John Rawls – A theory of Justice

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:21-24

Rawl’s conception of justice

  • Justice as fairness

What constitutes a fair society?

  • When we all agree to follow principles that we would all unanimously agree to in founding a society into which they would then participate.
  • “Rather, the guiding idea is that the principle of justice for the basic structure of society are the objects of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements: they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness”

How do we determine what these fair and just principles would be?

  • The original position/the veil of ignorance
  • In the original position we do not have knowledge of:
    • Identity
    • Gender
    • Race
    • Class
    • Position
    • Natural assets and abilities, including motivation to succeed
    • Intelligence
    • Strength
    • Health
    • Religion
    • Sexual Orientation
    • Conception of the good
    • Psychological disposition
    • i.e. anything that could give one any advantage or disadvantage over anyone else
    • you could be incredibly smart and beautiful with millionaire parents or you could be born mentally retarded with sever physical disabilities to a family in total poverty
    • However, in the original position we do have certain qualities:
      • An aversion to risk
      • Are mutually disinterest (don’t care how others do i.e. not jealous)
      • Self-interested
      • Use primary social goods to measure their prospects
      • Display instrumental rationality
      • Have general social knowledge (sociology, psychology, economics, etc)
      • The original position is Rawl’s version of how we determine the conditions of a just social contract
      • Something we can “enter” at any time
      • He also equates it with the state of nature
      • The impartiality of it is very Kantian in that it seems to be a way of expressing what reason demands apart from our personal perspective
        • The emphasis on fairness is in itself Kantian
        • The emphasis on equal dignity and rights is also Kantian
        • But it is un-Kantian and more Hobbesian in that the terms of the contract are to be determined by people looking out for their own self-interest

What principle would we choose in the original position? (Rawls’ Two Principles)

  • First: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all [Equal Basic Liberties also called the Liberty Principle].
  • Second:Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged … [the Difference Principle] and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity [Fair Equality of Opportunity].
  • “Once we decide to look for a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowments and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in quest for political and economic advantage, we are led to these principles. They express the result of leaving aside those aspects of the social world that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view.” (286)
  • Ordering of the principles
    • “The principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity”  (288)
    • “The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law” (388)

The Difference Principle

  • Quotes
    • “There is no injustice in the greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situation of persons not so fortunate is thereby improved.”
    • “All social values – 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 values is to everyone’s advantage”
    • “Society should take into account economic efficiency and the requirements of organization and technology. If there are inequalities in income and wealth, and differences in authority and degrees of responsibility, that work to make everyone better off … why not permit them? … Because the parties start from an equal division of all social primarily goods, those who benefit least have, so to speak, a veto. Thus we arrive at the difference principle. Taking equality as the basis of comparison, those who have gained more must do so on terms that are justifiable to those who have gained the least.”
    • “Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.”
    • “While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage” (287)
    • Why not utilitarianism?
      • No one in the original position would agree to be a part of a utilitarian society as their interest might be the one that would be sacrificed
      • “. . . it hardly seems likely that persons who view themselves as equals, entitled to press their claims upon one another, would agree to a principle which may require lesser life prospects for some simply for the sake of a greater sum of advantages enjoyed by others . . . no one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for himself in order to bring about a greater net balance of satisfaction. . .  Thus it seems that the principle of utility is incompatible witheth conception of social cooperation among equals for mutual advantage.”
      • Why not full egalitarianism?
        • The difference principle benefits everyone more than complete egalitarianism would
        • Equality serves as a baseline for determining what distributions are just and any distribution that leaves some people with less than they would have if everything we equal is unjust


According to Rawls’ difference principle what society can be justified according to the difference principle?

Society A

100% earn 50,000/year

Society B

1% earn 1,000,000,000/year

9% earn 1,000,000/year

90% earn  25,000/year

Society C

90% earn 100,000/year

1% earn  25,000/year

Society D

10% earn 1,000,000/year

90% earn  100,000/year


1)   Difference principle is too weak (Objection from the Left):

Think about what kind of income distributions can be justified using Rawls’ difference principle and whether or not the difference principle is too weak.

2)   Just Desserts Objection (Objection from the right):

People deserve what they get and to take from them, under the threat of force, is unjust. This is essentially Nozick’s objection (remember his objection that taxation is forced labor). Rawl’s response is to attack the idea that people deserve the success they achieve, either in virtue of what they inherit genetically, culturally, or even monetarily. Be careful here because you don’t have space in the essay to talk in detail about all of Nozick’s arguments.

Robert Nozick – Anarchy, State, and Utopia

A response to Rawls’ Theory of Justice

Main Idea

  • “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”

Role of Govt

  • To protect the basic rights of individuals but nothing more i.e. it is not the job of the govt. to feed, or care for its citizens.
  • This is sometimes called a “night-watchman” state

Rights as side constraints vs. a utilitarianism of rights

  • Rights pose a “side constraint” on what we may do
  • Rights are not something to be maximized i.e. we can’t infringe on one person’s right in order to protect the rights of others
  • Nozick invokes Kant in claiming that individuals are ends in themselves and never to be used as a means
  • Both Rawl’s and Nozick reject utilitarianism

3 Principles

1)   A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.

2)   A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.

