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 6 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1436

This chapter explores the role of the principles of natural duty and obligation for individuals, with reference to the stability of social cooperation. Rawls looks at the implications of his theory for the political duty and obligation of citizens in a constitutional framework. The chapter ends by considering civil disobedience in response to some forms of majority rule and conscientious refusal as another form of noncompliance by citizens.

Rawls begins by presenting the arguments for the principles of natural duty. He states that the most important natural duty is to support and further just institutions from the standpoint of his theory of justice. This means complying with, and doing one’s share in, just institutions when they exist and apply. Secondly, it also means assisting in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done with little cost to oneself.

If the basic structure of a society is just, everyone has a natural duty to do what is required of them. In this respect, the choice of principles for individuals is much simpler because principles have already been adopted for institutions. Citizens having a sense of justice in a well-ordered society is a great social asset. This is what brings stability to just social arrangements. If individuals seek to do their duties from a utilitarianist perspective of seeking their own greatest satisfaction, on condition of having accepted certain benefits, or after having made certain promises, this would affect the stability of a just social system.

Among the natural duties, Rawls lists the duty of mutual respect. This consists of showing a person the respect that is due to them as a moral being, or a being who has a sense of justice and a conception of the good. Another natural duty is the duty of mutual aid. The primary value of such a duty is the sense of confidence and trust one builds in other people’s good intentions and the feeling that they are there if one needs them.

Natural duties may arise out of different principles, but obligations all follow from the principle of fairness. Under this principle, people are under an obligation to do their part according to the rules of an institution when they have taken advantage of the opportunities it offers to advance their interests. This is applicable when the institution itself is just or fair, satisfying the two principles of justice. Whatever circumstances may have led people to consent to the rules of an institution, if it is clearly unjust, it does not give rise to an obligation on their part. Similarly, unjust social arrangements do not produce a binding obligation.

The social practice of promising brings up the question of obligation, as a person has made a promise and is bound by a public system of rules. In the case of a promise, what is important in enforcing it is the conditions that have been met at the time of its making. A promise made when one is not fully conscious or not in a rational frame of mind is not valid. Also, the conditions that excuse the non-performance of the promise must be clearly laid out. A bona fide promise would therefore be one that meets the rules of promising and where the practice it represents is just. Promises help to stabilize patterns of transactions and small-scale schemes of cooperation in society.

On the question of political duty and obligation, it is not the existence of institutions alone that produces a moral obligation. The principle of fairness is a premise for a fiduciary obligation to arise, citizens’ legal duties and obligations are defined by the law, and the rule of promising derives from the principle of fairness. The principle of fidelity may seem to be the same thing, but while promising is defined by the existing constitutive conventions, fidelity is based on the first principle of justice guaranteeing one’s liberties. Thus, fidelity is connected to choices made from the original position.

Is there a duty to comply with an unjust law? Injustice can arise when current arrangements have departed in some degree from publicly accepted standards that were more just. Another possibility is that these arrangements conform to a society’s conception of justice as seen from the point of view of the dominant class, but this conception itself may be unreasonable and, in many cases, clearly unjust. When an appeal is made to society’s sense of justice to draw attention to an unjust law, it is an example of civil disobedience. When a single unreasonable law is sought to be changed, it can be done without calling into question the conception of justice in the social arrangements as a whole, if these are more or less just.

Rawls takes up the status of majority rule by debunking the oft-repeated view that what the majority wills is right. He points out that none of the traditional conceptions of justice have this view. Majority rule must be evaluated in terms of how it is defined, whether constitutional constraints are effective, and whether reasonable devices exist for strengthening the overall balance of justice. Often, it is these criteria that are used by a minority to raise questions around laws and policies. When a person is voting in a legislative procedure for enacting a law, justice as fairness presents an ideal procedure. This means that the decision reached through the procedure is not a compromise or a bargain struck between opposing parties trying to advance their ends. For this, it is important that the legislative discussion is conducted not as a contest between interests, but as an attempt to find the best policy as defined by the principles of justice. Rawls supposes that an impartial legislator’s only desire is to make the correct decision in this regard, given the general facts known to him, and that he votes solely according to his judgment. The outcome of such a vote will be most in line with the conception of justice.

In the concluding subsections of this chapter, Rawls defines civil disobedience and conscientious refusal and provides the grounds of justification for each. Civil disobedience is a public, nonviolent, political act usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government. It may therefore involve breaking rules or laws, such as those of assembly. Because civil disobedience is a public act, it is distinct from other forms of protest, most notably conscientious refusal, which is defined as “noncompliance with a more or less direct legal injunction or administrative order.” Conscientious refusal may therefore be individual, not linked to a larger group or mass organization. Pacifism, or opposition to war, may result in a conscientious refusal to submit to a draft, for instance.

Instances of clear and substantial injustice justify civil disobedience. Rawls points out that there is a role for civil disobedience in a constitutional democracy. It is a means to bring to the attention of the majority that social and economic imbalance and injustice needs to be addressed for the greater stability of the constitution and just social arrangements. He writes,

By engaging in civil disobedience, one intends, then, to address the sense of justice of the majority and to serve fair notice that in one’s sincere and considered opinion the conditions of free cooperation are being violated.


This chapter contains the duties citizens must fulfill if they are to live in safe, secure, and inclusive democracies. By highlighting the natural duties of mutual aid and mutual respect, Rawls brings us closer to the idea of community. If we consider mutual aid as our natural duty, we may never be called upon to assist another, or even receive help, but the fact that this is accepted as a natural duty by all our fellow citizens contributes to our well-being. Natural duties are not conditional on receiving benefits. The only incentive we have for fulfilling them is a more secure and stable society for all.

Even the most stable society with just institutions and high standards of fairness will have periods of unrest when social arrangements or laws are challenged by affected minorities. The exceptions of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal to the obligations of ordinary citizens that Rawls presents help to keep dissent within the contours of what can be addressed and accommodated by changes in policy. More than other chapters that focus on the abstractions of justice as fairness and look at traditional theoretical concepts, this chapter is a pragmatic account of how it can work in today’s world.

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