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 2 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1319

The second chapter of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls discusses two principles of justice for institutions and two principles for individuals. It looks at the concept of formal justice and institutions as subjects of justice, examines the sense in which justice is egalitarian and three kinds of procedural justice, and constructs a model of how justice as fairness can be expected to operate in a well-ordered democratic society.

Within the basic structure of a society, social cooperation is regulated by the major social institutions. Principles of justice govern the assignment of rights and duties within institutions. An institution has a public system of rules with offices and positions whose duties and powers have also been clearly defined, specifying actions which are permissible and which are not. Such institutions could be parliament or the legal system conducting trials, market bodies overseeing the functions of commercial activities, or even bodies formed to examine the ethical conduct of sports. There are institutions governing every aspect of our social life. When we take part in such institutions, we know what is expected of us and of others.

In a well-ordered society, or one that is regulated by a shared sense of justice, people operate on the basis of what is considered just or unjust, and the constitutive rules of institutions like societies or associations within the society also adhere to such shared principles. It is possible for one or more rules of the institution to be unjust without the institution as a whole being unjust, just as it is possible for a whole social system to be unjust even when its individual institutions, taken separately, are not unjust. This is because they may be operating in ways that counter or contradict one another. Rawls refers to Henry Sidgwick when he emphasizes that “equality is implied in the very notion of a law or institution.” The impartial and consistent administration of laws and institutions, whatever their substantive principles, is what amounts to formal justice.    

Rawls describes two principles of justice that would be agreed upon in the original position. Broadly, the first principle ensures that each person has an equal right to basic liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly, conscience and thought, and person and dignity, as well as political freedom to vote. The second principle addresses social and economic inequalities so that the distribution of income and wealth and the design of organizations take into account the disadvantages that people may be operating under. The liberties guaranteed by the first principle are protected, and their infringement cannot be justified by perceived social and economic advantages under the second principle.

The equal distribution of all social values is extremely important, unless the unequal distribution of some leads to the benefit of all. We can understand this by considering the things that any rational person is presumed to want, what Rawls calls “primary goods.” Rights, liberties, and opportunities, as well as income and wealth, can be considered as social primary goods. Health, vigor, intelligence, and imagination can be considered natural goods because they are not under society’s direct control.

Rawls explains the second principle at some length, in three different contexts. He characterizes a system of natural liberty as a basic structure in which it is believed that satisfying the principle of efficiency and having open positions for those able and willing to strive for them will lead to a just distribution. In such a system, the initial distribution of wealth is strongly influenced by social and natural contingencies that reflect the advantages accumulated over time. The liberal interpretation of the second principle tries to correct for this by providing for an equality of opportunity. It the inequality to the extent that the school system is designed to iron out social differences. While it does not directly address the existing differences in the accumulation of wealth, it tries to create conditions where those who possess the same amount of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.

However, it is quite apparent that the effects of the natural lottery are not overcome even under such a system. In order to address entrenched differences of wealth and ability, Rawls describes the system of democratic equality, in which distributive justice is to be achieved by applying the difference principle. This principle assumes the framework of institutions required by equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity. Of the higher expectations of those who are better placed in society, it considers such expectations to be just only if they work as part of a scheme that also improves the least advantaged member of society. An obvious example of injustice would be when the expectations of any one of the classes is excessive, leading to a reduction in advantages for the other. In an entrepreneurial scenario, an employer’s higher expectations are just when they address through efficiency and innovation such improved results as lead to higher wages and better conditions for workers.

Rawls points out that there is often a connection between the expectations of people in any close-knit organization or institution. He concludes by describing the difference principle to be, in effect, that

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Distributive shares in the basic structure of society depend on a public system of rules that regulate cooperation between people, assign roles, and establish what people in such roles are entitled to receive as their share. The claims of people are thus subject to the design of social systems for a just outcome, or what Rawls refers to as pure procedural justice. To ensure procedural justice, “it is important that there is an independent criterion for what is a fair division, a criterion defined separately from and prior to the procedure which is to be followed.” It is also reinforced by devising a procedure that is sure to give the desired outcome.

Rawls notes that each person holds two relevant positions in society—that of equal citizenship and that defined by their place in the distribution of income and wealth. The difference principle strengthens a society’s tendency toward equality because it expresses a conception of reciprocity. In fact, it also provides an interpretation of the principle of fraternity, making it important for people to consider the interests of others as well as their own.


This very important second chapter concludes with a discussion of two principles that apply to individuals. The first is the principle of fairness, for individuals to show respect to others and offer aid when necessary and to uphold justice and just practices. The second includes the natural duties of not harming or injuring others and not standing with injustice.

The two principles of justice that are introduced in this chapter are the most important elements of Rawls’s theory. They are here discussed in the context of different historical and political systems such as aristocracy, natural liberty, liberal equality, and democratic equality. The chapter is also important for understanding the meaning of primary social goods and how pure procedural justice becomes distributive justice. The priority rule of equal basic liberty for all is first stated here and remains a recurring theme for the rest of the book.

Through a graphic drawing, Rawls describes the emergence of concepts of right, value, and moral worth from practical reasoning and the implications of these for social systems and individuals. This is a useful ready reckoner, particularly for understanding later descriptions of natural duty and obligation for individuals. Readers may find it helpful to see all the headings of many subsequent topics on a single page and understand their connection.

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Chapter 1 Summary


Chapter 3 Summary