In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls deliberates on how applying logic in justice principles would solve common problems like societal structures, assigning right duties to individuals and distribution of economic and social advantages to all people in society among other pertinent issues.
Instead of concerning himself with the elusive notion of restoring justice in any unjust society, Rawls’ elementary duty in this book is to come up with principles of justice that would be universally applicable and used in shaping an ideal society.
To some extent, Rawls borrows from Immanuel Kant’s principles of ethics that campaign for principles of nature where an individual has to do to others as he or she would expect them to do to him or her. According to Rawls, principles that would govern a society are principles chosen by individuals if they were in an ‘original position’ and they acted rationally having mutual neutrality.
To expound these principles of justice, Rawls came up with two principles of justice viz. ‘Principle of Equal Liberty” and “Difference Principle.” These principles can be understood better by looking into what Rawls calls “Original Position’ and “Veil of Ignorance.”
If people acted or chose situations that are ‘ideal’ for them with neutrality, then justice would become fair and this would overcome the infringements presented by theory of utilitarianism. Rawls provides a strong argument for these principles and these principles are good justice principles.
The Two Principles
Before putting forward his two principles of justice, Rawls begins with expounding a hypothetical ‘original position’ that each individual should adopt. At this position, the involved parties would determine precepts of justice from behind a ‘veil of ignorance.”
The ‘veil’ mentioned here would fundamentally subterfuge people from recognizing any facts about themselves hence eliminate the possibility of littering justice with personal issues. Rawls says, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone 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” ((Perry, Bratman & Fisher 580). Therefore, in accordance with this argument, there would be no class, talents or any social distinction in the society.
Rawls approaches this issue from hypothetical ‘original point’ to eliminate personal issues that litter justice principles. For long, people have made decisions and passed justice based on personal likes and dislikes without considering the other party. Rawls uses this ‘original position, to attain a neutral ground where individuals would pass judgment that they would wish to be passed on them if they were in the shoes of their subjects.
This is where Rawls agrees with Kantian Ethics that are rooted on natural law of doing to others, as one would wish to be done to him or her. In other words, it is a case of one giving what he or she would expect to get back. Rawls’ original position eliminates personal interests and the eventual justice would be fair to all people in society.
If justice would be decided from the ‘original position’, it would be fair for all. Rawls assumes that parties in the ‘original position’ would agree to his two principles of justice because of the following reasons: firstly, given the fact that these parties do not know their position in society neither do they know their class, there is a probability that they would end up in any class or get any natural asset.
Therefore, due to this uncertainty, these parties would try their best to ensure that the justice passed favors all people regardless of their classes. In any case, an individual in the ‘original position’ would be passing judgment for him/herself.
Considering this, all individuals would pass judgments that favor themselves to ensure that if they find themselves in any class, they would be comfortable in it. Therefore, in a bid to create an ideal situation that would favor the maker of the situation, the overall justice would be fair to all.
It is natural that people want the best things for themselves; therefore, they would come up with structures that are best for themselves and because they do not know where they would be in future, the overall judgment would be ‘best’ for them and ‘fair’ to everyone else. Moreover, Rawls thinks that people in the ‘original position’ would agree to his two principles because these principles gives a standard way out in distributing natural resources, economic and social advantages in societies. However, what are these principles?
As aforementioned, Rawls puts forward two principles of justice viz. ‘Principle of Equal Liberty’ and ‘Difference Principle.’ The principle of equal liberty states that, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others” (Rawls 301).
On the other side the Difference Principle states that, “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that; they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, and offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls 303).
The principle of equal liberty is egalitarian for it ensures that every person gets equal liberties. In this case, justice would prevail and societies would be structured in a way that would allow mutual understanding. This first principle is absolute in its nature, and to some extent, it echoes libertarianism whereby people will have right to speech. However, Rawls admits that on its own, this first principle may not address all issues facing the society.
Therefore, he throws in the second principle and he is quick to point out that the second principle is important but for it to be realized, the first principle has to be fully applied. The second principle does not substitute the first; on contrary, it complements it by adding some specifications that the first principle may not address.
The second principle as aforementioned is the Difference Principle. Rawls divides this principle into two clauses addressing the same issue of social inequalities.
The first clause calls for distribution economic and social disparities in a way that, “they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society” (Rawls 303). This clause differs from the first principle by eliminating the egalitarian bit of it. It allows some people to have benefits over others; however, these benefits should be of great help to the less fortunate in society.
For instance, talented people in society may have benefits over others; however, they should use these talents appropriately and channel their results back into society for the help of least talented in society. In principle, even though they have their talents, they should not use them for their own good.
