Some thoughts on John Rawls’ A THEORY OF JUSTICE by Stuart Christie (Book review)

TheoryofJusticeSince its publication in 1971 the political ideas expounded by philosopher John Rawls in A Theory of Justice have provided the justifiers and apologists (i.e., the informers and the regulators who, respectively, mould opinion and behaviour within the bourgeois state) for a ‘just’ capitalist democracy — the currently prevailing form of class society — with an alternative to utilitarianism. It also provides, to quote Burns*, “…the oppressor’s cruel smile / Amid his hapless victim’s spoil” with an ideological mask of ethical legitimacy for the predatory values — and practices — of nakedly amoral neo-liberal capitalism. The question remains: how can bourgeois rule be defeated without putting something worse in its place — and without having to plough through the deliberately mystifying lexicon of neo-liberal gobbledygook (e.g. “dialectic” and “contradiction”, for conflict and division, respectively), with which they seek to cover their own self-serving bureaucratic agenda?

* Lines Written on a Banknote

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

John Kenneth Galbraith

Rawls’ stated aim is to develop a theory of justice that is a viable alternative to the classical utilitarian and ‘intuitionist’ concepts of justice and morality. In contrast with classic utilitarian thought he argues that each person ‘possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society cannot override.’ Policies that lead to the loss of freedom for some or the imposition of sacrifices on the few in return for the benefit of the majority are not, therefore, compatible with a ‘just’ society.

Rawls‘ initial premise is that ‘society is a co-operative venture for mutual advantage’. However, because he is dealing with the real world of capitalism he also assumes that society is equally marked by a conflict as well as a harmony of interests. In order to resolve the conflicts and minimise the tensions inherent in a class divided yet ostensibly co-operative and harmonious society Rawls seeks to establish principles of justice which provide acceptable means of ‘assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society’ and defining the ‘appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social co-operation.’(P.4)

To establish these principles Rawls postulates free, rational, and mutually disinterested individuals who, although knowledgeable about the external world, meet together in a state of self-ignorance as to their race, age, sex, class position, state of health, etc., to define and agree the principles of the society in which they wish to live and the distribution of rights and goods as self-interested parties. The object of such stringent conditions governing the self-knowledge of the negotiators in the ‘original position‘ is to ensure self-interest and preconceptions of fairness do not cloud their objectivity and oblige the deliberators to ‘adopt principles that are optimal with respect to the advancement of the interests of whoever is least favoured by the principles.’ ‘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 favour his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of fair agreement or bargain.‘ (P.12)

In Rawls’ view, rational people in the ‘veil of ignorance‘ or ‘the original position‘ as he terms this ante room in limbo, would reject the utilitarian option simply because the ‘life prospects‘ for some would be diminished in return for a ‘greater sum of advantages‘ for others. The self-interested rational negotiator could not settle for a society structured in such a way that the advantages for some were acquired at the expense of the basic rights and interests of others. After all, when the ‘veil of ignorance’ is ultimately lifted the odds are that he or she is more likely to be a ‘victim’ in an unfair society than a ‘beneficiary’. The utilitarian option is at odds with the more acceptable reciprocal idea of justice that Rawls’ argues is implicit in a society designed to advance the good of its members.

Free and rational participants in ‘the original position’ are, Rawls maintains, more likely to select a definition of ‘justice as fairness‘ as providing more satisfactory cement for the social contract. He postulates, therefore, two different principles of justice as the contractual basis of society. ‘ The first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.’

Rawls’ first principle of justice is straightforward and relatively uncontentious, calling as it does for equality of liberty and opportunity. The second principle, however, the one that regulates the distribution of economic and social advantages, effectively legitimises social and economic inequality by setting out acceptable parameters for them within a capitalist market society. It is this element that distinguishes Rawls’ theory from all others and lays him open to, among other things, the charge of producing a ‘charter for revisionist liberalism.’