3)   No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) application of 1 and 2.

“The complete principle of distributive justice would say simply that a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution. A distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means. The legitimate means of moving from one distribution to another are specified by the principle of justice in transfer. The legitimate first “moves” are specified by the principle of justice in acquisition. Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just.

Principle of Rectification

“The existence of past injustice (previous violations of the first two principles of justice in holdings) raises the third major topic under justice in holdings: the rectification of injustice in holdings. If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify these injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? Or, than it would have been had compensation been paid promptly? How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but for example, their descendants? Is injustice done to someone whose holding was itself based upon an unrectified injustice? How far back must one go in wiping clean the historical slate of injustices? What may victims of injustice permissibly do in order to rectify the injustices being done to them, including the many unjustices done by persons acting through their government? . . The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of subjunctive information about what would have occurred (or a probability distribution over what might have occurred, using the expected value) if the injustice had not taken place. If the actual description of holdings turns out not to be one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be realized.”

Why people are in a certain situation matters, welfare economics (and utilitarianism in general doesn’t take this into account.

“If some persons are in prison for murder or war crimes, we do not say that to assess the justice of the distribution in the society we must look only at what this person has, and that person has, and that person has, . . . at the current time. We think it relevant to ask whether someone did something so that he deserved to be punished, deserved to have a lower share.”

End result or End State Principles – Unhistorical principles of distributive justice


Historical Principles – Past circumstances or actions of people can create different entitlements

“An injustice can be worked (created) by moving from one distribution to another structurally identical one, for the second, in profile the same, may violate people’s entitlements or deserts; it may not fit the actually history.”


A’s having $10 and B’s having 0 vs. B’s having $10 and A’s having $0

A’s being in jail and B’s being free 0 vs. B’s being in jail and A’s being free

Patterned distribution

“Let us call a principle of distribution patterned if it specifies that a distribution is to vary along with some natural dimension, weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic ordering of natural dimensions. And let us say a distribution is patterned if it accords with some patterned principle.”

Examples: Distribute according to IQ, distribute according moral merit

“The principle of entitlement is not patterned”


“Is it unjust for Wilt Chamberlin to make $250 thousand a year?”

Is it unjust for Kobe Bryant to make $30 million a year?

How could this be unjust, assuming everyone has gotten their money just means (principles 1 and 2)?

A scenario like this could arise even in a socialist society where everyone works the same amount and is paid equally.


“Private property even in the means of production would occur in a socialist society that did not forbid people to sue as they wished some of the resources they are given under the socialist distribution. The socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.”


“No end state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with people’s lives. Any favored pattern would be transformed into one unflavored by the principle by people choosing to act in various way; for example, by people exchanging goods and services with other people, or giving things to other people, things the transfers are entitled to under the favored distributional pattern. To maintain a pattern one must either continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish to, or continually (or periodically) interfere to take from some persons resources that others for some reason chose to transfer to them.”

“Patterned principles of distributive justice necessitate redistributive activities. The likelihood is small that any actual freely-arrived-at set of holdings fits a given pattern; and the likelihood is nil that it will continue to fit the pattern as people exchange and give. From the point of view of an entitlement theory, redistribution is a serious matter indeed, involving, as it does, the violation of people’s rights. (An exception is those takings that fall under the principle of the rectification of injustices.)

The bottom line for Nozick

  • Taxation of earnings from labor is on par with forced labor.”(!!!)
  • “. . . taking the earnings of n hours of labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose.”
  • Why is taxation okay if forced labor is not?
  • What about just taxing income above basic living expense? This is still force because the alternative of just making a minimum income is worse. “people are forced to do something whenever the alternatives they face are considerably worse”


  • This is important because this is very relevant to contemporary politics and your future
    • You are going to be the first generation of Americans to have a obvioulsy worse future than your parents (things started changing in the 70’s and 80’s)
    • “Nozick exhibits a sort of cuteness that would be wearing in a graduate student and seems to me quite indecent in someone who, from the lofty heights of a professional chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens … leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, … to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose.”
    • (Brian Barry Political Theory, Volume 3, 1975)
    • Nozick’s rectification principle has many problems:
      • A just transfer cannot have an unjust appropriation in its history, however the injustices in transfers are so numerous and outrageous that rectification is impossible.
      • Nozick’s proposal is so absurdly radical as to be ridiculous. It is not even a credible proposal
      • Rawls’ theory is actually much more conservative in the changes it would demand
      • If rectification were taken seriously nearly all money earned would taxed and given to the poor.
      • The principle is at best utopian and not something that could be taken seriously.
      • Nozick’s account assumes that a person is individually responsible for all their success, which is why they are have a right to all the rewards of their work (the wilt chamberlin example).
        • But no one is individually responsible for their success. Society makes it possible for anyone to be successful. All of society is partially responsible
        • For Wilt Chamberlin to make his money he is using the stadium, the roads, and the basic infrastructure of society to make his money so he needs to give some back). Despite Wilt Chamberlin’s talents he would not be able to make the large sum of money he makes without the rest of society. Property cannot exist without society and therefore it might seem that people don’t have a right to all the property they can accumulate within a society.
        • There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOyDR2b71ag&noredirect=1)


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