Ramble. Focus. Ramble.

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: Chapter 1

Justice is for a social institution what truth is for a belief. Just like truth, justice cannot be compromised. A small group of people cannot be unjustly treated for the benefits of a large group of people. Injustice can be tolerable if it is caused to prevent greater injustice.

Firstly,principles of justice need to be determined. These principles will assign rights and duties for the proper distribution of identity of interests and conflicts (burdens).

A society is a cooperative venture of mutual advantage it is marked by identity of interests and conflicts.

Identity of interests means that a social cooperation makes life better for everyone and conflicts refer to the fact that everyone wants a larger share. A society is designed to advance to the good and it is regulated by a public conception of justice. In a society

1. everyone accepts that others accept the same principles of justice and

2. basic social institutions satisfy these principles.

A ‘conception of justice’ is different from a ‘concept of  justice.’ Different people hold different conceptions, the common ones are then put together and they form the ‘concept.’ The ‘concept of justice’ defines the principles of justice. Apart from the conception of justice, coordination, efficiency and stability are extremely important.

The Subject of Justice

The subject of justice is the structure of the society, the institution.

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. Thus the legal protection of freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, competitive markets, private property in the means of production, and the monogamous family are examples of major social institutions.

Rawls says the basic structure of the society is the cause of some very deep  inequalities. And these inequalities are out of people’s control, they are so deeply rooted in the structure. A baby cannot choose where to be born. Rawls than brings in the shallow inequalities that are not rooted in the structure, they are brought about by people. People bring these inequalities by the choices they make and so these are in our control.

Original Position

Rawls is a believer of the Social Contract Theory but he believes that he would want to take the Social Contract Theory to a higher level of abstraction. Locke‘s Social Contract Theory was a contract between the governed and the governor with the consent of the governed.  Rawls believes justice is what equal and free people agree to as basic terms of social cooperation, this he called Justice as Fairness.

Original Position is a hypothetical condition Rawls wants to start from in order to construct the principles of justice. Original position is one in which everyone is, behind a veil of ignorance, unaware of his role in the society and the future of his role. This is the original position:

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.

Rawls believes that the veil of ignorance allows us to construct principles of justice that are fair to everyone. He thinks this is the state that will allow a perfectly fair set of principles to be formed and so this is the condition to start with.

..it seems reasonable to suppose that the parties in the original position are equal.

My concern is how is this position going to be achieved?

Rawls contra Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.

This is what Rawls concludes in this part that he has dedicated solely to utilitarianism. Let’s see how he comes to this. He takes into consideration Sidgwick’s Utilitarianism and defines it

..society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it.

According to utilitarianism, right is that maximizes the good. The good can be pleasure (hedonism), realization of human excellence (Nietzsche and Arsitotle believed that and this form in called perfectionism), happiness (eudaimonism).  Utilitarianism primarily believe that good is satisfaction of rational desire. So how is this good going to be distributed? Will it be distributed amongst the various individuals or life span of one individual? Does it matter if some people get below average and others get much more, the greatest net balance can still be achieved.

Rawls believes that utilitarianism is flawed in the way that it takes one person and studies the principles that apply to him and then spread it all over for all the other individuals to follow. It does not take into account the fact that people are different.

Each member of society is thought to have an inviolability founded on justice or on natural right which even the welfare of everyone cannot override.


Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others

The principle of maximization of good does not apply to Justice as Fairness. The problem with this principle is that if someone takes pleasure in suppressing others the society cannot be brought to justice by any principle. Justice as Fairness does not take peoples’ propensities into consideration, they cannot do that because they need to observe the original position. Therefore,

The priority of justice is accounted for, in part, by holding that the interests requiring the violations of justice have no value.

Intuitionism and The Priority Problem

Rawls defines intuitionism as a plurality of principles and no method of prioritizing these rules. Intuitionism denies that there is any plausible solution to the problem of priority. Rawls believes that the principles of justice have a similar problem, they need to be given weights and there is a challenge here. He says that is impossible to deny the dependence on intuition if the problem of priority is to be solved. He gives to methods to give weight to the principles of justice.

One is to adopt a single overall principle observed in the original position, exactly when the principles are set.

Second option is to go with the lexical order. This means that the principles of justice are to be set in a way that second comes along when they first is met.

That’s pretty much all about this chapter. The second chapter will unleash the two principles of justice by Rawls, stay tuned.


3 comments on “John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: Chapter 1

  1. Chris
    November 30, 2014

    Helped me alot! Thanks! 🙂

  2. Daniel
    February 6, 2017

    Thank you so much! 😀

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