Rawls’s theory of justice

This article is based on notes I took for my applied ethics students on article 52 of Hugh LaFollette’s Ethics in Practice: Third Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007). That article excerpts pp. 11-21, 60-64, and 150-156 of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971). All page numbers refer to the article.


John Rawls (1921-2002) is widely regarded as the most important political philosopher of the last century. Of his works, his first book, A Theory of Justice, has had the most enduring influence. This article will acquaint you with some of the central ideas from A Theory of Justice. The account of Rawls you will get here will be simplified, but still will provide ample substance for reflection.

Rawls wants to develop and defend the idea of justice as fairness, according to which “the principles of justice for the basic structure of society [are] the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality” (p. 565).

The idea of justice as fairness often is understood to be a variation on a class of ethical theories known as contractarian theories, according to which moral obligations either arise from or are justified by the fact that truly rational individuals would agree mutually to be bound by those obligations.1 However, Rawls’s theory differs from contractarian ethical theories in at least two ways:

  1. Rawls’s theory is not a full ethical theory, but rather a theory about one particular ethical conception—his theory deals only with the nature of justice, not the nature of the right more broadly. Although justice may be relevant to determining which actions are right, it is not necessarily the only thing that is relevant.2
  2. Rawls’s theory aims to give us only broad principles for setting up “the basic structure of society,” not principles to govern all of our individual actions. So, his theory is not even a complete theory of justice in all of its forms. Rawls’s theory will not tell you what you need to do and not do in order to count as a just person—he is setting down criteria for just societies only.

The original position and the veil of ignorance: how the principles of justice are derived

To derive his principles of justice, Rawls introduces two key concepts: the original position and the veil of ignorance. The original position is the “initial position of equality” Rawls refers to in the second paragraph above, and the veil of ignorance is a conceptual device that helps us to figure out what the original position would be like.

The veil of ignorance is exactly what it sounds like. Veils hide certain things from certain observers, producing ignorance in those observers about whatever is hidden. If I place a veil over my window and you are walking around outside, you will not be able to see what is inside my home and so will be ignorant of its contents.3

What does Rawls’s veil of ignorance hide, and from whom? It hides virtually everything you know about yourself as an individual, and it hides it from you. When you imagine yourself behind the veil of ignorance, you must imagine yourself losing, for instance, all knowledge about your social status, your nationality, your economic class, your skin color, your personal talents, and even your own conception of the good (this last point is very important, and we will come back to it in a bit). The veil of ignorance also hides from you virtually everything you know about the world, such as how people and natural resources are distributed geographically. You lose all of this when you step behind the veil of ignorance.

There are, however, a few important general items of knowledge about yourself and the world that you would retain in the original position. The article does not go into this, so allow me to quote from Samuel Freeman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to give you a sample:

The parties [behind the veil of ignorance] are not however completely ignorant of facts. They know all kinds of general facts about persons and societies, including knowledge of the relatively uncontroversial laws and generalizations derivable from economics, psychology, political science, and biology and other natural sciences. They know then about the general tendencies of human behavior and psychological development, about biological evolution, and about how economic markets work, including neoclassical price theory of supply and demand. As discussed below, they also know about the circumstances of justice—moderate scarcity and limited altruism—as well as the desirability of the “primary social goods” that are needed to live a good life and to develop their “moral powers.”

So, these general items of knowledge, plus ignorance of one’s particular circumstances, are components of the original position. The last significant component of the original position is the presumption that agents in the original position are self-interested—they seek to maximize their own benefit as much as possible. Thus, to sum up once more, if you imagine yourself in the original position, you are imagining yourself being self-interested, but lacking all knowledge—especially knowledge about yourself—except for knowledge of the very broad facts listed above in the quote above.

Now, suppose you were in the original position, and you had to decide upon “the principles of justice for the basic structure of society.” Which principles would you choose? Rawls believes that the principles a rational person would come up with in this situation are the true principles of justice.

Mind you, Rawls is not suggesting that anyone actually is, or ever has been, in the original position. The original position is a hypothetical situation: imagining yourself in it is only a conceptual device that is supposed to lead you to the answers you seek. Remember that Rawls is deriving his principles of justice from what a rational person in the original position would choose, not from what anyone in an actual situation has chosen.

So, what principles would a rational person in the original position choose?

Rawls’s principles of justice

Not the principle of utility

The principle of utility, according to Rawls, is the principle that says that society ought to be ordered so as to maximize total individual well-being—well-being summed over everyone who has it. Do you think a rational person in the original position would choose to order society according to the principle of utility? Rawls does not: he thinks such a person would reject the principle of utility. Why?

