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 9 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1407

The last chapter of A Theory of Justice continues to look at the stability of justice as fairness and whether it is congruent with goodness as rationality. It examines whether a well-ordered society contributes to the good of its members by allowing for the autonomy of each individual and the objectivity of their judgments of right and justice. The ideal of the social union and how it can keep at bay the disruptive forces of envy and spite are discussed. Rawls contrasts hedonistic utilitarianism with the contractual approach of justice as fairness. He argues that the just institutions of a well-ordered society enable human beings to express their nature as free and equal moral persons and that it is this that keeps in check any tendencies that arise for social instability.

Rawls begins by describing the gradual process of acquiring a sense of justice through the membership of various institutions in a well-ordered society as one which affirms the autonomy of the individual. There is no “coercive indoctrination,” and education has not been designed as a “causal sequence intended to bring about as an end result the appropriate moral sentiments.” From a Kantian interpretation, by acting from principles that have been thus acquired, people are acting autonomously.

In the contractual approach, autonomy and objectivity are not at odds, because freedom and reason are compatible. From the original position, choices are made that we would wish to apply to ourselves and others in equal and impartial fashion. In this way, acting autonomously is acting from principles that we would consent to as free and equal rational beings. When disagreements arise, as is inevitable, it is possible to resolve these by citizens’ recognizing each other’s good faith and desire for justice. Again, this is made possible by the original position and the choices that have been made therein, which have shaped the publicly agreed upon principles of justice.

From the writings of Friedrich Wilhelm von Humboldt, Rawls draws the description of the social union as the community of humankind whose members are free to enjoy one another’s excellences and individuality through free institutions. In a social union, people recognize the good of each as an element in the complete activity, the whole of which has the blessings of each and gives pleasure to all. Fields of knowledge are thus developed as shared ends, on the path of which people have learned from one another. Many different kinds of such social unions mark a well-ordered society. Science, arts, and culture can be seen as such ends or products. From this viewpoint, a well-ordered society is itself “a social union of social unions.” Everyone here has a sense of justice, and human beings can express their desires as free and equal moral persons.

The problem of envy is put forward by Rawls as a significant challenge to the idea of equality in such a society. Firstly, it arises when persons lack a sure confidence in their own value and in their ability to do anything worthwhile. Secondly, when the discrepancy between oneself and others is made visible by the social structure and style of life of one’s society, it can be a painful and humiliating experience. Thirdly, envy can arise when the circumstances of the disadvantaged are seen by them to allow no constructive alternative than to oppose the circumstances of the more advantaged. This is what leads to them wanting to impose a loss on those better off. Rawls submits that envy is addressed by the application of the difference principle in a well-ordered society. The plurality of associations that permit society to...

(This entire section contains 1407 words.)

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be divided into many non-comparing groups, each with their own opportunities for progress, helps to overcome the feelings of not having any openings for constructive action on the part of the disadvantaged.

The precedence that liberty enjoys over other interests is explained with reference to the importance given to it by persons in the original position for the effective establishment of the basic liberties to be enjoyed by all. Once this has been ensured, liberty is important for people to control the laws and rules that govern their association. It is essential to “secure the free internal life of the various communities of interests in which persons and groups seek to achieve, in forms of social union consistent with equal liberty, the ends and excellences to which they are drawn.” Protection of equal liberties is extremely important in terms of treating the self-respect of even the most disadvantaged persons in society as primary goods. This is what affirms the precedence of liberty as the first principle.

In considering whether happiness is a dominant end in a well-ordered society, Rawls compares justice as fairness with writings on hedonism in utilitarianism. He defines a happy person as one who is on the way to a successful execution of a rational plan of life drawn up under favorable conditions and who is reasonably confident that their intentions can be carried out. In such a case, a person is happy when it appears as if their plan will come to fruition, or when circumstances prove especially favorable, but the happiness is not one among many aims sought: it is part of the whole design.

Happiness considered as a dominant end becomes happiness for its own sake. For hedonists, individuals are striving for pleasure—the intrinsic form of happiness. In such a view, the rational person will always form a plan where they see the greatest net balance of pleasure over pain. It is in this context that Rawls says, “Largely for these reasons Sidgwick thinks that pleasure must be the single rational end that is to guide deliberation.” This contrasts with the inclusive end of realizing a rational plan of life seen in the contractual approach of justice as fairness.

Speaking of the unity of the self in the contract doctrine where a free person is able to form and follow a rational plan of life, Rawls asserts that justice as fairness allows for the full development of the moral personality. This is because the moral personality is characterized by a conception of the good and a sense of justice. In practice, it is expressed by a rational plan of life and by a regulative desire to act upon certain principles of right. A moral person therefore chooses their ends freely and prefers such conditions in the society around them that will enable them to express their nature as a free and equal rational being.

Rawls concludes by making a case for the congruence of the concepts of justice and goodness in his theory. He draws on the Aristotelian principle that participating in a well-ordered society is a great good and looks at the Kantian interpretation that says that acting justly is something we want to do as free and equal rational beings: “The desire to act justly and the desire to express our nature as free moral persons turn out to specify what is practically speaking the same desire.” Finally, he presents his model of the well-ordered society as one that satisfies the principles of justice, which are collectively rational.


It is in this final chapter that John Rawls reinforces much of what he has maintained throughout the book. He therefore seeks to present his theory of justice as fairness as an expression of what a rational person with a developed moral sensibility would naturally seek for themselves and society. When Rawls speaks of the unity of the self, it is a description of a rational person who is not at odds with their circumstances. It is also a person who is not concerned with pursuing happiness for its own sake only for themself, but who is also concerned about the ability and opportunity of others to achieve happiness.

The difficulties that arise in present-day societies exist because there are bound to be differences in what people consider as essential and good. Those committed to preserving the environment, for instance, are likely to have a different take on what is good and just from those committed to wealth creation. The problem of envy mentioned by Rawls is also expressed as deep schisms in societies where the conflicting claims of groups have remained unaddressed. Thus, although the good of justice is convincingly portrayed by Rawls at a theoretical level, we are still grappling with the tasks of attempting to build truly just societies in the twenty-first century.


Chapter 8 Summary