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 7 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1457

Having earlier maintained that in a well-ordered society, what citizens perceive as their good conforms to the principles of right publicly recognized and includes an appropriate place for the primary goods they seek, Rawls describes this as a thin concept of goodness. In this chapter, he seeks to distinguish between right and good, show goodness to be the natural choice for a rational person, and look at the various elements of what are sought as primary goods.

He begins by emphasizing that in justice as fairness, what is right has priority over what is good. He then puts forward two theories of the good. The “thin theory” refers to the primary goods that are an important part of the difference principle. That is, primary goods are to be understood as what rational individuals, whatever else they want, desire as prerequisites for carrying out their plans of life. With such an understanding, self-respect and a sense of one’s own worth emerges as a primary good even for the least advantaged individuals. To cover these needs as well as other needs for wealth and liberty, a more expansive theory of good is required, which Rawls calls the full theory of good.

While the thin theory of the good is useful for explaining the rational preference for primary goods and the notion of rationality in the original position, Rawls believes that a full theory of the good is important to define the moral worth of persons and their beneficent acts. Is being a good person good for the person concerned, as well as for the society in which they live? This chapter attempts to answer such questions in the context of the principles of justice as fairness and the other moral concepts in which notions of goodness are involved. A full theory of the good looks at how good comprises final ends for people, not just primary goods. It therefore takes into account social values and the activities undertaken to further those values by people who have agreed upon a public conception of justice in affirming their social institutions.

Rawls breaks down the concept of the good in three different ways. First, something is good only if it possesses those qualities that it is rational for a person to want it to possess in order to meet the customary objectives with it. Second, something is good only if it possesses the qualities for someone to use it to fulfill their life plan, keeping in mind their circumstances and abilities. The third is the same as the second, with the addition that a person’s life plan itself be a rational one. Goodness as rationality means that the virtues people see in each other as moral worth, or the qualities they seek in means to reach their just ends, should be those that it is rational for people to want or aspire to.

In elaborating what is meant by a rational life plan, Rawls explains that a life plan is considered rational when 1) it is a plan that is consistent with rational choice when applied to all the features of the situation in which the person making the plan is situated, and 2) it is a plan that would be chosen by them with full awareness of relevant facts and after a careful consideration of the consequences. Similarly, a person’s aims and interests would be considered rational if they are to be served by the plan that has been drawn up.

Further, a plan reflects a hierarchy of desires, inasmuch as a person may want to satisfy some before others. It also consists of a series of subplans that are drawn up and executed in response to changing conditions. The principle of effective means involves the selection of such a means among all the alternatives available that realizes the end in the best way. Another principle is of selecting that option from among the available choices that enables the realizing of one additional end apart from the main objective. The third principle is of choosing the option that has the greatest likelihood of success. All these are rational choices. In terms of a life plan, the principle of inclusiveness applies as well. One long-term plan is better than another if it allows for the encouragement and satisfaction of all the aims by any other choice of plan, as well as some additional aims and interests.

In explaining such a long-term plan based on the principle of inclusiveness, Rawls makes reference to the Aristotelian principle. This emphasizes that human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities so that a person can take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it, and given a choice, a person would prefer the activity that is more complex and has more subtle and intricate discriminations.

Rawls uses an idea of Henry Sidgwick’s to illustrate the notion of deliberative rationality. Sidgwick saw a person’s future good as being what they would now desire and seek if they were able to accurately foresee in their imagination the consequences of all the various courses of conduct open to them. Such a notion assumes that there are no errors in reasoning or calculation on the part of the person in the present. However, changing conditions require deliberate reflection whose nature is described by Rawls at some length. The first reflective response to carrying out a well-considered plan is to postpone such elements of it as may be necessitated by the demands of circumstances. The second is to remember the continuity of the overall structure and how actions affect other actions. Finally, the plan has to reflect the rising or changing expectations of the person.

Rawls calls the adjustment to the claims of the self at different times the principle of responsibility to self. A rational person is not to live in a state of perpetual planning, nor be steeped in guilt or regret if things do not go according to plan. Instead, they will be able to respond to situations as they arise from a place of deliberate reflection. In social terms, a rational person in a well-ordered society has an appropriate sense of justice and a desire to strengthen and affirm just public institutions.

Rawls concludes this chapter by distinguishing between the right and the good. The first difference is that right principles, such as justice as fairness, are chosen from the original position and are subject to public agreement, whereas what is good, such as rational choice or deliberative rationality, are not choices that are subject to public agreement, but qualities displayed by free individuals as they consider their primary goods and what they seek to further their life plan. Secondly, in a well-ordered society, there is a uniformity of principles of right, as citizens hold the same ideas on how to ensure order among conflicting claims. Individual conceptions of what is good are bound to be different in a free society, however, and individuals do not disturb the social order or infringe on anyone else’s rights by holding a different opinion of what is good.

The third difference relates to the veil of ignorance. A person’s decisions about the principles of justice may be restricted by the veil of ignorance, whereas their evaluation of what is good for them is based on a full knowledge of the facts. These differences are vital in understanding the difference in approach between utilitarianism and the contractual approach of justice as fairness.


This chapter answers questions that relate to the costs and rewards of being good. If being good represents too great a sacrifice, would people still be able to be good? We continue to be good when we are supported by just institutions and the rule of law. If, by being good, we are isolated and vulnerable to attack by groups and individuals who can prey on us, we are unlikely to feel any desire to stay good. It is by considering such aspects of justice as fairness that it is easy to understand why we need to help build and support just institutions around us.

The chapter is also important because it examines the nature of rationality and moral worth. While questions of justice have been explained at length in the first two parts of the book, there is no ascribed morality to these questions. This is because Rawls attempts a neutral and philosophical approach that is distinct from theological or metaphysical conceptions of justice by past writers. However, moral worth does need to be understood in the context of our responsibility to self and society. By showing how goodness and rationality go hand in hand, Rawls enables us to have a better outlook for ourselves and others.

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