.g. cultural relativism, historicism and the fact-value distinction). According to Bloom, Rawls only addresses problems of civil liberties in states that are already free and of economic equality in countries that are already prosperous. He notes that in spite of its radical egalitarianism, Theory of Justice itself is not radical. It does not compel society to change. Rawls begins with our moral sense and develops principles that coincide with it. In Bloom’s words: “We start from where we are now and end there” (649). He concludes that at best Rawls will help us be more “consistent”, but doubts whether there is any advantage in this.

The part of Bloom’s critique that I found the most interesting and relevant to this weeks reading was his criticism of Rawls’ concept of the “original position” and the associated idea of the “veil of ignorance”. He identifies the “original position” as the feature of Theory of Justice. To illustrate the flaws in the concept, Bloom compares Rawls’ “original position” with the contract theory’s idea of the “state of nature”, as proposed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Rawls intends for his idea to play the same role in his conception of justice as the state of nature in theirs. According to the traditional contract theorists, human beings’ primary natural concern is with self-preservation. Humans enter into the contract of society because their lives are threatened and they fear death. In Rawls’ original position, the fear of death as the motive for joining society and accepting its rules has disappeared. Bloom argues that Rawls’ replacement of fear with fairness is inadequate. He asserts that this replacement is “merely the invention of a principle to supply a missing link” (652) and asks why fairness should have primacy over the desire for self-fulfilment. He also points out that it is only in the original position that fairness is a reasonable choice of self-interest. As soon as we leave the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” falls away, the motive for compliance with civil society ceases. In contrast, when we leave the “state of nature”, the desire to avoid death remains with us. The “original position” thus fails to provide a permanent motive to adhere to society.

I personally question whether it is Rawls’ intention to provide such a permanent motive. My impression is that he uses the concept of the “original position” to establish the principles of a just society and does not argue that fairness will provide a permanent motive to adhere to society. Bloom concludes that the greatest weakness of a Theory of Justice ultimately lies in Rawls lack of understanding of the ideas of the political thinkers on which his theory is based. Bloom states: "Rawls’s “original position” is based on a misunderstanding of the “state of nature,” teachings of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. His “Kantian interpretation” is based on a misunderstanding of Kant’s moral teaching. His “Aristotelian principle” is based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s teaching about happiness. And these three misunderstandings constitute the core of the book." (662) He suggests that this book demonstrates that we have “forgotten what the problems are” because of our lack of understanding of what these philosophers have already established. He suggests that because of this “we are in no position to push ahead with new solutions of problems” and that “any serious new word must be based on a profound confrontation with the old ones”.

Robert Paul Wolff (1977): Understanding Rawls - A construction and critique of Theory and Justice
in his book R. P. Wolff kicks off with a problem description. Here, he outlines the problem Rawls begins with, which impasses in Anglo-American ethical theory at about the beginning of the 1950s. He says "[i]f we leave to one side emotivism in any of its various forms, the major cognitivist schools of ethical theory were utilitarianism and intuitionism". From Rawls' point of view, each of these traditions have strenghts but also fatal weaknesses. Wolff argues that Rawls discovers a via media contract between utilitarianism and intuitionism.
In the following chapter he describes the key assumptions as the acting on a rational self-interest basis and the zero-sum game. In the following chapters he outlines the development of the model in its first forms and criticizes it. He touches the veil of ignorance and lines out four problems: "first, it was not clear what, if anything, the players in their original position were to be thought to knoe about their world; second, it was not clear how they could engage in rational deliberation in the absence of any conception of their purposes or interests; third, the scope of application of the principles on which they were deciding was somewhat ill-defined; and, finally, the apparently counterintuitive implications of the new difference principle called for some rather more adequate account on the principles of the rational choice to which they could be expected to appeal" (p. 71).
I truely recommend the book because it is: first, nicly written and thereby not as difficult as Rawls; second, it briefly describes the theory while being critiqual at the same time.

· Harsanyi, John C., “Review: Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls's Theory.” The American Political Science Review 69, no. 2 (June 1975): 594-606.

