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 8 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1474

Rawls looks at the ways in which members of a well-ordered society acquire a sense of justice in this chapter. He also discusses the sense of justice as defined under different moral conceptions and how principles of moral psychology, such as the principle of reciprocity, contribute to the relative stability of justice.

At the beginning, Rawls reiterates that a well-ordered society is one designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice. This is possible because there is a universal acceptance by all members of this society of the same principles of justice. The basic social institutions of a well-ordered society are known and seen to satisfy these principles. In such a society it is not necessary to invoke metaphysical or theological doctrines to support the principles of justice, because there is a public conception of justice that remains stable through the just actions of its institutions.

Rawls states that justice as fairness is more stable than other traditional moral conceptions of justice. The stability of a moral conception of justice depends upon a balance of motives; it should cultivate a sense of justice that can normally win out against propensities toward injustice. The strength of any sense of justice in terms of moral psychology will also be seen in how it motivates people to act upon its principles. Seen in such terms, justice as fairness is a conception of justice psychologically suited to human conditions.

Considering the stability of the conception of justice in a well-ordered society, Rawls points out that stability is maintained not by institutions remaining unchanged or unaltered, but by any deviations from justice being corrected and held within tolerable bounds by the system. It is thus important to know how moral sentiments leading to a shared sense of justice within a community are acquired.

The first theory Rawls mentions in this context is the social learning theory historically derived from the doctrine of empiricism and seen in the work of utilitarian writers from Hume to Sidgwick. Social learning considers that the aim of moral training is to supply missing motives, create the desire to do what is right for its own sake, and create the desire not to do what is wrong. Doing the right thing is conduct generally beneficial to others and to society, whereas wrong conduct is behavior generally injurious to others and to society. An individual goes through the process of socialization, through the approval and disapproval of authority figures, from parents to teachers and peers. As a result, they develop the desire to do the right thing and an aversion to doing wrong.

Another way of approaching the utilitarian social learning theory sees the desire to conform to moral standards as something acquired early in life, before a person has even achieved an adequate understanding of the reasons for these norms. Rawls considers Freud’s account of an essential part of moral learning occurring very early in life as supportive of this thesis.

The second theory of moral learning is derived from rationalist thought and reflects elements from the writings of Rousseau and Kant, J. S. Mill and Jean Piaget. This view regards moral learning to be inherently linked to the development of people’s social nature. Rawls recalls that Mill has expressed how the arrangements of a just society are so suited to its members that anything that is obviously necessary for it is accepted much like a physical necessity. Because a just society needs its members to have consideration for others on the basis of mutually acceptable principles of reciprocity, people can feel...

(This entire section contains 1474 words.)

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a sense of being out of tune with their fellows when their feelings are not in union with those around them. This provides a firm basis for their moral sentiments.

Rawls then looks at the development of moral learning from authority, by association, and through an appreciation of the principles of justice. Parental authority is the first source for a child’s understanding of morals. The conditions influencing it are a child’s love for their parents and seeing them as worthy objects of admiration. Clear and intelligible rules and boundaries, and parents practicing what they preach, are other ways in which moral learning takes place from parental authority. The morality of association is acquired as a child grows up into various roles that they will have to fulfill throughout their life. The standards for such roles are evident in the larger social groups to which an individual belongs. Thus, one learns how to be a good student, a good neighbor, a good friend, a member of a team, and other such roles. The process of fellowship and adapting to others with suitable changes in one’s own behavior leads to an appreciation of the just principles that govern association and social institutions; it makes people want to uphold such principles through their own actions.

The nature of moral feelings or moral sentiment, and the difference between moral and natural attitudes, is explored with examples of how individuals may respond in group situations where they feel their interests have been harmed or where they have themselves committed a wrong. Moral feelings are different from natural attitudes from a person’s explanation of their experience invoking a moral concept or principle of justice. While feelings caused by the violation of a principle of justice may resemble natural feelings of anger or resentment, they are not the same. This is because moral feelings lead us to act out of a sense of justice and perform acts that may be supererogatory. Such actions are performed for the larger good even though one is exempt from performing such a duty.

The sense of justice acquired through the development pointed out by moral psychology helps people to do their part as citizens, building institutions whose public systems of rules reflect their sense of what is fair, right, and just. As Rawls puts it, “a correct theory of politics in a just constitutional regime presupposes a theory of justice which explains how moral sentiments influence the conduct of public affairs.” The three stages that have earlier described how a sense of justice is acquired by people through authority, association, and an appreciation of principles also feature in the stability of the system as a whole. This is because they take into account the affective ties people have with others and their desire for not only their own, but others’ welfare.

What determines the application of a conception of justice? The chapter finally focuses on this question, looking at equality at three levels. At the first level, the administration of institutions as public systems of rules must ensure the impartial application and consistent interpretation of rules. The second application of equality is to the substantive structure of institutions, where the principles of justice require that equal basic rights be assigned to all persons. Finally, it is necessary to determine what sorts of beings are owed the guarantees of justice. As the answer appears to be that moral persons, or those with a capacity for moral personality, should be entitled to justice, Rawls makes it clear that the contractual approach does not discriminate on this account against people with impaired faculties: “It should be stressed that the sufficient condition for equal justice, the capacity for moral personality, is not at all stringent. When someone lacks the requisite potentiality either from birth or accident, this is regarded as a defect or deprivation.” Justice as fairness guarantees justice to all who have the minimum required for moral personality.


The chapter is significant because it finally unpacks and reveals what Rawls means when he consistently refers to a well-ordered society. How might such a society be created, and what sustains it? It is clear that it is our conduct as rational citizens, as responsible individuals desirous of doing the right thing, that leads to our collective security and happiness. The preparation that we undergo in such a society through social and moral learning at different levels is what allows us to fulfill our roles as members of this well-ordered society.

By freeing the capacity of moral personality from religious doctrine, Rawls makes it important for all to be considered worthy of justice. As a political philosopher, his emphasis is weighted toward the healthy institutions we must build in order to support and sustain the values we have acquired as individuals. Moral psychology may well understand the development of how a sense of justice is acquired, but it is only our collective efforts for justice and equality that can give meaning to these values. Inequality and injustice around us can cause us to question our most fundamental lessons of what is right and good. Rawls makes us consider the ways in which we are both learners and contributors in the society we inhabit.


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