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A Theory of Justice

A Theory of Justice (1971) is a book of political and moral philosophy by John Rawls. In it, Rawls lays out his own moral theory, called "Justice as Fairness", and his two famous principles of justice.

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Rawls' primary objective in A Theory of Justice is to posit an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated ethical thought in the English-speaking world for over a hundred years. The main problem with utilitarianism, as Rawls sees it, is that it allows the rights of some people to be sacrificed for the greater benefit of others, as long as the total happiness is increased. Rawls (and many others) see this as unacceptable.

The Original Position

Like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition. However, Rawls' social contract takes a slightly different form from that of previous thinkers. Specifically, Rawls posits that a just social contract is that which we would agree upon if we did not know in advance where we ourselves would end up in the society that we are agreeing to. This condition of ignorance is known as the original position. In the original position, each person would not know her financial situation, her race, her creed, her religion, or her state of health. From behind this veil of ignorance (to use Rawls' phrase), can we discern the form of a truly just society, since our judgment would not be clouded by knowledge of our own personal interests. Rawls' social contract is ratified in a condition of perfect equality.

It is important to keep in mind that Rawls is writing a book of philosophy, not history. He never claims that the original position ever occurred. It is simply a thought experiment to allow us to discover the nature of justice. Rawls deduces that a just society would be based on two principles.

The First Principle of Justice

First of all, each person would have the most extensive system of rights and freedoms which can be accorded equally to everyone. These include freedoms of speech, conscience, peaceful assembly, and so forth, as well as democratic rights. Rawls specifically excludes the freedom of contract from the list. The first principle is absolute, and may never be violated, even for the sake of the second principle. However, various basic rights may be traded off against each other for the sake of obtaining the largest possible system of rights. Rawls falls squarely into the deontological (duty-based) school of ethics, in the tradition of Kant, as opposed to the consequentialist school exemplified by the utilitarians.

The Second Principle of Justice

Secondly, economic and social inequalities are only justified if they benefit all of society, especially its most disadvantaged members. Furthermore, all economically and socially privileged positions must be open to all people equally. For example, it is only justified that a doctor makes more money than a grocery clerk so far as if this were not the case, no one go through the training to be a doctor, and there would be no medical care. Therefore, the doctor's greater salary benefits not only him, but all of society, including the grocery clerk, since it permits him to get medical care. Thus this particular economic inequality benefits all of society, and leaves all its members better off. Note that one may disagree with the particular example of the doctor and the grocery clerk, but this is the type of reasoning which Rawls says must be used to justify inequalities. Unlike the utilitarians, Rawls does not allow some people to suffer for the greater benefit of others.

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