A Theory of Justice

American moral and political philosopher John Rawls' work on resolving the problem of distributive justice in society

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What is A Theory of Justice?

A Theory of Justice was published in 1971 by American moral and political philosopher John Rawls. It attempted to resolve the problem of distributive justice in society. Rawls was opposed to the traditional philosophical arguments on what constitutes a just institution and the justification for social actions and policies. The utilitarian argument holds that society should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number, an argument that is consistent with the idea of the tyranny of majorities over minorities.

A Theory of Justice

In opposing the utilitarian arguments, Rawls attempted to establish an unbiased version of social justice based on the social contract approach. The social contract approach holds that society is in the form of agreement with all those within the society. The approach originated from an 18th-century philosophical and intellectual movement called the Age of Enlightenment.

The movement assumes that members of a society have consented to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler in exchange for the maintenance of social rights and the protection of their remaining rights. Rawls opines the idea of justice as fairness, and he identifies social justice as the first characteristic of social institutions.


  • John Rawls developed A Theory of Justice based on the social contract theory.
  • Rawls argued that equal distribution of resources should be the desirable state of nature instead of following utilitarian philosophies.
  • A Theory of Justice holds that every individual has an equal right to basic liberties, and that they should have the right to opportunities and an equal chance as other individuals of similar ability.

Who was John Rawls?

Born on February 21, 1921, in Maryland, John Rawls attended school in Baltimore. Rawls pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree at Princeton University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1943. Immediately after graduating from Princeton University, he served in the military between 1943 and 1946. After his military service, Rawls returned to Princeton in 1946 for his doctorate in Moral Philosophy.

Rawls is recognized as an American moral and political philosopher, and he authored “A Theory of Justice” in 1971, “Political Liberalism” in 1993, “Justice as Fairness: A Restatement” in 2002, among other books. He’s been referred to as the most important ethics and political philosopher of the 20th century. In 1999, then US President Bill Clinton awarded Rawls the National Humanities Medal for the philosopher’s contributions to the academic and political space.

The Original Position

Rawls introduced the “Original Position” as an artificial device when he developed the Principles of Justice theory. The device created a hypothetical situation where members of the population can come to a contractual agreement on the distribution of resources without one party being seen to be more advantaged than the other.

The thought experiment would produce the desired state of affairs among members of the population behind a veil of ignorance. The veil was a condition that blinded people to all their personal characteristics such as age, ethnicity, sex, and income level, which would otherwise cause bias. In the absence of the veil, individuals could align the principles to their advantage.

Rawls developed the original position to create a reflection of the principles of justice that would exist in the society, based on the free and fair interactions between the population. In the state of nature and in the absence of a veil of ignorance, certain individuals such as the privileged and talented would put pressure on the vulnerable, weak, and disabled since the former is in a better position in the state of nature. The act of coercing the vulnerable members of the population invalidates any contractual arrangements that may exist in the state of nature.

The Two Principles of Justice

John Rawls presented two principles of justice that self-interested and rational individuals would choose when separated by the veil of ignorance. The principles include:

1. Principle of Equal Liberty

The principle of equal liberty is the first principle of justice to be derived from the original position. It states that all citizens have an equal right to basic liberties, which, according to Rawls, entails freedom of conscience, expression, association, and democratic rights.

Rawls added the right of personal property as one of the basic liberties that individuals should have, and that cannot be infringed or amended by the government. He, however, excluded an absolute right to unlimited personal properties as part of the basic liberties that people should have.

2. Principle of Equality

The principle of equality holds that economic principles should be arranged in a way that they meet two requirements. First, the least advantaged in society should receive a greater number of benefits.

Second, the economic inequalities should be arranged in a way that no individual is blocked from occupying any position or office, regardless of their ethnicity, sex, or social background. Rawls argued that all individuals in the society should have fair equality of opportunities and an equal chance as everybody else of similar natural ability.

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