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 3 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1324

This chapter explains the philosophical interpretation of the initial situation that Rawls characterizes as the original position. He looks at the traditional arguments for conceptions of justice and how people choose between them. In doing so, he also clarifies further the “veil of ignorance” that he has previously explained as a necessity for making an impartial choice of justice as fairness that will apply to all. The rationality of the contracting parties, and the differences between the conception of justice in classical utilitarianism and Rawls’ theory are also elaborated.

When a choice is to be made about principles of justice that apply to all, two things are clear: no person can receive exactly what they want from the process, and some disagreement is inevitable between persons on priorities and prescriptions. Rawls addresses this by a method familiar in social theory—presenting a simplified situation in which rational individuals connected to each other in some way, and with some knowledge about a particular situation, choose between different alternative courses of action. Following in this tradition, Rawls’s “original position” is a purely hypothetical situation, unlikely to ever take place in reality, and simulates the behavior of parties operating under similar constraints. Rawls writes, “The conception of the original position is not intended to explain human conduct except insofar as it tries to account for our moral judgments and helps to explain our having a sense of justice.”

In continuing to discuss how parties may choose a conception of justice, Rawls lists the alternative conceptions of justice, some of whom have been discussed by other writers. He begins by putting down the two principles of justice he has put forward in his theory: the principle of greatest equal liberty and the principle of fair equality of opportunity, which incorporates the difference principle. Next, he lists the mixed conceptions of justice that have been developed in utilitarian theory with respect to distributive justice. Thus, the principle of average utility is listed subject to separate constraints of a social minimum or of overall distribution not being spread too wide.

Teleological principles of justice include the classical principle of utility, the average principle of utility, and the principle of perfection. Intuitionistic principles of justice balance total utility against actual distribution and average utility against the principle of redress. Lastly, he lists the egoistic conceptions of justice: everyone is to act to advance my interests, everyone is to act justly except for me, or everyone is to act exactly as they please. The last three are examples of dictatorship or dystopia, not the model of well-ordered society that Rawls puts forward; therefore, he states clearly that they are not real alternatives.

The circumstances of justice are those under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary. Rawls puts such conditions into two categories. Objective conditions are those in which people share a geographical territory and are similarly placed, with similar knowledge about their circumstances. Subjective conditions cover the needs, interests, and plans of people working together. The different plans of life of individuals, reflecting as they do a diversity of philosophical and religious beliefs, and of political and social doctrines, are called the circumstances of justice by Rawls, and he credits this account of them to the eighteenth-century empiricist David Hume.

Next Rawls considers the constraints on people in the original position in choosing the concept of right. These constraints refer to the alternatives open for them and their knowledge of their circumstances. For people to choose from among available alternatives based on the reasonableness of the theory they are based on, Rawls lists some criteria: Principles should...

(This entire section contains 1324 words.)

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be general and universal. They should be publicly known. There should be an order imposed on conflicting claims, and the parties should consider the system of principles as the final court of appeal in practical reasoning.

The veil of ignorance is an important element of Rawls’s hypothetical original position. The veil is set up in order to “nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage.” Under such a veil, it is assumed, people are ignorant of some specific circumstances that could have a bearing on their decision. As to the mutually disinterested rationality assumed for the parties in the original position, it is shown when parties try to acknowledge principles which attempt to win for themselves the highest index of primary social goods. However, this is not done by conferring benefits or imposing injuries on one another. This rationality is not moved by affection or rancor, envy or vanity.

Rawls compares the two principles of justice with the principle of average utility by explaining the reasoning behind their choice. Parties start in the original position requiring equal basic liberties for all, as well as fair equality of opportunity and equal division of income and wealth. Because such an equal division of social primary goods is the starting point, the parties arrive at the difference principle, where those who have gained more must do so on terms that are justifiable to those who have gained the least.

When he continues the comparison, Rawls brings up the famous example of the slaveholder attempting to justify his position to his slaves by claiming that, given the circumstances of their society, the institution of slavery is necessary to produce the greatest average happiness. Such a justification may pass muster in the contractual approach of average utility, but in justice as fairness, it will be refuted by the argument that the principle invoked by the slaveholder would be rejected in the original position.

In the final subsections of this chapter, Rawls lays out publicity and finality among the main grounds for the two principles of justice. Publicity is important inasmuch as it develops in people a desire to act in accordance with the principle of justice when these have been publicly known for an extended period of time and institutions exist which exemplify them. Finality can be understood through the strains of commitment. Choices made from the original position have utmost gravity because “A person is choosing once and for all the standards which are to govern his life prospects.” People will therefore take care not to make choices that they could find impossible to honor or choices that will result in consequences that they could not accept.

Rawls looks at the role of the impartial sympathetic spectator in classical utilitarianism, a person who assumes a position where their own interests are not at stake and they possess all the requisite information and powers of reasoning. They are equally sympathetic to the desires and satisfactions of everyone affected by the social system. This definition does not seem as rational or satisfactory to Rawls as the mutual disinterestedness that characterizes persons in the original position in justice as fairness. The sympathetic spectator depends on perfect knowledge and sympathetic identification for a correct estimate of the net sum of satisfaction, but persons in the original position can operate from fellow feeling, even when they lack knowledge of their natural assets or social situation.


This chapter deepens the comparison between utilitarianism and Rawls’s theory of justice through a look at the principle of average utility against the approach of justice as fairness. It answers questions about the rationality of the parties who make choices about social arrangements. A rational life plan is considered important in viewing this rationality and the choices people make toward the ends they choose to fulfill their aims.

The rational, impartial, and sympathetic spectator in classical utilitarianism is discussed against the mutually disinterested rationality of justice as fairness. This disinterested rationality of the original position appears more logical and less subjective in reaching a fair decision affecting the common good. This chapter focuses more on philosophical concepts like altruism, benevolence, and impartiality, as well as comparisons of traditional and mixed conceptions of justice with Rawls’s theory.


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