The concept of justice has been the focus of normative political theory over the past 50 years, and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) is widely seen as the most important attempt during that period to articulate a set of institutions and distributional outcomes that rational individuals would see as legitimate. Rawls’ seminal work has spawned a veritable critical industry since its publication (Miller, 1999). His elaboration of his project and restatement of his theory of “justice as fairness” (Rawls, 2001) promise to sustain interest in his ideas.
This essay is an attempt to critically discuss and analyze John Rawls’ (1921-2002) conception of justice. It seeks to also answer the question of what led him to perceive justice in the way that he did. In order to achieve this, a thorough introductory exposition of Rawls theory will be carried out citing its content with the use of relevant definitions and examples. A conclusion will then be drawn from the discourse. This essay therefore recognizes that Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is thus an egalitarian theory of moral conduct which applies to all the obligations which individuals have toward each other.
It further perceives it as a deontological (that is, it is one which states that the moral content of an action is not wholly dependent on its consequences) rather than a teleological theory (that is, an approach to ethics that studies actions in relation to their ends or utility. Additionally, it conceptualizes it as an antithesis to utilitarian and perfectionist views of justice in order discover how applicable the theory is in the determination of the allocation of social, economic, and political resources.
Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) developed a conception of justice as fairness in his now classic work A Theory of Justice. Using elements of both Kantian and utilitarian philosophy, he has described a method for the moral evaluation of social and political institutions. According to Katznelson (2008) a social contract is a voluntary agreement among people defining the relationship of individuals with one another and with government and by this process forming a distinct organized society.
Rawls theory proposes that if one had the task of fairly developing a totally new social contract for today’s society without necessarily eliminating all of his/her personal biases and prejudices, one would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that one imagines himself in an ‘original position’ behind a ‘veil of ignorance. ’ Behind this veil, an individual knows nothing of himself and his natural abilities, or his position in society. He knows nothing of his sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes.
Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. They do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other. In other words, people are all self-interested rational persons and they stand behind “the Veil of Ignorance. To say that all people are self-interested rational persons is to say that they are motivated to select, in an informed and enlightened way, whatever seems advantageous for them. To say that they are behind a Veil of Ignorance is to say that they do not know the following sorts of things: their sex, race, physical handicaps, generation, social class of their parents, etc. But self-interested rational persons are not ignorant of the general types of possible situations in which humans can find themselves; and the general facts about human psychology and “human nature”.
Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance are given the task of choosing the principles that shall govern the actual world. Rawls believes that he has set up an inherently fair procedure here. Because of the fairness of the procedure Rawls has described, he says, the principles that would be chosen by means of this procedure would be fair principles. He supposes that a self-interested rational person behind the Veil of Ignorance would not want to belong to a race or gender or sexual orientation that turns out to be discriminated-against.
Such a person would not wish to be a handicapped person in a society where the handicapped are treated without respect. So, principles would be adopted that oppose discrimination. Likewise, a self-interested rational person would not want to belong to a generation which has been allocated a lower than average quantity of resources. So he/she would endorse the principle: “Each generation should have roughly equal resources” or “Each generation should leave to the next at least as many resources as they possessed at the start. The corollary of this, in rights terms, is that all generations have the same rights to resources, future as well as present. However, Sen (1992) rejects the above assumption as it does not take into account that despite guaranteeing that people have equal access to the same set of liberties, they can end up with a very different situations because of having different abilities in terms of converting these liberties into things of intrinsic value (Mabwe, 2009).
Rawls asks what the rational choice is for fundamental principles of society in this original position, behind the veil of ignorance. He argues that the only safe principles will be fair principles, for individuals do not know whether they would suffer or benefit from the structure of any biased institutions. Indeed the safest principles would provide for the highest minimum standards of justice in the projected society. To illustrate the above, imagine that you had the task of determining how to divide a piece of land fairly among a group of individuals.
What rule or method should govern the demarcation? A simple one would be to let the person who does the demarcation receive the last portion. This would lead that person to demarcate the plots as equally as possible in order to receive the best remaining share. Of course if the plots were divided unequally, someone would get the largest share, but if you are the divider of the land, you can hardly rely on that piece being left over at the end.
Rawls (1971: 34-45) argues that in a similar manner, the rational individual would only choose to establish a society that would at least conform to the following two principles: 1) Principle of Equal Liberty: here, each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all. 2) Difference Principle: here, social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.
