Justice, the author declares, is the first and indispensable virtue of social institutions, as truth is of theories. Even the welfare of society as a whole cannot morally override the inviolability that each person has, founded on justice. This is why utilitarianism, which examines only the sum of welfare and permits the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many, is not a tenable moral theory.
In this book, Rawls is concerned with social justice only, not with the justice that individuals may display in private dealings. Society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage: If people cooperate in the production of goods, there will be more goods than if every person produces things only for his or her own consumption. People, however, do not merely cooperate in the production of social goods; they also compete for them, and everyone prefers more rather than less. These facts give rise to the problem of distributive justice: On what principles should goods and the benefits of social cooperation be distributed?
There is scope for the operation of justice whenever many individuals coexist in a territory and are similar enough so that no one is able to dominate the rest. Social goods must be moderately scarce, so that there will be conflicting claims that cannot all be satisfied.
Rawls makes a distinction between the concept of justice, on which all agree, and different conceptions of justice. The concept, he says, is that “institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.” Different conceptions are generated when people differ in their interpretations of which distinctions are arbitrary and what balances are proper.
The social justice of which Rawls writes involves the basic structure of society: the way in which major social institutions, chiefly governmental, distribute fundamental rights and duties and divide up the product of social cooperation. This is the distributive aspect of the basic structure of society, not a complete social idea. Rawls claims that his conception of distributive social justice tallies with the traditional Aristotelian notion that justice consists of giving everyone his or her due, because notions of what people are entitled to ordinarily are derived from social institutions.
Rawls’s basic idea is that the correct principles of justice are what free and rational people, concerned with furthering their own interests, would agree to accept as defining the fundamental terms of their association, if their agreement were made under conditions that were fair to all parties. This is “justice as fairness.” The conditions of fairness obtain when no party to the agreement is in a position of any advantage over other participants in furthering his or her own interests. Such a fair position, which Rawls calls “the original position,” demands that all participants be equal. This corresponds to the “state of nature” in traditional contract theory. Rawls requires in addition that contracting parties not know what their places will be in the society that they are to enter, nor to what class they will belong, nor what their social status will be, nor even their fortunes in the distribution of natural assets and abilities such as intelligence, strength, and particular psychological traits. This is the “veil of ignorance,” drawn to prevent the parties from pressing their particular selfish interests. It would not be “fair” if the parties could be influenced in their deliberations by the morally irrelevant contingencies of natural chance (to which natural endowments are due) or social circumstances. Rawls assumes, however, that all parties know the “laws” of psychology and sociology and the general facts about social life. They are also to be mutually disinterested—that is, they take no interest in the interests of other people. They are rational in the sense that they take the most effective means to whatever they put before themselves as their ends. Rawls assumes, finally, that they are not motivated by envy; that is, they will not forgo goods for themselves merely to prevent others from enjoying them. Although the parties are not allowed knowledge of what their particular conceptions of the good will be, they are ensured motivation by a “thin theory of the good”: They all want to pursue rational plans of life, in which rights, liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect are primary goods, for it is rational to desire these things, and good is the object of rational desire. Principles of justice, then, are to regulate the distribution of these primary goods.