What are the ethical foundations of John Rawls' theory?
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that a society ought to be based on the ultimate ethical foundation, that of justice. A just society is one in which:
...no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.
Essentially, then, Rawls is interested in fairness as a principle of social justice. But he also is concerned with the limits that a society must place on some people in order to achieve generally-agreed upon condititions of justice in a society. So he attempts to propose a theoretical concept of society based on a rational choice. In...
(The entire section contains 367 words.)
check Approved by eNotes Editorial
Jonh Rawls believes that a particular social arrangement is just and therefore moral if people are able to follow their particular conceptions of the good life through resources distributed according to a system that those people would have agreed to in a just process. A lot to unpack there, let me explain.
John Rawls is a proceduralist, which means that for him the justice of a political arrangement depends, at least in part on the justice of the process that creates those arrangements. An example of a just process is the one proposed by Rawls in his famous Theory of Justice.
In this system, expounded in the first chapter of the book, the people who will form a given society are placed behind a "veil of ignorance," in which they are ignorant their eventual economic, political, and social status in the community. In his own words, "...no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."
In Chapter 47, Rawls suggests that people in this thought experiment may pick a government-centered on two principles: first that each person will be as free as he/she can be, and will be as free as everyone else, and second that inequalities are only justified if they benefit the least well off.
It is important to note a couple of things. First that the system described above is only one of many potentially fair procedures to achieve a fair arrangement in society, according to Rawls. Secondly, the particular results that Rawls predicts are based on a particular view of human nature, one that assumes that humans are risking adverse, and generally virtuous. This last point provides a transition to further refine Rawls ethics.
Rawls, unlike contractualists like Hobbes and Gauthier, does not believe that justice is created merely because the people under the social contract agree to it. Rather, he is committed to broad moral principles, such as equality, and a particular view of human nature, that restricts the kind of processes that are fair. As explained in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, if there are no constraints at all over the initial situation then the outcome agreed to may fail to be a moral outcome, and may instead be an outcome according to the principle, as Rawls puts it, “to each according to his threat advantage”
If any of these is unclear I suggest visiting the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has great resources not only on Rawls but on pretty much every philosophical topic out there. If you have time, I would also suggest going over Samuel Freeman's "Rawls," the most authoritative interpretation of the author to date, written by his former student.