Illustration of a woman with outstretched arms that are holding the scales of justice

A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1340

The first chapter of A Theory of Justice presents Rawls’s central idea of “justice as fairness.” This is a theory of justice that takes the idea of the social contract to a higher level of abstraction. Rawls hypothesizes an “original position” from which a society can arrive at an agreement about principles of justice. He makes an attempt to distinguish his theory from utilitarianism and intuitionism, the two doctrines he describes as having “long dominated our philosophical tradition.”

Having declared at the outset that “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought,” Rawls shows that justice is to be understood in terms of how it is dispensed between the various individuals and groups in society. Justice can only be considered to have met its objectives when it treats all as equal citizens and does not violate the rights of any from social or political calculations. He acknowledges that society is a cooperative venture where there can be conflicts of interest as people seek a larger share of benefits or advantages. There is a need for a set of principles to determine the division of advantages, and Rawls calls these the principles of social justice.

A society designed to advance the good of its members cannot be considered well-ordered unless everyone is in some agreement about the principles of justice and all basic social institutions are seen to satisfy these principles. Rawls accepts that most societies would find it hard to fit into such a definition. As he goes on to examine the subject of justice, Rawls clarifies that he will not be speaking generally of how justice applies in social institutions and practices. Instead, he is trying to formulate a reasonable construction of justice for the basic structure of a society, isolated from other such societies. Pursuant to this, he is willing to look at how the principles of justice regulate a well-ordered society. This means that the principles of justice assign rights and duties and define the appropriate division of social advantages. Rawls asserts that this is close to an Aristotelian interpretation of social justice.

Taking the familiar idea of the social contract as articulated by Locke, Kant, and Rousseau, Rawls says that “justice as fairness” should be seen as principles of justice that free and rational persons would accept for regulating all further agreements, from a position of equality. This brings him to the “original position,” which corresponds to the state of nature in traditional social contract theory. For this original position to serve as a position of equality from which people make choices, they have to operate from behind what Rawls calls the “veil of ignorance.” This means that people must not have any idea of the social class or position they will occupy in society, their fortune in the distribution of natural wealth and assets, or their own strengths or exceptional abilities when they make choices that apply to all. From such an original position, they will be able to choose a constitution and a legislature to execute its aims.

In addition, as free and rational beings, they will seek to implement the idea of reciprocity that is ingrained in the well-ordered society by furthering two principles of justice. The first principle is concerned with liberty and the assignment of basic rights and duties for all. The second addresses inequalities of wealth and authority by providing compensating benefits for everyone and particularly for those who are most disadvantaged.

Recognizing that the original position needs to be better understood in order to evaluate the choices made for justice as fairness,...

(This entire section contains 1340 words.)

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Rawls says that “it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles.” Thus, the original position is meant to reflect those limitations that ensure that people are not tailoring a choice for their own personal circumstances or advantage.

Next, Rawls compares justice as fairness with intuitionism, perfectionism, and utilitarianism in order to show the points of difference that distinguish his conception. He draws on the classical utilitarianism of Henry Sidgwick’s Moral Ethics as the clearest articulation of utilitarian thought and sums it up as follows:

The main idea is that society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it.

Seen through the lens of ethics in which the good is defined independently of the right, and the right is then defined as that which maximizes the good, utilitarianism considers right such acts and institutions that produce the most good. Rawls’s main difference with utilitarian principles lies in how he perceives this maximum good. He points out that it does not matter how this sum of satisfactions is distributed among individuals, nor how individuals distribute their satisfaction over time. However, society must allocate its means of satisfaction, and a more equal distribution is to be preferred; the risk of considering the greater good of some to compensate for the lesser loss of others is a very real one. Utilitarianism addresses this risk by creating the individual as a single, rational spectator who is the test of how the principles of justice apply to them and will thus represent what these principles mean for the rest of society.

Other points of difference between utilitarianism and justice as fairness are the priority given to principles of justice by the latter as a consequence of the original position, whereas utilitarianism considers common-sense precepts of justice to have only a subordinate validity as secondary rules. While utilitarianism extends to society the choice of principles of justice for a single individual, justice as fairness considers these principles binding on all members of society due to being part of the original agreement. The last point of contrast is that utilitarianism is a teleological theory, and justice as fairness is not.

Rawls contrasts intuitionism with justice as fairness through the priority problem, or the problem of assigning weights to competing principles of justice. This is especially important in the context of justice for social ends like taxation or determining fair wages. Intuitionism gives a prominent place to our intuitive capacities “unguided by constructive and recognizably ethical criteria.” In justice as fairness, however, the role of intuition is limited, because how principles of justice have to be balanced has been considered in advance, from the original position.

In the final subsection of the first chapter, Rawls speaks of moral theory. He clarifies that a considered judgment is to be understood as those judgments in which our moral capacities are most likely to be displayed without distortion. “Reflective equilibrium” is another important term, which he explains as a state “reached after a person has weighed various proposed conceptions and he has either revised his judgments to accord with one of them or held fast to his initial convictions (and the corresponding conception).”


This first chapter is important in establishing many of the definitive terms that dominate the text in the rest of the book. It also lays the foundation for Rawls’s conception of justice to be compared with utilitarianism and intuitionism in several important ways. These ideas are elaborated upon in later sections as well. The hypothetical “original position” and “veil of ignorance” that Rawls introduces as vital means of ensuring fairness provide a philosophical foundation to the guiding principles of modern, inclusive liberal thinking.

It is apparent from the first line of the book that building just institutions is vital for the stability of a society. The chapter makes it clear that creating a well-ordered society, where systems of social cooperation are stable, requires that we pay particular attention to what constitutes the public good and how we arrange the distribution of the benefits and burdens of this social cooperation. This requires that there is a general acceptance among the people of what is just and that institutions are aligned with such a conception of justice.


Chapter 2 Summary