Along Kantian lines, the first principle–often called the Liberty Principle — provides for basic and universal respect for persons as a minimum standard for all just institutions. But while all persons may be morally equal, it is common knowledge that in the “real world” there are significant differences between individuals that under conditions of liberty will lead to social and economic inequalities. In other words, this principle is egalitarian, since it distributes extensive liberties equally to all persons.
The second principle–called the Difference Principle –permits this condition and even suggests that it will be to the advantage of all (similar to the utility principle), but only if it meets these two conditions. 2(b) is also quite egalitarian, since it distributes opportunities to be considered for offices and positions in an equal manner while 2(a) is not egalitarian but makes benefit for some (those with greater talents, training, etc. ) proportionate to their contribution toward benefiting the least advantaged persons.
What (2a) does not permit is a change in social and economic institutions that makes life better for those who are already well off but does nothing for those who are already disadvantaged, or makes their life worse (open citation). An example is policies that permit industrial projects in rural areas which degrade the environment for nearby peasant farmers but provide jobs for already well-paid professionals who come in from the big cities. The difference principle simply means that society may undertake projects that require giving some persons more power, income, status, etc. han others provided that the following conditions are met: Firstly, if the project will make life better off for the people who are now worst off, for example, by raising the living standards of everyone in the community and empowering the least advantaged persons to the extent consistent with their well-being; and secondly if access to the privileged positions is not blocked by discrimination according to irrelevant criteria such as age, race or tribe for instance.
The socialist idea that responsibilities or burdens should be distributed according to ability and benefits according to need is partly contained within the Difference Principle. It may be reasonably assumed that the least advantaged have the greatest needs and that those who receive special powers also have special responsibilities or burdens. This is known as the need principle.
However, the merit principle that the use of special skills should be rewarded is also included in the Difference Principle. For example: paying accountants and managers higher wages than sales representatives. According to Rawls, the first principle of justice is logically (and lexically) prior to the second principle, in that for justice to be attained the first principle of justice (principle of equal liberty) must be satisfied before the second principle (difference principle) can be satisfied.
The logical order of the second principle of justice is (a) the principle of fair equality of opportunity, and (b) the difference principle. Thus, for justice to be attained the principle of fair equality of opportunity must be satisfied before the difference principle is satisfied. Rawls explains that the logical priority of the first principle of justice over the second principle implies that violations of basic rights cannot be justified by arguing that such violations may produce economic or social advantages.
For example, leprosy patients also have the right to the freedom of association and assembly which is basically infringed by placing them in leprosaria, away from their families and friends. Furthermore, the logical priority of the first part of the second principle over the second part implies that infringements upon fair equality of opportunity cannot be justified by arguing that such infringements may produce economic or social advantages.
An example is when female candidates are more preferred to fill in a vacancy of secretary or receptionist over their male counterparts. This usually occurs because female candidates are seen as more welcoming to clients than males. Such prejudicial judgments therefore create greater opportunities for females in clerical undertakings while more physically challenging tasks are mostly the preserve of men.
Basically, Rawls’ theory explains how the logical ordering of principles of justice may answer such questions as how society should be structured, how basic rights and duties should be assigned to individuals and how social and economic advantages should be distributed to all members of society. Rawls is primarily concerned with defining the principles of justice which would regulate an ideal society, rather than with describing how justice may be restored to an unjust society.
Rawls argues that the principles of justice which would establish the basis of an ideal society are principles which would be chosen by every individual if every individual were in an ‘original position’ of equality with regard to rights and duties and if all individuals were acting rationally in a mutually disinterested manner The above utopian notion has been challenged on the basis that it is not practical and does not consider diversity among individuals and groups.
It is very homogeneous in its treatment of society while the fact remains that society is very dynamic (that is, it is ever changing) (Sen, 1992). One of the major motivations for Rawls conception of justice was his desire to provide an alternative to utilitarianism—a paradigm enunciated in its most characteristic form by the British theologian William Paley in his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) and by the British jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).
Rawls discusses the applicability of utilitarianism and of social contract theory to the theory of justice, and he argues that social contract theory provides stronger support for equality of basic rights for all individuals. While utilitarianism may try to justify infringements upon the rights of some individuals if these infringements produce a greater happiness for a larger number of other individuals, the theory of justice as fairness (which is a social contract theory) denies that infringements upon the basic rights of individuals can ever be morally justified.
