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Justice in its broadest context, includes both the attainment of that which is just and
the philosophical discussion of that which is just. The concept of justice is based on
numerous fields, and many differing viewpoints and perspectives including the
concepts of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, religion, equity and
fairness. Often, the general discussion of justice is divided into the realm of social
justice as found in philosophy, theology and religion, and, procedural justice as found
in the study and application of the law.
For Plato, justice is a virtue establishing rational order, with each part performing its
appropriate role and not interfering with the proper functioning of other parts.
Aristotle says justice consists in what is lawful and fair, with fairness
involving equitable distributions and the correction of what is inequitable. For
Augustine, the cardinal virtue of justice requires that we try to give all people their
due; for Aquinas, justice is that rational mean between opposite sorts of injustice,
involving proportional distributions and reciprocal transactions. Hobbes believed
justice is an artificial virtue, necessary for civil society, a function of the voluntary
agreements of the social contract; for Hume, justice essentially serves public utility
by protecting property (broadly understood). For Kant, it is a virtue whereby we
respect others’ freedom, autonomy, and dignity by not interfering with their voluntary
actions, so long as those do not violate others’ rights; Mill said justice is a collective
name for the most important social utilities, which are conducive to fostering and
protecting human liberty. Rawls analyzed justice in terms of maximum equal liberty
regarding basic rights and duties for all members of society, with socio-economic
inequalities requiring moral justification in terms of equal opportunity and beneficial
results for all; and various post-Rawlsian philosophers develop alternative
The General Theory in Rawls’ Theory of Justice says that all social primary
goods(liberty, income, wealth, opportunity) should be distributed equally unless an
unequal distribution benefits the least advantaged section of the society. Inequalities
will be allowed if they improve one’s initial equal share and would not be allowed if
they invade one’s fair share.
His theory is also arranged in ‘lexical priority’, which means there exists a system of
priority among the different elements.
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.
This means each man will have the right to liberty and he will share this right with all
other fellow beings.
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
a) To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and
b) Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of
There exists two priority rules along with these principles:
First Priority Rule (The priority of liberty)
The principles of justice are to be ranked in lexical order and therefore liberty
can be restricted only for the sake of liberty.
Second Priority Rule (The priority of justice over efficiency and welfare)
The second principle of justice is lexically prior to the principle of efficiency
and to that of maximizing the sum of advantages and fair opportunity is prior
to the difference principle.
Rawls has two arguments for his principle of justice:
a) Distributive Justice, the ideal of equality of opportunity
b) The concept of Social Contract
According to this principle, inequalities in wealth and prestige are justified as long as
an equal opportunity was provided to all in attaining these inequalities and no
discrimination had been made in terms of race, sex, social background. These
inequalities are just even if they don’t benefit the least advantaged section.
Rawls doesn’t completely agree with this. He says that equal opportunity should be
provided to all but under the difference principle, people can have a claim to a
greater share of resources only if they can show that it benefits those who have
Rawls also makes a distinction between choice and circumstances. According to
him inequalities are unjust when they happen because of one’s social background,
creed, place of birth etc. These are something which people have no control over,
these are circumstances and thus unjustified. But he says that inequalities arising
from one’s choice are just. If a person irrespective of his circumstances works very
hard and achieves a lot of wealth, status and prestige compared to another person
who does nothing to achieve these benefits then this kind of inequality is justified.
Although he calls social inequality unjust, he doesn’t provide room for natural
inequalities i.e natural disabilities. A person having a natural disability cannot be at
par with a person who is absolutely normal but Rawls doesn’t make any distinction
between the two. This is the point where he has been criticised the most.
The idea of social contract seems either historically absurd or morally insignificant.
Dworkin says that the contract isn’t primarily an agreement actual or hypothetical but
a device for teasing out the implications of certain moral premises concerning
people’s moral equality. We invoke the idea of the state of nature not to work out the
historical origins of the society or the historical obligations of the government and the
individuals but to model the idea of the moral equality of individuals.
