John Rawls’ Theory of Justice


Rawls, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, posited a liberal political theory, modifying the social contract theory in conceptualizing the liberal democratic state. 

In going beyond the traditional way of conceiving social contract , Rawls perceived justice primarily as fairness. 

His assertion that ‘justice is the first virtue of society’  (Cohen, p.685) —

intuitively resonates with one’s idea of a society as comprising of  people guided by ethical and moral rules that underpin social solidarity.

The argument raised by legal positivists that the positive laws of a Sovereign state derive their legitimacy solely from the norms enacted by their legislature is questionable in view of Rawls’ assertion that:

“Laws  and institutions no matter how efficient and well -arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.”  ( Cohen. p.685) 

The fact that laws legally enacted by the legislature of a Sovereign state may be unjust and even cruel in the treatment of individuals is not inconceivable;

Hannah Arendt considers the nature of totalitarian rule in States such as historical Nazi Germany;

the rule of such states –

‘far from being ‘lawless’ …goes to the sources of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate recognition …far from being arbitrary more obedient to these superhuman forces than any government ever was before, —

and that far from wielding its power in the interests of one man, it is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what it assumes be the law of History or the law of Nature.” ( Cohen, p. 548)

Thus the laws of a Sovereign State may be in the guise of positive laws legitimately created by a State, invoking a superior form of justice that is argued to transcend the interests of individuals and have its source in a ‘higher form of legitimacy’. (Arendt quoted in Cohen, p.548).

In the contemporary world today, the legislative effect of nationalistic policies of States promulgating ethnical, linguistic and racial superiority of certain groups of people bodes ill for the protection of the rights of minorities and vulnerable individuals.

Rawls’ theory of justice is premised on the supposition that a society is a self- sufficient association of persons ‘who in their relations to one another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part act in accordance with them.” ( Cohen, p.686) 

Rawls acknowledges that such a society would not only be characterized by a degree of cooperation among its members , for their mutual benefit, —

but also by a conflict of interests since ‘persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share.”(Cohen, p.686).

This need to satiate the insatiable social needs and aspirations for wealth, fame and success within the individual is a theme explored by the sociological writer, Durkheim in his theory of anomie or normlessness.

Principles of social justice are therefore imperative in ensuring ‘a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.” ( Cohen, p.686).

Such a society in Rawls’ perception  would be a well-ordered society which is governed by a public conception of justice defined as :

‘a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the other accepts the same principles of justice , and–

(2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles .”

(Cohen, p.686)

From this perspective, even if individuals within a society evince a form of self- interest in their interactions with others in achieving individualistic goals , ‘a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship.'( Cohen p. 686)

The question remains, however,  of how one defines ‘a shared conception of justice.’

To Rawls’, justice must be conceived as:

‘political, not metaphysical….capable of being the object of an overlapping consensus amongst such reasonable doctrines.'( Brown, p.8)

In this analysis those who advocate, for instance, for the rights of stateless immigrants would not be able to plausibly defend their views based on their particularistic religious beliefs;

‘they must employ only those arguments to which other believers in other reasonably comprehensive doctrines can reasonably be expected to respond.’ (Brown p.8), —

by for instance invoking the protection of Refugee rights enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

A Rawlsian approach to justice would not necessarily reject differing  conceptions of justice specific to some liberal and non- liberal States as long as they ‘still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties”(Cohen, p. 686).

Thus the arbitrary detention by a State of political dissidents or human rights activists advocating democratic reforms to a society would be deemed unjust in the absence of due process rights, for instance, to a fair trial and  legal representation afforded to such individuals.

Rawls’ Theory of Justice

Rawls’ theory of justice begins with the reconceptualization of the theoretical idea of social contract, propounded  by writers such as Rousseau and Locke, entered into by self-interested individuals with a sovereign involving the setting up of government.

The question posed is: how can those from diverse backgrounds, varying religious, ethical beliefs, and conflicting interests,—

involving for example, property claims and payment of taxes agree to a social contract with a government for the fair allocation of such obligations and rights of such individuals? 

Rawls’ answer to this question posits justice as fairness underlying a fictional social contract which one enters into, characterized by the following features:

‘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.’ (Cohen, p.688)

The principles of justice, from this perspective, are chosen behind a veil of ignorance to ensure that ‘no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance in the contingency of circumstances.'( Cohen p.688). 

A far cry, you could say, from a traditional understanding of how burdens and rights in society are perceived to be allocated by Sovereign States among individuals and groups of people, —

allocated in ways that are contingent upon one’s social and political status, wealth and at times, even one’s religious, linguistic and ethnical background.

The idea gleaned from Rawls’ analysis is that if one possesses knowledge of, for instance, one’s disadvantaged financial or economic status, one would presumably support the taxing of the wealthier classes to ensure the distribution of benefits for the poorer segments of society;

the converse of this situation would be an argument in support of exempting the rich from taxes if one were a wealthy capitalist or entrepreneur. 

The purpose of Rawls’ fictional existence of a veil of ignorance among individuals in the original position and the corresponding conditions impinging on such a fictional social contract is to ensure the representation of equality among such individuals.

To realize:

“equality between human beings as moral persons, as creatures having a conception of their good and capable of a sense of justice,” –\

defining ”the principles of justice as those which rational persons concerned to advance their interests would consent as equals —

when none are known to be advantaged or disadvantaged by social and natural contingencies.”

( Cohen , p.691)

Two principles of Justice postulated by Rawls

Rawls’ two principles of justice include:

”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.” ( Cohen, p.692)

Equal individual liberties satisfying Rawls ‘ first formulation of justice would comprise of every individual citizen possessing the same basic rights of :

political liberty ( the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought;

freedom of the person along with the right to hold personal property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure …” 

(Cohen, p.692)

These  individual liberties embedded within the first principle of justice arguably give meaning to what it means to be a sentient moral human being, —

whose unique individuality is expressed through and mediated by his or her’s  expansive thoughts, musings and emotions,-

and reflected in such a person’s speech and interaction with others within a society.

Underpinning such a notion of equal liberties is the idea of the inherent dignity of every human being, —

regardless of his or her political status in life or the political society which he or she is part of.

It is imperative to note that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

‘‘…the inherent dignity and … the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Preamble to the UDHR 1948

Having prioritized the first principles of justice,  Rawls in his second principle argues that the presence of unequal distribution of wealth and income must be such that–

it is ‘to everyone’s advantage , and at the same time , positions of authority and office of command must be accessible to all’. 

The hierarchical ordering of these two principles suggest that ‘a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages”, —

since ”injustice… is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.” ( Cohen, p.692)

How is democratic equality among individuals in a society achieved?

Rawls argues that “democratic equality is arrived at by —

combining the principle of fair equality with the difference principle ….

the higher expectations of those situated are just —

if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.” ( Cohen, p.694)

in this analysis of ‘democratic equality’ or a perception of justice as fairness we observe an inextricable link, drawn by Rawls,  between the treatment of wealthier individuals and that of the less well off in society.

As Rawls states:

”The intuitive idea is that the social order is not to establish and secure the more attractive prospects of those better off unless doing so is to the advantage of those less well off.’ ( Cohen p.694) 


Brown, C. (2002) ‘The Construction of a ‘Realistic Utopia’: John Rawls and International Political Theory’, Review of International Studies, 28:1, pp. 5-21.

COHEN, M. (2018). Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts from Plato to Populism. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN 1948. Online:



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