A Theory of Justice Themes

The main themes in A Theory of Justice include justice, liberty, and equality; social cooperation, basic structure, and the well-ordered society; and rationality.

  • Justice, liberty, and equality: The book is primarily concerned with the idea of justice as fairness, which is predicated upon an equal distribution of basic liberties and other social values.
  • Social cooperation, basic structure, and the well-ordered society: For Rawls, a well-ordered society is one based on social cooperation and public agreement about the principles of justice.

  • Rationality: Rawls discusses mutually disinterested rationality as an assumed quality of the parties involved in establishing and maintaining a just and well-ordered society.


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Last Updated on October 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

Justice, Liberty, and Equality

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls is first and foremost about justice, as the concept is discussed throughout the book. The theme of justice, however, is never discussed without the accompanying themes of liberty and equality. The very first principle of Rawls’s theory states that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties,” and the priority principle is repeatedly applied to the question of liberty. That is, equal basic liberty can only be curtailed for another equal basic liberty, never for any other calculations of social or economic advantage. The basic liberties are political liberty of voting and standing for office; freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person, which includes freedom from psychological oppression and physical assault and dismemberment; the right to hold personal property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law.

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Justice as fairness is the form of justice a rational human being would choose if they were removed from considerations of their own social position and the advantages that would accrue from this. Such a hypothetical ignorance of their social standing is what is proposed in the “original position” by Rawls, where people make decisions about just practices from behind a “veil of ignorance.” Although Rawls’s conception of justice is based on earlier contract theories such as those of Rousseau and Locke, Rawls’s hypothesis of an “original position” replaces the “state of nature” of the earlier conceptions. It appears more sound and more likely to produce a fair perspective for developing just social institutions.

Equality is emphasized at every discussion of justice, as equal distribution of all social values of liberty, opportunity, income, wealth, and the social bases of self-respect is the starting point for justice, and any unequal distribution of these can be justified only if it is to everyone’s advantage. Inequalities that are not to everyone’s benefit are classed as injustice and must be dealt with accordingly, by making the necessary changes in laws and institutions. Thus, justice, liberty, and equality remain the abiding themes of Rawls’s book.

Social Cooperation, Basic Structure, and the Well-Ordered Society

Rawls declares at the very outset that he is not concerned so much with a generic philosophical conception of justice as he is with social justice. Thus, the theme of social cooperation, along with basic structure and the nature of a well-ordered society, features repeatedly in the text. He writes,

For us the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements.

It is thus obvious that the basic structure of society covers the institutions that form the focus of part 2 of the book. Rawls explains that the principle of justice provides in the first instance a standard by which the distributive aspects of a basic structure of society are to be studied. The principles of justice play a part in the assigning of rights and duties and in defining the appropriate division of social advantages. Such a division is not possible without social cooperation and public agreement around laws applicable to all.

Rawls makes reference to a well-ordered society in the context of how a sense of justice is acquired by its members. A well-ordered society is one designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice. This means that the rule of law holds good in a well-ordered society, there is public agreement with little discontent around the working of its social and political institutions, and its members have equal opportunity to pursue their aims and a rational life plan as free beings.


The notion of rationality is a very important one in Rawls’s theory, as rationality is an assumed quality of the parties in the original position who are to make decisions about their social arrangements. This idea of rationality conforms to its general application in social theory, that is, that of persons who have a coherent set of options before them, which they are able to rank and choose from based on what gives them better advantages or returns. However, Rawls goes further to speak of the mutually disinterested rationality of the parties in the original position. The mutual disinterest of a rational person in the original position is expressed by attempting to win for themselves the highest index of primary social goods. Primary social goods are rights and liberties, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect. The parties do not seek to benefit or injure one another; they are not moved by affection or rancor, envy or vanity.  

Rationality returns to occupy a central place in the context of goodness as rationality when Rawls considers the rational life plan. A plan made to advance with reference to one’s life circumstances and the opportunities they contain is a measure of our rationality. When we are able to execute the stages of such a plan, and our life appears to be reasonably successful in such achievements, it leads to happiness. Further, rationality is also affirmed by our being able to navigate obstacles and difficulties that may require us to make changes to our plan.

Duty and Obligation

Natural duties are defined early on by Rawls as the positive duties of upholding justice, offering mutual respect and mutual aid, and the negative duties of not injuring another and not harming the innocent. These can be understood as the fundamental duties of any member of a well-ordered society that allow it to retain the health of its institutions and keep it stable. Obligations, on the other hand, refer to laws and provisions that require our compliance as citizens. Obligations reflect our commitment to fairness and our fidelity to laws. However, when a law is perceived as unjust and public attention is drawn to this fact by the act of civil disobedience, fidelity to law can still be expressed through the nonviolent and peaceful nature of dissenting acts and the willingness to bear the legal consequences for such disobedience. Duty and obligation are thus important ideas relating to the role of citizens of modern constitutional democracies in A Theory of Justice.

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