13. Rawls theory of Justice

Photo: John Rawls. Source: Wikipedia,, retrieved on 12/10/2014. 

Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is one of the most influential book on liberal and social democratic theory of justice and concerns how primary goods of society are to be distributed in the society. Rawls defines ‘justice as fairness’. (Rawls, 2006) To him, it implies how major institutions of society regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages. Rawls assumes that human society is ‘co-operative venture for mutual advantage’ and therefore they have a sense of justice which is both a source of ‘moral judgment’ and ‘moral motivation’. (Rawls, 2000: 84) A just society according to Rawls is a society which is governed by the two principles of justice. The two principles of justice are: 1. ‘Each person has an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for all’. 2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged in such a way that they are both attached to positions and office open to all under conditions of fair equality of These principles of justice are assigned to rights and duties of individuals in the society. The first principle states that justice means enjoyment of greatest degree of liberty consistent with the liberty enjoyed by everyone else. Rawls therefore argues for the establishment of political and civil rights in the society. After the establishment civil and political liberties, he introduces second principle of justice. The second principle states that material inequality of society is fair as long as it works for the benefit of least advantaged member of the society while they are attached to social positions open to everyone else. Shortly, the first principle of justice enforces on equal liberty for all, whereas the second principle governs the distribution of social and economic resources. These two principles of justice is put in lexical order which mean that they are listed in the order of priority. The first principle of equality must be satisfied before the second principle is invoked. Similarly, equality principle must be introduced before differential principle is invoked. (Ibid., p. 61). Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is a hypothetical contractual one. (Knowles, 2001: 216.) Men lived behind the veil of ignorance. (Rawls 2000: 136-142) Veil of ignorance is a hypothetical situation, which he calls ‘original position’, where men knew particular facts that their society is subject to circumstances of justice but did not know the particular facts about their social life- his position and status in the society, his fortune and assets, strength and intelligent, his distribution of natural assets and abilities, etc. In other words, original position is represented by both the knowledge and ignorance. The parties in the contract do not know how various alternatives will affect their own particular case. In such circumstances, the parties will select two principles. In such state of affairs, rationality of choosing alternatives will not depend upon the nature of available information, but upon one’s capacity to reason from the available information however incomplete it is. (Rawls, 2000: pp. 136-37). In other words, the motivation behind the hypothetical situation is to eliminate partiality and biasness and it is assumed that under that circumstance society will be governed by two principles of justice. Under Rawls proposition, society is just only when it is governed by the two principles of justice. A rule governed society will provide basic arrangements for the assignment of basic rights and duties in the basic institutions of the society in mutually advantageous way. Justice to him is ‘the first virtue of institutions’ as ‘truth is for the system of thoughts’.(Rawls, 2000: 3) He therefore argues that, principles of justice have to govern all the social institutions. Briefly, Rawls theory of justice does not simply looking into the procedures of justice, rather the procedures are framed in such a way to augment desire outcome of distribution. Libertarian Response to Rawls Justice: Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia .\

Picture: Robert Nozick. Source: Wikipedia, available at, retrieved on 12/10/2014.

In social justice, redistribution of income is just only if it brings sustain approximate equality of opportunity and resource among people. In other word, a just state taxes income and wealth from the better off sections of the society and transfers these resources to the poor members of the society. Such a distribution is aim to sustain proximate equality in opportunity and resource among the people. If a distribution has reached this objective, then the distributive system is just. (Barry, 2005: 214-41) Libertarian rejects any end-state pattern of justice and also any presumption on equality. Rather libertarians advocate justice based on rights. Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State And Utopia (1976) is an important contribution in this respect.

Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is historical and unpatterned. A historical unpatterned principle of justice argues that whether distribution of goods is justifiable by looking at its history of acquisition. If goods were acquired and transferred legitimately, then the resulting distribution of goods is just. According to Nozick, a distribution of wealth is rightful as long as it satisfies three conditions of exchange: 1. Principle of Original Acquisition of Holding: An appropriation of a wealth is rightful if it is un-owned earlier and the acquisition would not disadvantage others. 2. Principle of Transfer of Holdings: A property holding is just if and only if the transfer or exchange is voluntary. 16 Institute of lifelong Learning, University of Delhi 3. Principle of Rectification: No person is right to hold any wealth by violating the above two principles of justice. Any transgression- injustice in acquisition is required to rectify through resettlement. (Nozick, 1980: 150-51) Under the presumptuous theory of justice, state’s power to alter the distribution of goods produced by free exchanges would violate very rights of individual who acquires it through legitimate means. Nozick’s theory is entitlement at its heart and rejected the idea that there is moral basis for redistributing wealth to bring equality or social justice in the society. In other word, entitlement theory contrasts sharply with Rawls’ liberal theory of justice. Rawlsian theory of justice claims that ‘each person has an equal claim to basic rights and liberties, and that inequality is permissible only to the extent that if it is for everyone's advantage’. (Rawls 1999: 53). Moreover it is further argued that such inequalities are only permissible insofar as there is an equality of opportunity to benefit from these inequalities’. Nozick on the other hand argues that people who have or produce certain things have rights over them. (Nozick 1974:160). Nozick further believes that unjustly taking someone's holdings violates his/her rights. (Nozick 1974:235).