The theory of justice as fairness argues for equal rights for all individuals, and denies that injustice toward any particular group of individuals is justifiable unless this injustice is necessary to prevent an even greater injustice. Rawls explains that the theory of justice as fairness is a deontological theory (that is, it proposes that the moral content of an action is not wholly dependent on its consequences) but that utilitarianism is a teleological theory, which is an approach to ethics that studies actions in relation to their ends or utility.
In the theory of justice as fairness, equal liberty for all individuals is not merely a means to an end but is a principle of justice which must be satisfied before other political interests are satisfied. Rawls argues that equal liberty for all individuals may become insecure and vulnerable to infringement if utilitarian or perfectionist principles are applied as principles of justice, and if it is argued that the basic rights of individuals can be adjusted to achieve a greater net balance of satisfaction or a higher sum of intrinsic value (Rawls, 2001).
As mentioned above, in Rawls’ understanding, the principle of equal rights for all citizens has priority over the goal of producing the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of individuals, but in utilitarian theory the goal of producing the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of individuals has priority over the principle of equal rights for all citizens (Smart and Williams, 1973). Rawls describes three types of teleological theories of justice namely: 1) perfectionism 2) the average principle of utility, and 3) the classical principle of utility.
According to perfectionism, the best actions maximize human achievement (for example, in the arts and sciences) or maximize the attainment of some desired goal. According to the average principle of utility, the best actions maximize the average utility which may be enjoyed by each individual. According to the classical principle of utility, the best actions produce the greatest amount of utility for the greatest number of individuals. Rawls argues that perfectionism is not a fair and equitable method of distributing primary social goods.
While the values of human achievements in the arts and sciences are to be appreciated, the theory of justice as fairness denies that individuals should receive a greater or lesser share of basic rights and duties because of their personal achievements or because of their personal contributions to society. Rawls also argues that a major defect of utilitarianism is that the principle of utility may require that individuals who are disadvantaged in relation to others in their ability to attain primary social goods (e. . rights, opportunities, income, and wealth) may have to suffer even greater disadvantages if this redistribution of rights and opportunities produces greater happiness for a larger number of individuals. Moreover, individuals who already have advantages over others in their ability to attain primary social goods may gain even greater advantages if this redistribution of rights and opportunities produces greater happiness for a larger number of individuals.
Rawls argues that the term ‘justice as fairness’ does not imply that justice and fairness are identical, but that the principles of justice are agreed to under fair conditions by individuals who are in a situation of equality. ‘Justice as fairness’ also implies that the principles of justice apply equally to all individuals. These principles must be decided upon in such a way as to benefit all individuals, and must not be merely designed to favor the interests of a particular group of individuals over another group of individuals.
Rawls also explains that judgments about the principles of justice in the ‘original position’ of equality among individuals are most likely to be reasonable and impartial if they are made in conditions of ‘reflective equilibrium’ (a state or situation in which opposing forces or factors balance each other out and stability is attained) and are not distorted by temporary or changing circumstances. Despite the primacy of equality, Rawls argues that inequality of income and other social goods can be justified by a concern for increased productivity, or efficiency.
Like Rawls, Sen (1992: 6–8) uses the term “efficiency” to mean that individuals prefer a greater amount of overall goods for the same amount of input. Rawls (1971: 36) terms the tension between efficiency and equality the “aggregative- distributive dichotomy”. He argues that after establishing equality of opportunity, rational individuals would tolerate inequality only to the extent that any increased efficiency benefits everyone, and especially the least advantaged.
Rawls argues that the principle of efficiency may be applied to the method by which basic rights and duties are assigned and to the method by which social or economic inequalities are structured. The method by which rights and duties are assigned may be described as efficient if there is no possible rearrangement which could be performed to make this assignment of rights and duties more advantageous to any particular individual without simultaneously making it less advantageous to another individual.
For example, the practice of grading students for their performance in academic courses now includes both a merit and efficiency principle for determining most grades: the grade a student receives should reflect the quantity and quality of his/her work. It might be said in defense of such a tradition that it has survived because it has proven more efficient to the parties affected, considered collectively, than other conceivable alternatives, such as giving everyone the same grade or handing out grades in accordance with the student’s ability to pay.