Rawls talks about the ‘original position’ and the ‘ veil of ignorance’. While Rawls’
original position corresponds to the ideal of state of nature, it also differs from it. For
he believes that the usual state of nature isn’t an initial position of equality because
some people have more bargaining powers over others, more physical strength,
more talents etc. So a new device is needed to tease out the implications of moral
equality, a device that prevents people from exploiting their arbitrary advantages in
the selection of the principles of justice and thus he provides a revised version of
original position. Here all the people are behind the veil of ignorance and they are
faceless anonymous individuals who are unaware of their position which they would
occupy in the society, their talents, their status, abilities, intelligence. From behind
the veil of ignorance these individuals would select the principles of justice. The
rationale behind this idea is that when people are unaware of their social positions
and their abilities they would select such principles which would be beneficial for all
the members of the society so that even if a person occupies the worst off position
in the society, the principles would do justice to him.
These individuals would follow the ‘maximin strategy’ which means one would
maximise what one would get even if they are occupying the worst off position.
Rawls has often been criticised for rigging the original position so that the difference
principle is chosen by the individuals and he in fact accepts this charge against him.
There are 5 main criticisms made against Rawls’ theory of Justice, they are as
Capability and Scope Critique
Subsidising Costly Choices
1. Logical Problems
Rawls claims that his theory of justice is a universal theory which isn’t true
because he has been influenced by affluent societies and ethnocentrism. His
theory mainly represents the Western European countries and North America.
His conception also reflects a western liberal conception of justice. He totally
ignores the third world countries where half of the population is below poverty
line thus his individual isn’t universal in the truest sense. Critics say that there
is only one kind of individual who value liberty before anything else and those
are the ones who belong to these first world countries and whose basic needs
and survival are guaranteed. So when Rawls thinks about the two principles
he considers them from a point of view of the western liberal society.
2. Capability and Scope Critique
This critique has been developed by Amartya Sen. He published his own
theory of justice and mentioned two major points against the theory of Rawls.
According to Sen, Rawls uses two criteria to define the political which is the
subject matter and it can be any institution which is a part of it or it can be
taken as an example of Constitutional Democracy. Any political system
becomes a system of justice provided it is committed to toleration. But Sen
says that by that specification the scope of the theory becomes limited and it
also becomes incapable of being applied to a large number of cases because
most of the countries did not have a constitutional democracy. Any political
institution or practice which does not commit to the principle of toleration
cannot enjoy the question of justice which means countries not having a
constitutional democracy will not be able to enjoy justice.
The second criticism is the Capability Critique. This has been mentioned
earlier that Rawls judges a person’s position by the social primary goods and
rejects the natural talents. Sen says that equal amount of social primary
goods does not convert into equal freedom because goods are converted to
freedom through capabilities and the less capable here are the physically
challenged who do not have the capability to convert these goods into
freedom in the same way normal individuals do.
There are two variations:
Inter means variation
Inter end variation
Rawls shows remarkable sensitivity to inter end variations but completely
rejects inter means variations.
3. Marxist Critique
There are two parts of this critique. The first part of the critique says that
Marxists believed that all inequalities are unjust and criticised Rawls because
he justifies fair inequalities.
The second part of the critique is developed by C.B.Macpherson who said
that the liberty principle and the difference principle are contradictory from a
Marxian point of view. Those with more liberty will interfere with liberty of the
rest. Rawls is in fact aware of this and so he allows the transfer of resources
from the rich to the poor. But in case of the difference principle, this transfer
cannot happen beyond a certain point because it will interfere with the
dynamism of the economy. Thus the two principles are opposed to each other
because the liberty principle demands continuous transfer and the difference
principle demands productivity.
4. Communitarian Critique
Communitarian criticism focuses on whether people in the original position
would be able to choose anything at all. This is because the asocial, atomistic,
solitary ,self seeking free and equal person in the original position is so
abstracted that is difficult for them to choose the principles of justice or if their
choices will be relevant to the actual social context.
Sandel says that Rawls relies on the metaphysical concept of the self which
makes no sense. A person devoid of interests, values, desires, conception of
good is incapable of deliberation and choice.