This article is a review of John Rawls’ book “A Theory of Justice”. Harsanyi believes that Rawls fails to offer a “viable alternative to utilitarianism” p.594. He argues that although the use of what Rawls terms the “original position” is sound, it is ill paired with the Maximin principle. This is because it can “lead to highly irrational decisions in everyday life” p.596. The “difference principle” as proposed by Rawls demands that the least fortunate individual be given priority over the more fortunate individual. Harsanyi suggests that if strictly applied this is irrational and that it is based on “an unduly broad interpretation of the Kantian principle” p.597 of not treating people as means.

Harsanyi acknowledges that arguments based on counter examples are often not persuasive, however, he suggests that the examples which he gives illustrate fundamental flaws in the work of Rawls. Harsanyi is critical of the way in which Rawls rejects the use of logical probabilities and the way in which he interprets von Neumann-Morgenstern utility functions. He also questions Rawls’ dismissal of the use of interpersonal utility comparisons.

Although Harsanyi raises many issues regarding Rawls’ book he does recommend it as he believes that it looks carefully at the issues which it addresses. He concludes that the value of Rawls’ book is that it asks many important questions rather than providing sufficient answers to them.

Cohen, Joshua, 2002, The Pursuit of Fairness…Theory of Justice, John Rawls, Boston Globe, Link:
This article was written shortly after Rawls’ dead and is a kind of review of Rawls’ writings, mainly “Theory of Justice”. Author of this article is MIT Professor Joshua Cohen.
After struggling with reading Rawls and after reading some secondary sources on “Theory of Justice”, this newspaper article (which is quite long for being a newspaper article) was a helpful text for me, for understanding Rawls’ approach.
Cohen first gives a short historical background, to explain how Rawls’s Theory of Justice was “revolutionary” new, with introducing this new notion of justice. He tried to bring the opposed conceptions of justice together, which were on the one side the classical liberalist view (from Locke, Smith to Hayek) and on the other side the egalitarianism (Marx).
Rawls called his conception “justice as fairness” which was committed in equal measure to the individual rights associated with classical liberalism, and to an egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions. Rawls said that Justice as fairness aims to effect a "reconciliation of liberty and equality".
Cohen goes on with describes Rawls’ two principles of justice, and then gives some examples as further explanation. Furthermore Cohen introduces Rawls’ reviews of the social contract and his idea of the “original position” and “veil of ignorance” that influences the choice of principles of justice.
Cohen also gives a short overview to some critiques to Theory of Justice (Nozick, Walzer, Sandel). Additionally Cohen mentions Rawls “The Law of Peoples” and describes Rawls’ influence to actual political debates.

A Theory of Justice, January 2008
To get a better understanding of 'A Theory of Justice' I went onto Wikipedia which provides an outline of Rawls concept of Justice. It also provides an outline of people who have criticised his work and what issues they have with 'A Theory of Justice'. Some of the criticisms are that Rawls is an 'apology for the status quo insofar as it constructs justice from existing practice and forecloses the possibility that there may be problems of injustice embedded in capitalist social relations, private property or the market economy.' Feminist critisized the fact that Rawls failed to account for injustices in gender and just focused on the basic structure of society. The Wikipedia information is good for a basic outline but not much more.

This article from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is a useful overview of some of the issues concerned with John Rawls original position discussed in class last week. Subtitled in four parts Reflective Equilibrium, Pure Proceduralism, Veil of Ignorance and Rawls Pragmatism the article seeks to address these issues in order. For this brief review I wish to concentrate on the first subtitle Reflective Equilibrium. The article argues there are two ways interpreting the Original position the epistemological reading and political reading. The “epistemological reading of the original position is a methodological device for ridding the ethico-political observer of hindrances to h/er clear and distinct perception of ethico-political facts.” In other words this is the process of eliminating what is not relevent towards negoating a postion of justice. For example if you were trying to read a book you would elimate noise to do it better. Equally on the epistemological reading of the orginal postion you might elimate race prejdueces as a crteria for justice. This is the type of reading I had of the orginal postion orginally with my comparsion of it to a New Zealand court jury. The epistemological reading is the reading of the orginal postion less prefred by Rawls. The political reading of the orginal postion the article argues “is a device of representation. Specifically, it represents, in the veil of ignorance, widely accepted constraints on the choice of principles of justice. More concretely, the veil of ignorance embodies the concept of justice--i.e. the idea that distributions should not be based on morally irrelevant features.” In other words the orginal postion does not mean starting again like the idea we disscued in class but invovles the assumption that the community shares universial ideas about justice like the desire for poltical and social equallity and that we as rational caculators by restricting rather than expanding reasoning.

