Explain John Rawls' theory of justice.

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lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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A really important aspect of Rawl's theory of justice is that decisions on the distribution of resources should be from the perspective of "not knowing" what your own position in life is. In other words, if you are making decisions based upon your own needs and what you anticipate your own needs will be, that is not a just decision.  There is a kind of "You never know" element to Rawlsian justice.  You might be in need down the road yourself. If you decide to deprive others because you do not have a particular need, you are not operating in a just way for all of society.  It is more just to say that in spite of your not needing help, for example, healthcare, you can see that there could come a time in anyone's life that he or she would, so your decision should reflect that.  If your choices are all about you and your needs, first, this is unjust to everyone, and second, you may find yourself at the mercy of others someday, others who are making decisions based on their own needs, in which case you will be complaining of the injustice.  To me, this is the most compelling aspect of Rawl's theory. 

samson98's profile pic

samson98 | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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To put it simply, philosopher John Rawls defined justice as "fairness." By this, he meant that the basic structures of society should be ordered in such a way that they promote maximum both egalitarian freedom and equality. In doing so, he attempts to transcend the traditional dichotomy between socialists, who restrict freedoms to promote equality, and conservatives, who promote freedoms but allow the proliferation of inequality.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rawls' concept of fairness as justice exhibits two main principles.

First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: 

  1. They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
  2. They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.

In other words, Rawls acknowledges economic and other forms of inequality will exist in an egalitarian society, but he argues that society should be so structured as to provide equality of both liberties and opportunity. Consequently, he viewed a society as just to the extent it provided a fair playing field for its citizens.

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