Chapter 9.  Rawl's Theory: Justice as Fairness
Section 1. The Theory of Justice as Fairness

The first significant and unique contribution to the study of Ethics by an American has been that of John Rawls, a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.  He developed a Theory of the GOOD as Justice and Justice conceived as Fairness.  His theory was developed to assist a society in ordering its affairs.  His ideas have influenced many lawmakers and Supreme Court decisions in the United States.  Among many examples are the laws for providing equal access to opportunities for minorities and the disabled. 

Rawls wants to use reasoning which all humans have to arrive at the principle of the GOOD.  He is similar to Kant in this regard. He wants to avoid the problems with Kant's theory and he wants to avoid providing any justification for morally outrageous actions which could be justified on utilitarian principles.  He wants to avoid the disadvantages of those approaches.  His approach places humans in a position wherein they view the moral dilemma or problem without knowing who they are in the situation.  What would rational beings decide was best in situations where not all the humans involved are equal in physical conditions , social or economic circumstance?  Rawls believes that humans would resolve the conflict or problem in such a way that whoever was worst off would be not as bad off as they otherwise might be because the person making the decision does not know whether they are gong to be in the position of the worst off.

The Maxi Min Principle is the Principle of the GOOD

MAXIMIZE Liberty (opportunities)

MINIMIZE Inequalities (differences, disadvantages)

The most widely discussed theory of distributive justice in the past three decades has been that proposed by John Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice. (Rawls 1971) Rawls proposes the following two principles of justice:

(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

(Rawls 1971, p.302)

First priority rule:

Rawls proposes these principles, along with the requirement that (1) must be satisfied prior to (2), and (2b) must be satisfied prior to (2a). Principle (1) and Principle (2b) may also be thought of as principles of distributive justice: (1) to govern the distribution of liberties, and (2b) the distribution of opportunities. Looking at the principles of justice in this way makes all principles of justice, principles of distributive justice (even principles of retributive justice will be included on the basis that they distribute negative goods).

To understand Rawl’s Theory there are three ideas that need to be understood.  Here is a presentation of those three concepts by Professor R.J. Kilcullen .

The Original Position -John Kilcullen

Decisions in The Original Position -John Kilcullen
READ  The Liberty Principle -John Kilcullen

The main moral motivation for the Difference Principle is similar to that for strict equality: equal respect for persons. Indeed the Difference Principle materially collapses to a form of strict equality under empirical conditions where differences in income have no effect on the work incentive of people. The overwhelming opinion though is that in the foreseeable future the possibility of earning greater income will bring forth greater productive effort. This will increase the total wealth of the economy and, under the Difference Principle, the wealth of the least advantaged. Opinion divides on the size of the inequalities that would, as a matter of empirical fact, be allowed by the Difference Principle, and on how much better off the least advantaged would be under the Difference Principle than under a strict equality principle. Rawls’ principle however gives fairly clear guidance on what type of arguments will count as justifications for inequality. Rawls is not opposed to the principle of strict equality per se, his concern is about the absolute position of the least advantaged group rather than their relative position. If a system of strict equality maximizes the absolute position of the least advantaged in society, then the Difference Principle advocates strict equality. If it is possible to raise the position of the least advantaged further by inequality of income and wealth, then the Difference Principle prescribes inequality up to that point where the absolute position of the least advantaged can no longer be raised. 



Rawl's Basic  Terms and Overview/Review

A Rawl's Glossary

Detailed Overview of the Theory of Justice -John Kilcullen


John Rawls has written these books:

Rawls Bibliography


Overview Site

Rawls Online

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