Rawls – 2 Principles of Justice

The value for today’s round is justice defined as fairness. John Rawls writes in “A theory of Justice” 1971[1]

In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.5 Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain. For given the circumstances of the original position, the symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other, this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair. This explains the propriety of the name “justice as fairness”: it conveys the idea that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair. The name does not mean that the concepts of justice and fairness are the same, any more than the phrase “poetry as metaphor” means that the concepts of poetry and metaphor are the same.

To explain Justice and fairness aren’t interchangeable terms. Rawl’s actually means that the principles of justice must be chosen in a situation that is fair to everyone. This is accomplished through the thought experiment of the original position. A position in which no one knows their place in society or their abilities.

In the original position Rawl’s states 2 principles of justice would be chosen. Rawls Explains[2]

I shall now state in a provisional form the two principles of justice that I believe would be agreed to in the original position. The first formulation of these principles is tentative. As we go on I shall consider several formulations and approximate step by step the final statement to be given much later. I believe that doing this allows the exposition to proceed in a natural way The first statement of the two principles reads as follows. First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. There are two ambiguous phrases in the second principle, namely “everyone’s advantage” and “open to all.” Determining their sense more exactly will lead to a second formulation of the principle in §13. The final version of the two principles is given in §46; §39 considers the rendering of the first principle

Rawls continues[3]

These principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that infringements of the basic equal liberties protected by the first principle cannot be justified, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. These liberties have a central range of application within which they can be limited and compromised only when they conflict with other basic liberties. Since they may be limited when they clash with one another, none of these liberties is absolute; but however they are adjusted to form one system, this system is to be the same for all. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to give a complete specification of these liberties independently from the particular circumstances—social, economic, and technological—of a given society. The hypothesis is that the general form of such a list could be devised with sufficient exactness to sustain this conception of justice. Of course, liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g., means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle. Finally, in regard to the second principle, the distribution of wealth and income, and positions of authority and responsibility, are to be consistent with both the basic liberties and equality of opportunity.

Essentially in the original position we would choose two principles of justice. The first is the liberty principle which states we should have the most extensive scheme of liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others and that we should have equal schemes of liberties. The second is the difference principle and states that inequalities should be arranged to be to everyone’s advantage. These principles are arranged in a lexical order. Meaning that the first principle MUST be achieved before the 2nd principle.

Because these principles are how we achieve justice the value criterion is consistency with the two principles of justice.


[1] “A Theory of Justice” – John Rawls 1971 pg. 11

[2] “A Theory of Justice” – John Rawls 1971 pg. 52

[3] “A Theory of Justice” – John Rawls 1971 pg. 53 – 54

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