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A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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What is Rawls's liberty principle in A Theory of Justice?

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Rawls's liberty principle in A Theory of Justice states that everyone should have the greatest degree of individual liberty that is compatible with everyone else in the society enjoying the same degree of liberty.

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John Rawls's liberty principle, often called the "greatest equal liberty principle," is set out in chapter 46 of A Theory of Justice in the following terms:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Rawls uses the device of the Veil of Ignorance to argue that this principle is the most effective way of combining liberty with justice. If you did not know what position you would occupy in a society, you would want this society to include the greatest amount of individual liberty that could possibly be extended to everyone. This is because there is no possibility of complete liberty within a society unless it is unjust, since it would include the liberty to oppress others for those who were able to exercise it. If you are free to play your music at maximum volume at three o'clock in the morning, your neighbor is not free to sleep. Some individual liberties must therefore be curtailed for the general benefit of all citizens.

Some liberties can be classified as absolute under Rawls's principle, and these qualify as rights: the right to vote and the right to own property, for instance. Other freedoms extend to a certain point, which is as far as they can go without intruding upon, and thereby curtailing, the liberty of another.

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