Although Rawls’ attacks the utilitarian position by ruling out the argument that hardships for some can be justified on the grounds of a greater good for the majority — ‘It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper’— he admits that in a context of scarcity the negotiators realise that they will benefit by the introduction of certain inequalities in the distribution of advantages. He adds the following important rider: ‘But there is no injustice in the greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situation of persons not so fortunate is thereby improved.

There is, however, tension between the two principles of justice. ‘It is possible‘, as Gorovitz points out, ‘that a restriction of the liberty of some individuals may constitute an inequality that satisfies the second principle; it may result in an increase of goods that benefits everyone.‘ (p.281) Rawls, however, argues that the negotiators in the ‘original position‘ would give the first principle ‘ absolute priority‘ over the second in all cases because self-respect, a fundamental characteristic of humanity, is dependent on the equitable distribution of liberty and opportunity. No negotiator is likely to risk loss or limitation on their liberty in the knowledge that such a disadvantage would ultimately affect their self-esteem. This basic requirement that we should not be used as other people’s ends requires the maximum liberty for each individual.

The second or ‘difference’ principle as Rawls‘ calls it is the most contentious part of his theory; it justifies inequalities if two conditions are satisfied‘ they must be to the ‘greatest benefit of the least advantaged‘ and ‘attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity’ (p. 83). That is, Rawls claims, inequalities that satisfy the ‘difference’ principle will benefit everyone — the chain connection. ‘…If an advantage has the effect of raising the expectations of the lowest position, it raises the expectations of all positions in between . . . it is impossible to raise or lower expectation of any representative man without raising or lowering the expectation of every other representative man especially that of the least advantaged.’ (p.80) It is this ‘difference principle’ which, tied to the ‘chain connection ‘legitimises the social order (which as Rawls makes clear earlier is, ideally, a free market system in which the means of production ‘may or may not be privately owned’, [p.66]) particularly to ‘those who are least favoured‘, as Rawls himself recognises. (p.103) The consequence of this, as Nozick points out, is to accept inequality as advantageous for the least favoured and something that should not be challenged because ‘he receives more in the unequal system than he would in an equal one.‘ (Nozick, p.195)

Having established the principles of justice and the overriding priority of liberty as ‘the best way for each person to secure his ends in view of the alternatives available’ (p. 119), the ‘veil of ignorance’ is raised facts about their society while still keeping them in ignorance as to their own condition. The negotiators in the ‘original position‘ now move on to discuss which type of social order ‘that satisfies the principles of justice and is best calculated to lead to just and effective legislation.‘ (p.197). This ‘just‘ constitution would, ideally have to ensure and protect ‘liberty of conscience and freedom of ‘thought, liberty of the person, and equal political rights.‘ In other words as he admits a form of ‘constitutional democracy‘ in which the ‘difference principle‘ dictates ‘that social and economic policies be aimed at maximising the long term expectations of the least advantaged under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, subject to equal liberties being maintained.‘ (P.199)

The just constitution having been agreed in addition to the principles of justice, the negotiators have now to decide ‘the application of rules to particular cases by judges and administrators, and the following of rules by citizens generally.‘ (p.199) The ‘veil of ignorance‘ is raised still further allowing complete access to all available information. ‘No limits on knowledge remain since the full system of rules has now been adopted and applies to persons in virtue of their characteristics and circumstances.‘ (P.199)

Rawls‘ theory attempts to deal with distribution in the real world of competitive capitalism or even democratic market socialism where the means of production are ‘publicly owned and that firms are managed by workers‘ councils say, or by agents appointed by them‘ (p.280). He is prepared to countenance privilege and inequality only if it can be shown that such a state of affairs would specifically benefit the least advantaged members of society, thus making it more ‘just’. The more general argument that all improvements, even of the most apparently exclusive and elitist kind are ‘chain connected‘ and, ultimately, filter down to benefit the neediest members of society, may or may not be true, but in Rawls’ view because such appeals to general utility cannot be proved or disproved they do not satisfy his two principles of justice and must be discarded.

