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A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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What are Rawls's two principles of justice?

Rawls's two principles of justice in A Theory of Justice are the "greatest equal liberty principle," which states that individual liberty should be maximized as far as is consistent with everyone enjoying the same liberties, and a principle which provides for inequalities to be arranged to benefit the disadvantaged and to allow equality of opportunity.

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John Rawls spends much of his time in A Theory of Justice laying out the background for two principles which are finally stated in chapter 46. The first of these is generally called "the greatest equal liberty principle." Rawls's own formulation of this is as follows:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

This clearly includes, for instance, the right to vote and the right to own property. Other liberties are more conditional. Freedom of speech, for instance, can be exercised as long as it does not prevent anyone else from exercising similar freedom of speech (for instance, by coercing them or inciting violence against them).

The second of Rawls's principles comes in two parts, expressed by him in the following formula:

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

The first part of this principle is a justification of affirmative action. The "just savings principle," however, provides that future generations must not be unfairly affected by this. Therefore, Rawls would favor a policy which operates to the advantage of marginalized people, but with the caveat that this policy cannot operate in perpetuity if the group in question ceases to be marginalized. The second part of the principle, which provides for equality of opportunity, may, in certain circumstances, conflict with the first part.

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