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A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice Summary

A Theory of Justice is a book of philosophy in which author John Rawls argues that the concepts of freedom and equality are not mutually exclusive.

  • In part 1, Rawls asserts that the only logical system for upholding justice is one that treats people equally, regardless of gender, class, or race.

  • In part 2, Rawls discusses how his theory of justice would affect modern institutions. Though he does not make specific accusations, he makes it clear that no existing system lives up to his standards.

  • In part 3, Rawls describes the positive effects that an equitable justice system can have on society.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

A Theory of Justice was written in the 1960s by the highly regarded American political philosopher John Rawls. It was first published in 1971 and is one of three important books that established Rawls as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century in the liberal tradition. The book provides a single philosophical theory that takes into account the questions of social justice and individual rights. It puts forward the philosophical conception of “justice as fairness.” Rawls expresses the hope that the central ideas and aims of this philosophical conception for a constitutional democracy will seem reasonable and useful to a wide range of thoughtful political opinions. He also hopes that the book expresses an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition.

Two editions of the book have been studied—the original edition of 1971 and a revised edition that appeared in 1993, in which the author made what he called “significant improvements.” However, the central doctrines of the book, particularly the conception of justice, remain the same in both versions.

John Rawls wrote the book to bring together in one place the ideas he had expressed in academic papers through the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is therefore a long book with chapters of fifty pages or more, but it has been organized to facilitate an easier access to both its central themes and the divergent topics that spring from them.

The book is divided into three parts of three chapters each. These long chapters have also been divided into eighty-seven consecutively numbered subsections. Part 1 is titled “Theory” and lays out the main arguments of the book, particularly the “justice as fairness doctrine.” It also describes a hypothetical “original position” from which people have to decide the economic and political structures of the society they will inhabit and two principles of justice that emerge from this original position, which include a liberty principle and a difference principle. The first is meant to safeguard the basic liberties of all citizens, including the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and the right to own private property. The second makes allowance for those with lesser advantages so that they may have an equality of opportunity. Together, the principles seem to address the conflict that has presented itself in liberal democracies throughout the twentieth century between individual rights and the provisions of the welfare state. However, Rawls takes care to point out that he is not for one or the other and does not intend to be hailed as a champion of either conservatives or leftists.

Part 2 of A Theory of Justice is titled “Institutions.” The three chapters in this part focus on how justice as fairness is to be realized as distributive justice that ensures the well-being of all, not just a few privileged citizens.

Rawls begins by describing how a society must agree to a principle of just savings in order to arrive at how much needs to be saved for future generations. With this, the members of this society are actually ascribing equal importance to the needs of the generations that will succeed them as they are to the needs of their own generation. He then describes a four-stage sequence that all parties agree to go through in order to build the institutions that are required for justice in real terms. This sequence is to be the roadmap for free citizens of modern democracies to realize their objectives of social distributive justice.

The first stage is considering what is necessary as a framework for making good laws and social policies. Citizens must decide this knowing that their opinions will not always coincide with those of others. The second stage is actually drawing up a constitution. During this stage, citizens decide which constitutional arrangements are just for reconciling their conflicting opinions of justice. They also have to design a political process to make social decisions that will take into account the views of representatives and their constituents. The third stage will require citizens to pay attention to how such a constitution is being used to address people’s needs.

The fourth stage requires citizens to be concerned with not only laws or policies, but the ongoing processes with which they are executed on the ground. Rawls indicates what this means:

The citizen accepts a certain constitution as just, and he thinks that certain traditional procedures are appropriate, for example, the procedure of majority rule duly circumscribed. Yet since the political process is at best one of imperfect procedural justice, he must ascertain when the enactments of the majority are to be complied with and when they can be rejected as no longer binding. In short, he must be able to determine the grounds and limits of political duty and obligation.

In effect, Rawls describes arriving at a consensus to draft a constitution, appropriate legislation to give effect to its aims, and the judicial and administrative processes that will ensure delivery of justice. He then goes on to look at political economy through a philosophical lens, examining the doctrines of perfectionism and utilitarianism and their Kantian interpretation. This is how he arrives at definitions of the institutions necessary to dispense distributive justice, laws that regulate inheritance and property rights, and systems of taxation.

Duty and obligation are discussed next, as Rawls moves on to apply his theory to individuals in a just and well-ordered society. He considers it the natural duty of a citizen to support and further just institutions. He describes the premise on which such institutions have been founded—the two principles of justice that Rawls has outlined at the very beginning of his theory of “justice as fairness.”

Rawls also looks at the nature of duty and obligation when faced with an unjust law and proceeds to discuss civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. He defines civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.” This involves an appeal to the sense of justice in the majority. Conscientious refusal, on the other hand, can simply mean “noncompliance with a more or less direct legal injunction or administrative order.” It is not a public act involving an appeal to the majority. It is also an act that may not be based on political principles, but on religious or personal principles that differ from the constitutional order.

Part 3 of A Theory of Justice is called “Ends.” It is about moral psychology, how the values of justice are to be acquired and maintained for a stable society. The three chapters in this section seek to show that justice and goodness are congruent and that the congruence of the values of society and the good of justice leads to stability in a well-ordered society. This occurs because the goodness of “justice as fairness” is accepted by citizens in what Rawls calls “goodness as rationality,” to the extent that they are willing to make necessary changes and adjustments to their own life plans in the overarching cause of social justice.

This concluding part of the book examines more closely the concept of a well-ordered society. The problems that may arise in such a society due to envy are also discussed, and how these are to be addressed by the application of the difference principle from Rawls’s theory is explained. Finally, Rawls seeks to show that his theory enables people to achieve a unity of self, in which they are able to express their nature as free and rational beings in the cause of justice.

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Chapter Summaries