Of Philosophy

Justice as Fairness

Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002 ) developed a conception of justice as fairness in his now classic work A Theory of Justice . Using elements of both Kantian and utilitarian philosophy, he has described a method for the moral evaluation of social and political institutions.

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance . Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the "real world", however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

In this original position , behind the veil of ignorance, what will the rational choice be for fundamental principles of society? The only safe principles will be fair principles, for you do not know whether you would suffer or benefit from the structure of any biased institutions. Indeed the safest principles will provide for the highest minimum standards of justice in the projected society.

To use a more mundane illustration, imagine that you had the task of determining how to divide a cake fairly among a group of individuals. What rule or method should govern the cutting? A simple one would be to let the person who does the cutting receive the last piece. This would lead that person to cut all pieces as equally as possible in order to receive the best remaining share. (Of course if the pieces were cut unequally, someone would get the largest share, but if you are the cutter, you can hardly rely on that piece being left over at the end.)

Rawls argues that in a similar manner, the rational individual would only choose to establish a society that would at least conform to the following two rules:


 Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others.

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.


The first principle–often called the Liberty Principle — is very Kantian in that it provides for basic and universal respect for persons as a minimum standard for all just institutions. But while all persons may be morally equal, we also know that in the "real world" there are significant differences between individuals that under conditions of liberty will lead to social and economic inequalities.

The second principle–called the Difference Principle –permits such inequalities and even suggests that it will be to the advantage of all (similar to the utility principle), but only if they meet two specific conditions.  Thus the principles are not strictly egalitarian, but they are not laissez faire either.  Rawls is locating his vision of justice in between these two extremes.



Copyright © 1997 Charles D. Kay. All rights reserved.