In marrying the concept of individual liberty with legitimate economic and social inequalities, Rawls is undoubtedly seeking to achieve a just capitalist society in the real world and not simply legitimise the market economy. By focusing society’s attention and resources on improving the situation of the least privileged by setting limits to the accumulation of capital, Rawls hopes to compensate for those inequalities by making the situation more acceptable to the latter. What Rawls ignores, however, as Macpherson points out, is that the class inequality in his market system, where capital and labour form two distinct and irreconcilable components, will ultimately, no matter what limitations are placed on wealth, permit one class to dominate another, to the detriment of equal liberty and opportunity. ‘All capital, whatever its degree of concentration, is power which controls and impedes the lives of others. Capital in that society is extractive power, and the extractive power of the owners of capital diminishes the developmental powers of the non-owners.’ (Macpherson, p.92)

Rawls’ two principles of justice and the concept of the ‘veil of ignorance‘ are invaluable and powerful criteria for establishing ethical and legislative standards in a classless, non-market society, but in spite of their outstanding moral superiority over the utilitarian and elitist concept of ‘the greatest good, etc.’, when applied in a liberal democratic society there would be constant tension between them. The first principle, that each has the right to equal liberty and opportunity, means continuous transfers of wealth from the privileged to the less privileged classes and involves constant government control to limit the concentration of capital. This would conflict with the basic premise of the second principle that any social and economic advantages which do exist are to be ‘to everyone’s advantage, and attached to positions and offices open to all‘; that is, the transfers of wealth and governmental interferences cannot exceed a limit beyond which they begin to have a detrimental effect on the efficiency and productivity of the economy and the incentive system of a class society. As Macpherson points out, this is irreconcilable with the first principle: ‘If a limit on transfers and interferences low enough to comply with the second principle could be high enough to prevent the concentration of capital from exceeding its limit, namely the point at which accumulations of private capital became ‘concentrations of power to the detriment of liberty and equality of opportunity’ … then his two principles would be consistent. But it is impossible to find a limit on transfers and interferences low enough to do the one thing and high enough to do the other … Put otherwise, the limit on transfers and interferences cannot coincide with the limit on accumulation of capital becomes detrimental to equal liberty and equality of opportunity is zero, whereas the limit on transfers cannot, by the second principle, be zero.’ (Macpherson, p.93)

Another questionable aspect of Rawls’ theory is the plausibility of the ‘veil of ignorance’ as a useful device for establishing viable rules of conduct in a market based society. Rawls’ assumes that the rationality of the negotiators in the ‘original position’ would lead them inexorably to the two principles of justice, the priority rules and his general conclusion ‘All social primary goods — liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self respect — are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured’ (p.303). But is this a realistic assumption to make given the author’s additional riders that the parties are not moved by envy, shame or humiliation? Although Rawls goes out of his way to emphasise that the ‘original position’ precludes any self-knowledge all the underlying assumptions in his thesis are that the negotiators are consumers who share similar cultural, social and moral values and priorities and are aware that they are negotiating for position in a Western, liberal, market society. Such abstract entities do not and cannot exist in the real world and although they may be useful in establishing a valuable theory of justice, any attempt to implement such a theory in a class-based society is doomed to failure; as an ideal it can only serve to legitimise and strengthen the rule of the privileged classes. The ‘just’ society or the cooperative commonwealth cannot be attained simply by resolving the important but mechanistic problem of distribution; it is, rather, one of re-affirming the primordial importance of the collective human experience of mutual trust, solidarity and respect in work and struggle, and the principles of mutual aid in human relationships.


A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, Oxford, 1983
‘John Rawls: A Theory of Justice’, S. Gorovitz (in Contemporary Political Philosophers, ed. A. de Crespigny and K. Minogue), London 1975
Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick, Oxford, 1980
Democratic Theory, C.B. Macpherson, Oxford, 1984
‘No Archimedean Point’, Steven Lukes, Observer, 4 June 1972
‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Market Socialism’, Carl Hedman, Radical Philosophy, Summer 1981