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A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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What did John Rawls consider a well-ordered society?

A well-ordered society is one which maximizes the well-being of all its citizens. This can be taken to mean that a good society is just, fair, and good for all individuals. Rawls uses a thought experiment called the original position to test whether or not his proposed justice principles would be chosen by individuals if they were unaware of their own life circumstances. He shows that this would be the case by having them choose from behind a veil of ignorance (they do not know their social status, gender, etc.). Reference: Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice . Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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John Rawls's seminal work, A Theory Justice (1971), returned political philosophy to many of its founding questions about the nature of freedom, justice, and fairness found in Plato and Aristotle. Rawls here attempts to answer the question: what makes for a just society? This is a question that ultimately comes down to the distribution of both political rights and economic goods.

A well-ordered society for Rawls is one in which all citizens are treated equally under the law and which promotes individual liberty to the extent that it does not infringe on the well-being of others. Rawls carefully navigates a debate still prevalent in political discourse today, that between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. Rawls doesn't fall on one side of this debate, he attempts to seek a compromise. Rawls thinks that a well-ordered society should guarantee equality of opportunity but also thinks it should be governed according to what he calls "The Difference Principle." The Difference Principle puts a check on capitalist institutions by sanctioning economic activity that doesn't benefit the poorest members of society.

To summarize, a well-ordered (and just) society is governed by two principles:

1) The Greatest Equal Liberty Principle: "First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others." (Rawls 1999, p. 266)

2) The Difference Principle: "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." (Rawls 1999, p. 266)

You may be asking, how is this just society established? To answer this question Rawls employs insights from social contract theory. Rawls asks us to consider what principles society would be governed by if the citizens choosing those principles were unaware of their race, gender, economic background, and the other unique life experiences that often enter political deliberation. This encompasses what Rawls refers to as "the original position." Under this veil of ignorance, Rawls argues that citizens will agree upon principles of justice that seek to promote the enhancement of each and every member of the political community. Immanuel Kant's influence is acutely felt here. According to Kant, only that which is "universalizable" can be considered ethical.

Students interested in Rawls's work should also look at the works of political philosophy this book inspired such as Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and MacIntyre's After Virtue.


Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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In his classic work of political philosophy A Theory of Justice, John Rawls elaborates his architecture for a just and well-ordered society, which combines elements of Locke's contract theory, Mill's utilitarianism, and the ethical concepts of Kant. Two founding principles serves as its cornerstones, the "Greatest Equal Liberty Principle" and the "Difference Principle."

The former principle states that each person is entitled to an equal right to the most extensive total system of basic liberties and that this system must apply to all. The latter principle states that social and economic inequalities must require that the greatest benefits are allotted to the most disadvantaged and that all offices and opportunties must be open under conditions of fair equality.

Rawls believes that these principles can naturally be derived from two hypothetical constructs. The first, called the "original position," is that of citizens selecting the principles of a just society. They must make these selections behind the second construct, the "veil of ignorance," which prevents the citizens from having any knowledge of their gender, race, or religion or any awareness of advantages they may possess such as wealth, intelligence, and talent.

Such a blind selection process, Rawls theorizes, would guarantee that citizens would naturally choose the best outcomes for those who would be most disadvantaged by the allotment of natural gifts, since this could ultimately be their position.

In sum, Rawls's A Theory of Justice states that the most well-ordered society is that which provides equal rights to all citizens, the opportunity for equal access to all positions, and the most favorable outcomes accorded to the most disadvantaged.

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Rawls considered a well-ordered society to be one in which each individual had an equal opportunity to live a good life, and to have basic liberties, irrespective of the conditions of their birth. All social institutions must be structured in such a way as to ensure that everyone has equal access to them, though Rawls did believe that individuals should be able to excel (and profit materially from their success). In short, Rawls believed that a society founded on justice would be set up to be fair. Laws would be transparent, equitable, and aimed toward promoting justice. Government structures would be equally accessible to all people. While Rawls eschewed engaging in the specifics of how this society would actually be implemented or governed, the gist of his theory of society (as laid out in his landmark work A Theory of Justice) was that society should be ordered in a way that promoted equality and best cared for the least fortunate segments of the society.

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