Rawl’s theory of justice revolves around the adaptation of two fundamental principles of justice which would, in turn, guarantee a just and morally acceptable society. The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others. The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be a) to everyone’s advantage and b) open to all.

A key problem to Rawls is to show how such principles would be universally adopted and here the work borders on general ethical issues.  He introduces a theoretical “veil of ignorance” in which all the “players” in the social game would be placed in a situation which is called the “original position”.

Having only a general knowledge of the facts of “life and society”, each player is to abide based on their moral obligation. By denying the players any specific information about themselves it forces them to adopt a generalized point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view.

“Moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint of positing, a moral outlook merely by pursuing one’s own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints.”

Rawls proposes that the most reasonable principles of justice for society are those that individuals would themselves agree to behind the “veil of ignorance”, in circumstances in which each is represented as a moral person, endowed with the basic moral powers. What this position supports is that while each person has different ends and goals, different backgrounds and talents, each ought to have a fair chance to develop his or her talents and to pursue those goals – fair equality for opportunity. It is not a race or contest where the talented or gifted prevail, it should be complete cooperation among all so that there may be reasonable life for all.

John Rawls & Theory

What the “veil of ignorance” brings out is that we can accept utilitarianism as a public conception of justice only if we are prepared to let someone be subject to conditions we would not be prepared to subject ourselves. However, it is not the responsibility of my actions to ensure the fulfillment of another person’s goals.

These principles create an equal distribution of the “pie”, if you will, yet it is not attainable unless pursued or strived for. There is no room for idle observation, meaning, that while we all possess equal opportunity as we all are equally moral persons, the choice of what you wish to possess materially as well as intellectually is the discretion and capability of the individual.

Why should we accept these principles as principles of justice? Primarily, these principles promote equality among all. Each individual has the same basic liberties and opportunities. Each individual has a moral obligation to accept the existence of every other human being. In doing so, all people become equal in their position and desires. We are equal in that each has the basic powers of choice and on acting on a sense of justice.

Different Conceptions of Justice

The responsibility of procedure and growth relies on each and every individual his/herself. By doing so we may create a level playing field. Is this a form of pure competition? It would seem so. Competition in that what is desired must be achieved by one and desired by many perhaps.

A benefit of competitive circumstance is the betterment of all parties involved as they must evolve in order to surpass one another.

Also, in fair equality for opportunity, we may eliminate all forms of discrimination and discretion of races, ethnic origin, social standards, and religious intolerance and beliefs. All of these characteristics are a component of the individual person thus making him/her “individual”.

Justice has only succumbed when the liberties of an individual are affected because of an external opinion of these characteristics, and, in the oppression of these characteristics upon another. They are nothing more than components of a people.


  1. Many “tribal” societies work off of the basic principles in Rawls’ theory. Something his theory does not address is what to do when someone or a group decides they want more than everyone else. Egalitarianism works so long as everyone has basically the same set of advantages for, say, self-defense. In tribal societies, everyone has a bow and some arrows, and no one person or even a band of people could really take over the entire tribe and force all other members to do their bidding. In such a situation, which the founding fathers and framers of the USA also envisioned with the right to an armed militia, Those “in charge” cannot simple force their will upon a free people.

    Many “tribal-based” egalitarian societies use spiritual-related means of regulating equity/equality. This is the reason curses and hexes are popular, as well as revenge killings via either what they would view as sorcery/witchcraft, or actual physical revenge killings which start a “payback” loop of revenge. Once such a loop is initiated, it is quite difficult to “balance out” because of the “tit for tat” that it begins, with the scales always tipped one way or the other, with no balance in sight. Most of the time it takes either outside intervention to stop the cycle, or a massive reconciliation (like a cease-fire) involving socially acceptable exchanges (money, food, goods, willingness to exchange in marriage, etc).

    Ensuring that everyone has equal opportunity is not the same as equity. For instance, if their are fruit trees with fruit pretty high up, everyone who is either tall or athletic enough to climb trees are at a distinct advantage over short and non-athletic types. Saying everyone can pick fruit equally (nobody is stopping them) is not then equity (although everyone has equal opportunity). What is sometimes needed is laws that make it more equitable for everyone to take advantage of their “equal opportunity” by creating systems that allow equal access for all. Nobody would be forced to pick fruit if they didn’t want to take advantage of such a scenario, but if they did decide to do so a system that was set up more “fairly” or more “equitable” would be an improvement over simply a “free for all”. Otherwise the advantaged group’s freedom may afford them a great advantage and they could finish off all of the fruit before the other disadvantaged group had an opportunity to pick fruit, too.

    In an ideal world, leaders would be respectable and respected “referees” who would do as Rawl’s suggest and be impartial because of their veil of ignorance, always having the best interests of the group AND the individual in mind (which is sometimes a very tricky balance and may require forms of compromise). When one group gets too powerful (try suing the US Federal Government with little money) there is a distinct advantage to those who enjoy that power. They afford themselves special privileges that others cannot enjoy and are simply not allowed to enjoy (like special pension plans for high government officials). Many rules and laws are made by the ruling class that only apply to the citizenry of lower class/status, the laws written in such a way to exempt those who wrote them. It is these kinds of abuses of power/authority that are often tolerated by the citizenry once their leadership becomes too powerful to challenge such abuses.

    The backbone of justice is equity (fairness) and consequences for non-fair acts that are metered based on the best good for society as a whole. Individual liberty should be maximized while making sure society is protected from individual acts that either harm or could potentially harm others. Laws should always apply equally to lawmakers as well as to the citizenry. Law enforcement should be about maximizing freedom and yet minimizing endangerment to freedom (which requires prudence and “golden rule” principles as well as defensivism).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment