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Justice as Fairness: John Rawls’s Theory of Justice

Key Takeaways:

  • Rawls’s concept of the original position, using the veil of ignorance, ensures that principles of justice are chosen without personal biases influencing decisions.
  • Rawls outlines two main principles: the Liberty Principle, which ensures equal basic liberties for all, and the Equality Principle, which includes the Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle.
  • Rawls’s framework gives the Liberty Principle precedence over the Equality Principle, ensuring that fundamental freedoms are not compromised for economic or social advantages.
  • Rawls’s theories have influenced debates and policies concerning social justice, welfare, and economic distribution, highlighting their practical relevance in shaping equitable societies.
  • Despite criticisms regarding its practical applicability and abstract nature, Rawls’s theory remains a cornerstone of modern ethical and political thought, continuing to influence discussions on justice and equality.

John Rawls, a prominent figure in political philosophy, made a monumental contribution with his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971. This book not only revived interest in the theories of social contract but also introduced new dimensions to discussions about justice and fairness in a liberal society. Rawls’s framework, commonly known as “Justice as Fairness,” aims to reconcile the seemingly conflicting goals of freedom and equality through a unique methodological invention—the original position and the veil of ignorance. This post will explore the intricacies of Rawls’s theory, delving into its philosophical roots, key components, and the profound impact it has had on our understanding of justice.

Context and Philosophical Foundations

John Rawls was deeply influenced by the philosophical tradition of Immanuel Kant and the social contract theory, echoing elements from both to construct his own theory. Rawls’s era was marked by significant social upheavals, including the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War, which shaped his thinking about a just society. His work aimed to address the questions of how society might be structured fairly and how justice can be genuinely equitable to all individuals, regardless of their position in society.

The philosophical underpinnings of Rawls’s work hinge on the idea of constructing a society where all members have an equal opportunity to thrive. Unlike the utilitarian tradition which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, Rawls proposes a system that ensures even the least advantaged are treated with fairness and justice. His approach involves abstracting from personal biases through a thought experiment called the original position, where principles of justice are chosen under a veil of ignorance.

The Original Position and Veil of Ignorance

At the heart of Rawls’s theory is the original position—a hypothetical scenario where individuals select the founding principles of their society without any knowledge of their personal characteristics, social status, or historical background. This methodological tool ensures impartiality by stripping decision-makers of all personal identifiers and knowledge of their potential position in the social order. Rawls argues that this veil of ignorance prevents inequalities in power and wealth from skewing the principles chosen to govern society.

In this hypothetical scenario, individuals are assumed to be rational and interested in securing their own good but are willing to cooperate with others on terms that are mutually acceptable. Under these conditions, Rawls believes that two fundamental principles of justice would be universally agreed upon. These principles are designed to provide the greatest level of liberty and equality possible without allowing for injustices that benefit some at the expense of others.

By setting up the original position in this way, Rawls moves away from the classical utilitarian framework and introduces a model of justice that prioritizes individual rights and fairness. This theoretical construct not only challenges us to think about how we would choose to structure society if given a fair start but also highlights the importance of eliminating personal bias in discussions about justice.

The Two Principles of Justice

John Rawls’s “Justice as Fairness” is structured around two key principles, which he believed individuals would choose in the original position under the veil of ignorance:

  1. The Liberty Principle: This principle asserts that each person should have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with similar liberties for others. These liberties include freedom of speech, the right to vote and hold office, liberty of conscience, and the rights to personal property and security. Rawls argues that these basic liberties are essential for the pursuit of personal goals and maintaining a sense of justice within society.
  2. The Equality Principle: This principle is split into two parts:
    • Fair Equality of Opportunity: Rawls contends that everyone should have the same chances to obtain positions of advantage, regardless of their background, social class, or economic status. This principle aims to ensure that all citizens have a fair opportunity to develop their talents and advance their positions through equal access to education and other resources.
    • The Difference Principle: This component specifies that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This means any inequalities in society are justifiable only if they improve the prospects of those who are worst-off.