Similarly, the method by which social or economic inequalities are structured may be described as efficient if there is no possible restructuring which could be performed to make this structuring more advantageous to any particular individual without simultaneously making it less advantageous to another individual (open citation). The above allocation of resources such that no individual can be made better off without another being worse of is known as Pareto Optimality (Mills, 1999), a concept that is similar to Rawls concept of reflective equilibrium.
Rawls also argues that the difference principle may be applied to the method by which rights and duties are assigned and to the method by which social or economic inequalities are structured. The method by which rights and duties are assigned may be described as fair and impartial if it cannot be made any fairer to any particular individual without simultaneously making it less fair to another individual.
Similarly, the method by which social or economic inequalities are structured may be described as fair and impartial if it cannot be made any more fair to any particular individual without simultaneously making it less fair to another individual. According to Rawls, the principle of efficiency and the difference principle are mutually compatible and are principles of justice for social institutions.
Principles of justice for individuals include fairness, benevolence, generosity, the duty to keep promises, the duty to offer mutual aid, the duty to show mutual respect, the duty not to cause unnecessary suffering, the duty not to harm or injure others, and the duty to uphold justice (Rawls, 2001). According to Rawls, the principles of justice (including the principle of greatest equal liberty, the principle of fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle) may be fulfilled by a constitutional democracy.
However, he notes that a frequently-perceived defect of constitutional democracy is that it may allow a greater disparity in the distribution of wealth and property than is compatible with equality of economic, social, and political opportunity for all individuals. He further observes that another frequently-seen defect of constitutional democracy is that it may allow political power to accumulate in the hands of a particular group or party who may use the institutions of government to gain greater advantage.
For instance, in most developing countries like Zambia, it is very difficult for those in the political opposition to unseat the ruling party. Rawls concludes that in order to correct these defects, it is necessary for political equality of opportunity (that is, equal rights of participation in the political process) to be constitutionally guaranteed. Borrowing from this, it can be said that barriers to participation in politics such as high election nomination fees, source of campaign funding, freedom of assembly, etc. eed to be eliminated if justice is to be dispensed fairly in the political arena.
Despite its plausibility, Rawls theory has been met with criticism. Among the notable critics is the Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen. Generally speaking, the theory has been criticized for being too idealistic and abstract by the projected society it creates which consists of individuals of rational thought or reason hiding behind a veil if ignorance. It therefore ignores the dynamism of society and individuals and also does not encompass all phenomena and situations.
For instance, it does not take into account such factors as gender and race inequalities (Okin, 1989). Because of its utopian approach to justice, it is considered fictitious and less pragmatic. Since its promulgation, Rawls theory of justice as fairness has attracted a considerable amount of debate and attempts have been made to improve and clarify it, not least by Rawls himself. One of those attempts at improvement is that of Martha C. Nussbaum (Women and Human Development), who has reinterpreted Rawls’ argument from the perspective of Substantial Freedom, an idea she gets from Amartya Sen.
For Nussbaum the liberties mentioned in the Principle of Equal Liberty, if they are to be meaningful at all, are capabilities or substantial freedoms, real opportunities based on natural and developed potentialities as well as the presence of governmentally supported institutions, to engage in political deliberation and planning over one’s own life. Likewise, for Nussbaum, the concern of the Difference Principle to raise up those who are least advantaged must be clarified in light of substantial freedoms.
What is needed, in her view, is a commitment by citizens and governments to a threshold of real opportunities below which no human being should fall if he/she is able to rise above it. A number of empirical studies based on Rawls’ framework have also been carried out such as one by Michelbach et al. (2003: 523-539), which offers a synthesis of the theoretical and empirical approaches with an experimental study of how individuals use allocation principles in making judgments concerning income distribution under conditions of strict impartiality.
It worth noting that academicians, politicians, and ordinary people alike are faced with complex, normative and empirical questions concerning the distribution of the benefits and burdens of society. The complexity of distributive justice judgments is reflected in Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness, for it involves a specific ordering of the competing principles used in distributive justice judgments. Rawls’ endeavor provides testimony to the structure of distributive justice behavior that lies beneath the complexity.
In view of the arguments presented in this essay, it can be asserted that Rawls’ main motive in his theory of justice was to challenge the utilitarian doctrine in the understanding of society and resource allocation. It espouses the principles of egalitarianism by expounding the normative principles of need, efficiency, merit, and equality. More could be said on the topic but due to the limitations of the scope of this essay, it is hoped that Rawls theory has been discussed at length within the ambit of its applicability.