The second part of difference principle states that economic and social disparities should be distributed in a way that, “offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Perry, Bratman & Fisher 578). This part is egalitarian just like the first principle for it calls for equality at all levels.
Rawls explains these principles well by putting sense into them in a way that would compel someone to accept them. For instance, considering difference principle, Rawls provides a sustainable social structure that would eliminate injustice. The difference principle calls for formulation of projects that would allow some people to have more benefits in society than others.
Some people would have more incomes, status and so forth over others. For instance, managers in blue chip companies would earn high salaries than street cleaners. This is logical and acceptable. People with talents in society would be allowed to pursue their talents and have higher social status than others. Rawls is fine with all these possibilities.
Nevertheless, such disparities would only be allowed under certain controlled conditions that would allow better lives for the least advantaged people in society. Rawls puts forward two conditions; one, these disparities would be allowed if their outcome have direct or indirect positive effects in empowering the least advantaged in society.
For instance, if paying a blue chip company manager millions of dollars would benefit the least advantaged, then so be it. As long as the outcome of such disparity is improving livelihood of the poor and less fortunate in society, then it is allowed. Secondly, Rawls indicates that as long as the procedure of accessing high posts in society is free and fair, void of irrelevant criteria and discrimination, then it is all right.
Moreover, the difference principle addresses other ethical theories like the socialist idea, which calls for distribution of responsibilities and benefits based on ability and need respectively. In essence, the least advantaged people in society have more needs whilst those greatly advantaged have the highest responsibilities.
This boils down to merit where skills are rewarded and at this point, Rawls’ principles become good principles of justice. The society has for long promoted courses that would benefit only those who are well off in society leaving the least disadvantaged to groan under poverty and misery. However, Rawls first clause of the second principle of justice eliminates this problem.
People should only change economic and social institutions if only they will benefit all people in society not the well off alone. For instance, there would be a proposal that seeks to allow erection of a nuclear plant in a family neighborhood whereby, the families around the nuclear plant would not benefit; however, the plant would provide well-paying jobs to professionals who are already well off.
Under, Rawls’ principles, this nuclear plant would not come to be; however, in contemporary society, this plant would be introduced regardless of the plight of the neighboring families. This is unfair; it is injustice. In the wake of these facts, Rawls’ principles of justice stand out as a better way out of the quagmire that societies have plunged into.
Rawls’ principles are even better than utilitarianism. According to Perry, Bratman, and Fisher, utilitarianism states that as long as actions promote felicity, they qualify as ‘good’ actions (589). However, Rawls offers a better approach in addressing pleasure and happiness. Utilitarianism has many infringements that violate basic human rights; however, Rawls’ principles allows for equality and at the same time allow individuals to do what they love doing hence become happy.
The difference between the two is what takes precedence over what. While in utilitarianism, the quest to derive felicity and pleasure takes precedence over human rights, Rawls’ principles are the exact opposite. Equality should prevail and this is why Rawls starts by taking people back to the ‘original position.’ After ensuring that equality prevails, Rawls then incorporates the issue of deriving happiness.
In essence, if what an individual is doing does not benefit other people in society, it is wrong whether it brings happiness or not. Rawls’ principles are good because if societies are structured according to his suggestions, then at least everyone will be happy in society because justice would be fair for every body. Otherwise, without adopting these principles, societies would continue to suffer social injustices because social classes and positions have allowed people to pass biased judgments that benefit them alone.
Rawls comes out clearly in his principles of Justice. He starts by referring people to make judgments from an ‘original position’ covered with a ‘veil of ignorance.’ This veil covers people from acknowledging their interests, status, or positions in society.
At this point, people would make judgments and decisions that are fair to everyone because these decision makers do not know where they would belong in future; therefore, they would pass judgments that are ‘best’ for themselves thus making the judgments fair to everyone.
Rawls then gives his two principles. The first one is an egalitarian principle calling for equal distribution of liberties to all people in society. This provision eliminates many injustices while the second principle furnishes what the first does not address adequately.
This second principle allows classes in society only if the outcome of such classes would be for the benefit of the least advantaged in society. Rawls provides a strong argument for these principles and these principles are good justice principles because they address pertinent issues of injustice in society. They are better than utilitarianism for their basic objective is upholding human rights as opposed to utilitarianism’s happiness.
Perry, John, Bratman, Michael, & Fisher, Martin. “Introduction to Philosophy: Classical
and Contemporary Readings.” New York; Oxford University Press, 2006.
Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.