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 5 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490

This chapter is about the arrangement of institutions that fulfill the requirements of justice in a modern state. Here, Rawls attempts to place his two principles in a doctrine of political economy. He also looks at perfectionism and intuitionism as theories of distributive justice in relation to justice as fairness.

Any doctrine of political economy must include a conception of justice and how it interprets the public good. This helps to guide citizens when they are to consider questions of economic and social policy. Thus, citizens develop a perspective of the constitutional convention and ascertain how the principles of justice apply. A political perspective also looks into some criterion for the just division of social advantages.

A social system not only shapes the lives of people as they are, but also the kind of people they want to become. This is why an economic system is significant not only in terms of how it answers present wants, but also in the kind of aspirations that people have for the future. Political economy must investigate the problem of how social and economic forces are influencing the lives of people in the present and their implications for the future. Existing desires and present social conditions do not have to define the shape of justice as fairness. The original position enables a conception of a just basic structure that can serve as a standard for appraising institutions and guiding the overall direction of social change. It resembles idealism in the way it conceives of an ideal person who will be compatible with the principles of justice and in the way it places a value on community.

Rawls makes some observations on economic systems. To help evaluate the justice of economic institutions, he looks at socialist and private-property economies in terms of the ownership of the means of production and the proportion of total social resources devoted to public good. He concludes, after an analysis of the functioning of markets, free choice of employment and enterprise, and the regulative function of prices, that it is not possible to have a definite answer to whether socialism or a free-market economy is more suited to the requirements of justice. 

Distributive justice is dependent on how procedural justice in a social system has been designed to address the contingencies that arise. In a properly organized democratic state, the background institutions provide the support that ensures that the outcome of distributive processes will be just. For this, it is important that a just constitution, liberty of conscience, freedom of thought, and equality of opportunity are guaranteed. Under this, there have to be four branches of background institutions. Each branch is to preserve certain social and economic conditions. The allocation branch keeps the price system competitive and prevents the formation of unreasonable market power. The stabilization branch strives to maintain reasonably full employment. The transfer branch takes needs into account and assigns them an appropriate weight against other competitive claims. The distributive branch preserves an approximate justice in distributive shares by means of taxation and the necessary adjustments in the rights of property.

In considering the problem of justice between generations, Rawls acknowledges it as a severe test for any ethical theory. Does the social system as framed by a competitive economy supported by background institutions meet the requirements of the two principles of justice in Rawls’s theory? The difference principle requires that a very high social minimum should be set. This means that not only must the long-term demands of the least favored be considered over future generations, but the gains of culture and civilization must be preserved,...

(This entire section contains 1490 words.)

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and so must those just institutions that have been established. At any period of time, people must also pay attention to an investment in the future that takes the form of real capital accumulation. This may take any form, such as investment in machinery and other means of production to investment in learning and education. An appropriate savings principle is therefore an important part of the original position.

On the question of time preference, Rawls explains it again in the context of the original position:

There is no reason for the parties to give any weight to mere position in time. They have to choose a rate of saving for each level of civilization. If they make a distinction between earlier and more remote periods because, say, future states of affairs seem less important now, the present state of affairs will seem less important in the future.

Rawls then reiterates the first and second principles of justice. The first underlines equal basic liberties for each person. The second states that social and economic equalities must be arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and remain consistent with the savings principle. It also states that all persons must be able to have equal opportunity to apply for and occupy offices and positions. Liberty has priority under these principles, with a basic liberty only being limited by liberty when the curtailing of liberty is leading to a greater liberty for all or when the less-than-equal liberty is acceptable to those who are being thus curtailed.

For the second principle, Rawls underlines the priority of justice over efficiency and welfare by stating that any inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with lesser opportunity. He also states that an excessive rate of savings must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.

Next, Rawls looks at the precepts of justice as they apply to benefits from essential public goods and their fair distribution. In thinking about just income and wages, Rawls puts forth the utilitarianist view of John Stuart Mill, who said that common sense precepts like “to each according to his effort and to each according to his contribution” do not reflect a determinate theory of just wages. He considers this a correct estimation. Instead of common-sense precepts, a suitably regulated competitive economy with the appropriate background institutions is how the two principles of justice can be realized.

There is also a common-sense tendency to consider that the good things in life should be distributed according to moral worth or that justice is equal to happiness according to virtue, but justice as fairness rejects such a conception. This is because as participants in a just society, people acquire claims on one another defined by the publicly recognized rules. They engage in actions encouraged by the existing arrangements and have certain rights, and the just distributive shares honor these claims. For a scheme to be just, it must not only answer to what people are entitled to; it must satisfy their legitimate expectations as founded upon social institutions. Here, their entitlement is not proportional to nor dependent upon their intrinsic worth. The principles of justice as fairness do not mention moral worth or virtue, and there is no need for distributive shares to correspond to it.

Rawls speaks of the difficulty of comparing the two principles of justice to mixed conceptions of justice due to the difficulty of how different political views balance the competing ends of different sections and groups. The two principles also differ from perfectionism through the prism of equal liberty. The intrinsic worth of all is not taken as uniform, nor is persons’ being of equal value necessary for equal liberty. However, it should be noted that their being of equal value is not sufficient, either. What is important is merely that everyone should have the greatest equal liberty consistent with a similar liberty for others. This is effectively the only understanding that the persons in the original position can reach, without reference to the intrinsic worth or merits of individuals.


After having emphasized the priority and importance of liberty from his first principle of justice in the preceding chapters, Rawls concentrates on the second principle in this chapter. Arranging social and economic conditions to favor the least advantaged is the recommendation of the second principle. Rawls therefore examines how economic inequality stands in the way of justice. The chapter has extensive discussions on the role of markets and pricing and the laws of taxation on income and property. Rawls puts forward the second principle in terms of political economy and indicates that its application to the basic structure of society is more conducive to social stability.

However, it is in the ownership of the means of production, and in the hereditary wealth of individuals and communities, that most countries develop strife and division that tests the social fabric. Besides, in a globalized world, protectionist policies in one country may lead to newer forms of exploitation and deprivation in another. Rawls tries to show how his principle holds good even in a society where the mixed conception of justice is prevalent. However, what is apparent is that the basic institutions he speaks about as a necessity for arranging distributive shares in a just sense may work vastly differently in different societies.


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