“How are we to justify the claim that some particular conception of justice is the appropriate one? We are to do so, according to Rawls, by finding that conception which is best fit to play the role of adjudicating competing claims on scarce social resources (and of facilitating mutually beneficial exchanges). And how are we to judge fitness for this purpose? No conception of justice can play such a role unless there is widespread "up-take" of its basic principles and deliverances. Hence, we see, for each candidate conception, whether its implications can be brought into reflective equilibrium with the considered judgments of justice which are current in a particular community. If they cannot, then up-take will not be secured and the conception cannot mediate conflict and facilitate mutual benefit.” The main moments of the process are these.
    • We articulate the concept of justice which is widely accepted within a given community.
    • We so devise the veil of ignorance that it embodies this concept.
    • We consider what implications about concrete and specific matters of justice rational calculators standing in a trustee relation, and hence concerned to advance the eligible interests of their principles, would reach subject to the particular restrictions on their calculations represented by this veil of ignorance.
    • We compare these implications with individuals’ considered judgments of justice about these more concrete and specific issues.
    • Where there is divergence between implications and judgments, we consider whether individuals might be willing to alter their judgments to bring them into line with principles which, after all, already express their own more abstract views about the concept of justice.
    • If there is residual divergence, we modify the veil of ignorance to minimize this divergence.

  • “Original Position” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Link , pp. 1-8, Published: Feb 27, 1996, Accessed: 27-7-08
This is a helpful overview of Rawls’s original position, especially in understanding his idea of a veil of ignorance, and how uses his original position in order to restrict the basis for reasoning, which is an opposite conception to traditional contractualist theories. The actor’s in the original position are seen to be as self-interested rather than impartial, and he requires that the actors be unanimous to ensure that individuals’ interests are not sacrificed to that of the collective; each individual has that right to veto that does not suite their individual self interest. This is where the veil of ignorance comes in to play: it is supposed to ensure impartiality, by preventing actors from “...choosing in accordance with partial perspectives that might be favoured by their principals.” (5) So I cannot hold on to a specific arrangement in the hopes that it might benefit people that are athletic more than people that are not, since I don’t know whether or not I am athletic. I will therefore have to protect my own interests by making sure that no one group of people is worse off than another group. Impartiality is secured by self-interest and ignorance.

This article refers to one important aspect of Rawls’ theory – his emphasis on self-respect as the most important primary good. Zaino raises a number of issues relating to contradictions within Rawls’ theory. Through her discussion, she aims to show that Rawls needs to address these issues to avoid being seen as inconsistent, or as “an apologist for a bourgeois, inegalitarian class order (p. 750).
Rawls argues that self-respect is the most important primary good. He claims that self-respect relies on equal distribution of rights and liberties, and is not related to the distribution of income and wealth (so basically it needs the first principle, but not the second). He uses this reasoning to defend the serial ordering of the principles. However, Zaino brings to light a number of other claims made by Rawls that seem to contradict this reasoning. She argues that Rawls is actually aware of the relationship between self-respect and economic status, and that he mentions the important of the difference principle for ensuring self-respect and the potential for envy to damage it. She takes this to mean that self-respect is not guaranteed by the first principle, which might lead to a reordering of the principles.

Zaino also finds contradictions in Rawls’ structuring of society. The idea of people existing mostly within voluntary associations of equals so as to limit comparisons with others who are more fortunate suggests that such comparisons might be detrimental to self-respect. Rawls also argues that those with more wealth should avoid ostentatious displays, thereby limiting offence to the less fortunate. Zaino claims that this contradicts Rawls’ statements that for people to accept his principles, they must know the facts about the way society will be organised. In other words, it doesn’t seem reasonable to claim that the less well-off would accept this version of society if the reason for their acceptance and cooperation is that the greatest disparities in wealth are hidden from them.

I found this article useful for shedding some light on one of the most important aspects of Rawls’ theory. It is mostly based on the 1971 version, with some references to Political Liberalism, so some of the issues may have been addressed in the revised addition – I haven’t read the whole thing, so I’m not sure.