These principles are designed to work in a lexical order, where the Liberty Principle has priority over the Equality Principle, ensuring that basic freedoms are not compromised for social or economic gains. This framework aims to create a society where individuals can both pursue personal ambitions and contribute to an equitable community.

Criticisms and Support

Rawls’s theory, while influential, has not been without its critics. Some argue that the original position is too abstract and detached from the realities of human psychology and society. Critics like Robert Nozick have challenged the Difference Principle, suggesting that it does not adequately respect individual rights or the entitlements people might have to their talents and efforts.

Others have questioned the practical applicability of the veil of ignorance, arguing that it is unrealistic to expect individuals to completely set aside their personal circumstances when considering principles of justice. Additionally, some feminist and multicultural critics have argued that Rawls’s framework assumes a too rational and disembodied conception of the person, which may not adequately account for the situated identities and historical injustices experienced by various groups.

Despite these criticisms, Rawls’s theory has also received significant support and has been influential in both philosophical circles and practical policy-making. His principles have been used to evaluate and guide the distribution of resources in societies, influencing debates on welfare, taxation, and public policy. His ideas have helped frame discussions on how societies can balance the need for liberty with the imperative of equality, making his work a cornerstone of contemporary liberal thought.

Rawls’s Legacy and Continued Relevance

John Rawls’s work, particularly his “Theory of Justice,” continues to resonate decades after its initial publication, maintaining a profound influence on both philosophical thought and practical policy-making. Rawls’s concepts of the original position and the veil of ignorance serve as fundamental tools for examining issues of fairness and justice within various societal structures. His legacy is visible in ongoing debates about the balance between individual freedoms and the collective good.

Influence on Public Policy

Rawls’s principles have been particularly influential in shaping discussions about public policy, especially in areas like healthcare, education, and economic redistribution. Policymakers often invoke his principles to argue for policies that aim to benefit the most disadvantaged members of society. For instance, debates around progressive taxation, welfare, and affirmative action are often framed through the lens of maximizing benefits for the least advantaged, a direct reflection of Rawls’s Difference Principle.

Academic and Philosophical Impact

In academia, Rawls’s ideas continue to be a central subject of study and discussion in courses on political philosophy, ethics, and public administration. His theoretical framework has sparked a plethora of further research and analysis, leading to a rich body of scholarly work that critiques, expands upon, and occasionally refutes his principles.

Contemporary Relevance

Today, Rawls’s ideas remain relevant as societies worldwide grapple with issues of inequality and justice. His work provides a theoretical foundation for arguing against systemic injustices and for the creation of policies that aim not only to lift the least well-off but also to ensure fair opportunities for all. In a world where economic disparities continue to widen, Rawls’s advocacy for a society that compensates for arbitrary differences in birth and luck resonates powerfully.


John Rawls’s “Justice as Fairness” provides a robust framework for thinking about how to structure societies in a way that respects both individual liberties and the need for economic equality. His two principles of justice—the Liberty Principle and the Equality Principle—offer a way to evaluate and design policies that aim to benefit everyone, particularly those who are least advantaged. While not without its critics, Rawls’s theory remains a cornerstone of contemporary ethical and political debates, challenging us to envision a society that truly balances freedom with fairness.

As we reflect on our own views on justice, Rawls’s work encourages us to consider not just the world as it is, but as it ought to be. It invites us to think deeply about the principles that should govern our societies and to strive towards a more just and equitable world.

Further Reading

For those interested in exploring more about John Rawls’s philosophy and its broader implications, here are a few essential books that provide deeper insights:

  1. A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls – This foundational work introduces Rawls’s ideas on justice as fairness and his original position and veil of ignorance concepts. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of his philosophical approach.
  2. Political Liberalism” by John Rawls – In this book, Rawls extends his theory of justice into the framework of political liberalism, exploring how societal consensus can be achieved despite reasonable differences among citizens about the nature of the good life.
  3. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement” by John Rawls – This work provides a clearer and more accessible presentation of Rawls’s later views on his philosophical approach to justice.

These books collectively offer a well-rounded view of Rawls’s thoughts and are instrumental for anyone looking to dive deep into theories of justice and political philosophy.