Waltzer asks why we should take any notice of the conclusions of the people
in the original position which is just an imaginary construction of Rawls who is
the only actual participant in the perfect meeting. He too believes that the
principles chosen from the original position wouldn’t be relevant to the actual
Woolf argues even if the people in the original position could choose, the veil
of ignorance abstracts from all that is human and social therefore it is hard to
see how it could be relevant to the people in actual societies.
Rawls has been criticised by feminists as well. They say the model of the self
interested, individualistic, rational, autonomous man in the original position
does not allow for the nurturing, cooperative, empathetic female qualities.
Moreover it is clear that the party to the contract are men who are the heads
of households therefore no representation of women is offered in the original
5. Subsidizing Costly Choices
This argument can be best explained with an example. Let’s take the case of a
tennis player and a gardener. Both belong to the same social background, they have
equal natural talents and they are even given equal amount of resources. The
gardener works really hard on his farm and earns a lot of money by selling fruits and
vegetables whereas the player does occasional farming and works only as much as
it would let him buy a tennis court. Therefore his earning is less compared to the
gardener and now this would not make him at par with the gardener in terms of
wealth. Not according to Rawls difference principle, inequality in benefits would be
justified only when it benefits the least advantaged which here is the player so
following this argument, the state should transfer some of the wealth of the gardener
to the player in order to equalise the income but the problem is, this inequality
happened because of choice, and not circumstances so here lies the drawback in
Rawls theory i.e when inequalities in income are a result of choices and not
circumstances then the difference principle creates rather than removes unfairness.
The Libertarian makes a point that Rawls’ theory doesn’t allow maximum moral
autonomy. They say that while he is justified in saying that talents are undeserved,
this doesn’t mean that the undeserved talent becomes a collective asset. The least
advantaged cannot veto a talented individual’s choice.
Philosopher Allan Bloom, a student of Leo Strauss, criticized Rawls for failing to
account for the existence of natural right in his theory of justice, and wrote that Rawls
absolutizes social union as the ultimate goal which would conventionalize everything
Other criticisms of Rawls' theory have come from the philosopher Gerald Cohen.
Cohen's series of influential papers culminated first in his book, If You're An
Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? and then in his later work, Rescuing
Justice and Equality. Cohen's criticisms are levelled against Rawls' avowal of
inequality under the difference principle, against his application of the principle only
to social institutions, and against Rawlsian obsession with the using primary goods
as his currency of equality.
John Rawls has provided an explicit theory which has so far been considered as the
most important theory of justice till date but one question arises in the minds of the
readers i.e if this theory can be applicable in the real society or not.
Some parts of his theory like the equal distribution of social primary goods unless an
unequal distribution benefits the least well off and equal opportunity principle are
very practical and very useful in the present day scenario. In fact these principles
have been applied to most societies as well even in India where the system of
reservation has been provided in government services and even in educational
institutes for the backward classes because of the economic and social exploitations
they had experienced in the past which have put them in a disadvantaged position.
However these reservations have been helping these backward classes to be at par
with the people from the general categories.
Other parts of his theory especially the concept of individuals being faceless
anonymous people choosing the principles of justice behind the veil of ignorance in
the original position is utopian. Rawls has also been criticised by many on this point
and these criticisms are valid too because in real life this kind of scenario cannot
exist. It is absolutely impossible because people can never exist without any interest
or values of their own.
Nevertheless, his theory is one of the best theories of justice because the ways in
which justice can be attained according to him is commendable and though some of
the aspects of his theory are not practical but they are surely ideal and desirable and
if ever the original position along with the veil of ignorance is created and principles
of justice are chosen from behind the veil in the real society then that would be one
of the greatest achievements of human civilisations.
1. A Theory of Justice
By John Rawls
This book is a revised edition of a theory of justice published in 1971 by
Harvard University Press. Sixth printing,2003, pp. 3-19
2. Rawls, Political Liberalism (expanded edition), pp. 22-28, and esp. pp. 25-27
3. Rawls, Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, p. 97
4. Amartya Sen (2009). The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press (Harvard University
Press). pp. 52–74
5. Thomas Nagel, Rawls on Justice, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2.
6. Amartya Sen, Inequality Re-examined, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
7. Maureen Ramsey, What’s Wrong with Liberalism, London, 1997. pp. 111-125
THEORY OF JUSTICE