John Rawls, a philosopher who held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University, published several books and many articles. He is chiefly known, however, for his book A Theory of Justice, an effort to define social justice. The work has greatly influenced modern political thought.
Rawls was dissatisfied with the traditional philosophical arguments about what makes a social institution just and about what justifies political or social actions and policies. The utilitarian argument holds that societies should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. This argument has a number of problems, including, especially, that it seems to be consistent with the idea of the tyranny of majorities over minorities. The intuitionist argument holds that humans intuit what is right or wrong by some innate moral sense. This is also problematic because it simply explains away justice by saying that people “know it when they see it,” and it fails to deal with the many conflicting human intuitions.
Rawls attempts to establish a reasoned account of social justice through the social contract approach. This approach holds that a society is in some sense an agreement among all those within that society. If a society were an agreement, Rawls asks, what kind of arrangement would everyone agree to? He states that the contract is a purely hypothetical one: He does not argue that people had existed outside the social state or had made agreements to establish a particular type of society.
Rawls begins his work with the idea of justice as fairness. He identifies the basic structure of society as the primary subject of justice and identifies justice as the first virtue of social institutions. He considers justice a matter of the organization and internal divisions of a society. The main idea of a theory of justice asks, What kind of organization of society would rational persons choose if they were in an initial position of independence and equality and were setting up a system of cooperation? This is what Rawls sees as a hypothetical original position: the state in which no one knows what place he or she would occupy in the society to be created.
After considering the main characteristics of justice as fairness and the theoretical superiority of this approach to utilitarianism, intuitionism, or other perspectives, Rawls looks at the principles of justice. He identifies two principles: One, that each person should have equal rights to the most extensive liberties consistent with other people enjoying the same liberties; and two, that inequalities should be arranged so that they would be to everyone’s advantage and arranged so that no one person would be blocked from occupying any position. From these two principles Rawls derives an egalitarian conception of justice that would allow the inequality of conditions implied by equality of opportunity but would also give more attention to those born with fewer assets and into less favorable social positions.
Rawls concludes the first part of his book by looking at the idea of the original position outside society. This hypothetical original position can be approximated by using the thought experiment of the veil of ignorance. If no one could know what place he or she would occupy in the society being formed, what arrangement of the society would a rational person choose? Rawls maintains that the choice would be for a social structure that would best benefit the unknowing chooser if she or he happened to end up in the least desirable position.
In the second part of the work, Rawls considers the implications of his view of justice for social institutions. He discusses in detail equal liberty, economic distribution, and duties and obligations as well as the main characteristics of each that would make up a just society. He does not, however, identify any particular type of social or political system that would be consistent with his theory. He deals only with the demands that his version of justice places on institutions.
In the third and final section, Rawls deals with ends or ultimate goals of thinking about social justice. He argues for the need to have a theory of goodness, and he makes a case for seeing goodness as rationality. Then, he turns to moral psychology and considers how people acquire a sentiment of justice. Finally, he examines the good of justice, or how justice is connected to goodness. Rawls argues that in a well-ordered society, ideas of goodness and justice must be consistent with each other.
A Theory of Justice is widely recognized as an essential contribution to thought about the nature of justice. However, even supporters of Rawls acknowledge that his work raises many questions. One of the earliest major responses to the book came from his Harvard colleague, philosopher Robert Nozick. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick offers a libertarian response to Rawls. The assumptions behind A Theory of Justice are essentially redistributive: That is, Rawls posits equal distribution of resources as the desirable state and then argues that inequality can be justified only by benefits for the least advantaged. Nozick points out that resources are produced by people and that people have rights to the things they produce. Thus, attempts to improve the condition of the least advantaged through redistribution are unjust because they make some people work involuntarily for others and deprive people of the goods and opportunities they have created through time and effort.
Other critics have focused on the idea of the original state and the veil of ignorance used as a thought experiment to approximate the original state. The claim that rational individuals behind a veil of ignorance would choose the greatest possible equality has been challenged as arbitrary and unverifiable. Rational individuals might well choose a social structure with large rewards for the majority of people and small rewards for the minority on the grounds that one is more likely to end up as part of a majority than a minority. Moreover, the veil of ignorance of where one will be in a society also takes away all knowledge of what one will do. Legal justice is generally considered a matter of appropriate responses to actions: In the version offered by Rawls, justice is detached from anything that anyone has done and thus may have nothing to do with any idea of what people deserve.
The reluctance of Rawls to identify any particular type of society as just, especially in the second part of the book dealing with institutions, may leave Rawls open to the charge that he offers no guidance for the actual content of justice. For example, proponents of a highly unequal and competitive market economy may argue that the abundance of wealth produced by their preferred system contributes to the absolute standard of living of the poorest people in society. On the other hand, advocates of a highly redistributionist economy can maintain that radical redistribution of wealth will provide the greatest support for the poorest. Because no one can know—behind a veil of ignorance—which system would lead to the best possible lives for the poor, there can be no way of deciding what kind of society should be preferred.
The fundamental idea that justice is a matter of the basic structure of society is also open to question. To say that the basic structure of society can be made just or fair is to say that it can be designed both hypothetically and actually. Some social thinkers argue that societies are not designed per se; they are produced through history and by complex webs of interaction among individuals and institutions. From this perspective, justice is a characteristic of specific acts or processes within social systems, such as legal actions or political mechanisms, and it is misleading to extend the concept of justice to a society as a whole.
Supporters of Rawls often look to revise parts of his argument, while opponents suggest alternatives. Still, most political thinkers acknowledge that A Theory of Justice introduced a new conceptual basis for debates about the core principles of social policy and action.