According to Rawls, rational agents would realize that principles of justice that maximize total individual well-being might result in some individuals losing out completely: individuals could be sacrificed for the greater gains of the remainder. Since agents in the original position do not know who they are, they would realize that if they chose the principle of utility, they might end up being among the individuals who lose out completely once the veil of ignorance lifts. Rawls thinks that no rational, self-interested person would want to take such a risk.

Rawls’s principles

Here are the two principles Rawls thinks people in the original position would choose:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty 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. (p. 571)

The first principle usually is called the liberty principle. It is conventional to divide the two clauses of the second principle into two distinct principles in their own right: clause (a) becomes the difference principle, and clause (b) becomes the principle of fair equality of opportunity.

The principles are ordered, so that violations of the liberty principle are not permitted even for the sake of greater social or economic advantages for all. Also, Rawls does not intend these principles to be absolute; they simply are the best and widest approximation we have to justice. Where they fail, we fall back upon the more general principle that unequal distributions of anything can only be justified if the distribution is to everyone’s advantage.

The basic liberties and their priority over social and economic advantage

The “basic liberties” referred to by the liberty principle are (roughly), the right to vote, the right to run for public office, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, liberty of conscience (freedom of thought), freedom to hold personal property, and freedom from arbitrary search and seizure. Sound familiar?

Why does Rawls think a rational agent in the original position would care about all of the basic liberties listed? Why, furthermore, does he think they would they care about those basic liberties so much that they would be unwilling to sacrifice any of them even for greater social or economic advantages for everyone? The answer is that when one is behind the veil of ignorance, one doesn’t even know what one’s own conception of the good is. If you envision yourself in the original position, you have to envision yourself not knowing what kind of life you want to live in even the broadest strokes. You know that you want to live a good life, but you don’t know what that will turn out to mean when you step out from behind the veil of ignorance. To explore the consequences of this, let me give an example.

Suppose you are in the original position. When the veil of ignorance lifts, you may discover that you think a good life is a life devoted to enjoying and protecting the freedoms that liberal society has to offer. You may, however, just as easily discover that you think a good life is a life devoted to bringing every person on the planet under the absolute authority of some monarch. If you are rational, then when you are still behind the veil of ignorance, you will realize that both of the above are possibilities. How would you order society, knowing that you might end up with either of these radically different conceptions of the good?

Suppose that you choose from behind the veil of ignorance to order society along the monarchical lines. If you do, then the worst outcome for you when the veil lifts is that you turn out to favor the liberal conception of the good. That is a very bad outcome: you will want to change the system from monarchical to liberal, but to do so in a monarchical society would require you to act by stealth or force, at great risk to yourself and your cause.

But suppose instead that you choose from behind the veil of ignorance to order society along the liberal lines. If you do, then worst outcome for you when the veil lifts is that you turn out to favor the monarchical conception of the good. That is a bad outcome for you, too, but not nearly as bad as the previous outcome. It isn’t nearly as bad because in a liberal society you will be able to agitate freely for a change to the kind of system you want, with little risk to yourself or to your cause—you are protected by the rights liberal society gives you, like the right to assemble, speak freely, run for office, and vote.

So, when you are behind the veil of ignorance, you will—if you are rational—realize that no matter what your conception of the good might turn out to be, it is in your best interest now to choose to start out in a society ordered by the liberty principle: you should be unwilling to put yourself in a situation where the basic liberties can be traded for anything.

The maximin rule

As you may have noticed, Rawls takes agents in the original position to be risk-averse. His principles jointly express an inclination toward the maximin rule, according to which the best of a set of alternatives is the alternative with the best worst-case outcome. According to Rawls, the maximin rule is a rational strategy under certain conditions, all of which he believes are satisfied when one stands behind the veil of ignorance:

  1. The probabilities of the various outcomes are unknown. This trivially is satisfied by the original position.
  2. The person choosing doesn’t care much whether some outcome is better than good enough. Rawls needs this so people will not gamble with minimum social advantages for a chance at greater social advantages—to him, rational people will be satisfied once they attain a fairly modest standard of well-being.
  3. The situation involves grave risks. This, too, is satisfied by the original position—if you choose the wrong principles, you may stand to lose absolutely everything when the veil of ignorance lifts).

If Rawls is mistaken about the veil of ignorance requiring a rational person to follow the maximin rule, then he may be mistaken about the principles of justice a rational person would choose.

See also: Nozick’s theory of justice


1 Notice that such theories do not require anyone ever to actually agree to the obligations in question. All they require is that truly rational agents would agree to them.

2 Suppose, for instance, that you had to imprison an innocent person for a day in order to prevent the end of all life on Earth. Most people would consider false imprisonment an injustice, even in this scenario, but would argue that considerations of justice are much less important in this scenario than the lives that hang in the balance—that it would be impermissible to act justly in this scenario. (You need not agree with this view: the point simply is that it cannot be dismissed as incoherent without further argument.)

3 Mostly stacks of books, if you are wondering.