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What does Rawls mean by the term “justice as fairness,” and does it provide an attractive guide to running a just state? Explain and defend your answer.

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According to Rawls in his work A Theory of Justice , the concept of "justice as fairness" describes a set of principles and structures in a society that promote fairness. He writes that a fair society would be one whose features would be ones that rational people would choose if they had the chance to do so in an "initial position of equality." Essentially, "The choice . . . rational men would make in this hypothetical situation of equal liberty" would be fair, as long as those making the decision were behind a "veil of ignorance" as to their position (economically and socially) in society. In this situation, the rational decision would be to choose structures within a society that promoted social equality. This choice, Rawls writes, "determines the principles of justice." In a fair (i.e., just) society, each person would have access to equal opportunities, and the structures of society would be arranged in such a way as to care for the least well-off people. A fair society would also be...

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"Justice as Fairness" is a term for the philosopher John Rawls' theory of justice. He originally explained "Justice as Fairness" in his book, "A Theory of Justice" in 1971. It is one of the most important theories in political philosophy.

The philosophy of Justice as Fairness is actually made up of two different principles: liberty and equality. The principle of liberty effectively argues that everyone in a society should have maximum access to basic freedoms. Some of these freedoms are more "basic," meaning essential, than others. For example, the right to personal property is one of the most basic, or important, liberties. The principle of liberty is balanced with the principle of equality. In other words, inequality that results from freedom in a state must be limited to protect the good of society. So in one simple example, the "basic" right to personal property would be limited by how much harm one person's collection of property is causing the rest of the people in a society.
So is this theory an attractive guide to running a state?
Part of the answer rests on how Rawls came up with the theory in the first place. It is important to note that to explain his theory of Justice as Fairness, Rawls sets up an elaborate thought experiment. In other words, he imagines a world in which participants are setting up their own society behind a "veil of ignorance." This means that crucially, they are deprived of information regarding their own nationality, religion, or particular interests. So, Rawls argues that the position he arrives at would be the rational choice for the common interest in a world where everyone was being truly objective.
Criticisms of Rawls' theory are widespread. First, many philosophers have criticized the "veil of ignorance" as an unhelpful device--they argue it is truly impossible for humans to detach ourselves from our own backgrounds, interests, and heritage. In other words, in theory, "Justice as Fairness" seems like a good way to run a society--but are the conditions so theoretical that they would be unachievable in real life? In a world dominated by the interests of individuals, communities, states, and nations, is objectivity possible?
Some other people criticize the theory based on the idea that it unfairly limits individual liberties in favor of the broader society. For example, some argue that in this model of a state, those that worked harder for their personal property may be limited or "punished" to provide for the poor.
Defenders of the theory argue that it is the most rational explanation for how freedom and liberty can be balanced with the "greater good." The theory seems to offer protection of both individual rights, and communal rights.
Further reading:
More issues with Rawls' theory are nicely summarized here: