Rawls on Justice

07 July 2010


One of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century, John  Rawls articulated a vision of a liberal state, focused on justice. His significant book was A Theory of Justice. Continuing the ideas of Locke and others, Rawls maintains the best way to think of the state is as the result of a social contract. Think of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, …. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

The connection to Rawls is that last idea, that Governments are instituted among men for a purpose, and so their powers are limited by the original agreement or social contract.  Like most modern theorists in this tradition, like Rawls, don’t bring in God as the source of the rights.  They say the control a state has over its citizens, and the control citizens have over themselves, comes out of this social contract.

However Locke thought of it, modern theorists certainly don’t think of the social contract as an actual event; it is rather a framework for thinking about what’s fair and just:  what would people agree to, if they were forming a state.  Like a lot of philosophical idea, it needs counterfactuals for its proper expression.

Rawls vision of the social contract has a special twist.  He thinks the deciders, the ones agreeing to the contract, should be behind a veil of ignorance.  That’s where some listeners might be surprised.  Usually if people are negotiating an important contract, you don’t want them to be ignorant.  What was he getting at?

The veil of ignorance is  a very clever idea Rawls had, to insure that the contract will be fair.  The participants should be disinterested.  That’s disinterested, not uninterested.  Disinterested meaning having no stake in the outcome --- like a judge.  But if the negotiators are ultimately governed by the state they’re creating, they have a stake in the outcome.  How could they possibly be disinterested?  The negotiators have to decide what rewards and duties the occupants of each role will have.  But they don’t get to know which role they are going to occupy.  So the negotiators will try to figure out a system so that, whatever role they individually end up playing, they can be sure of being treated fairly ---- the candlestick maker will know that his candlestick maker salary and candlestick maker duties are something that he has agreed to as fair, before he knew he was going to make candles.

One’s first inclination might be to go for equality.  It seems the safest thing would be to say that everything should be equal; everyone should be treated the same.  Same salary, same hours, same voting privileges, absolute equality.  Rawls doesn’t quite see it that way, however.  The principle of equality is the first principle of justice.  And with respect to political rights --- voting, property rights, and so forth, there are no exceptions.  But there is also a second principle he calls ``the difference principle”.  According to this, certain jobs get higher salaries and other benefits, so long as this works to the advantage of everyone.

Suppose that being a butcher or a baker is something anyone can do, but making candles is really tricky and also a lot of hard work, and it requires a long apprenticeship to learn the properties of waxes and wicks.  We want the best and the brightest citizens to be drawn into the difficult but crucial profession of candle making.  The negotiators, behind the veil of ignorance, don’t know if they will be candle makers or not.  They don’t even know if they have the special talents necessary for candle making.  Still, because candle making is so essential and so difficult, they will agree that the candle makers should be more richly rewarded than butchers or bakers.

So basically Rawls thinks the structure of the state will conform to the equality principle, with everyone having the same political rights, but some differences are allowed for special goods and services, if justified by the difference principle. 

To tell us about some of the subtleties, and to tell us about the major objections to Rawls, we’ve got one of the major political philosophers of the 21st century, Stanford’s own Josh Cohen, a man who studied with John Rawls.

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, July 14, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"Good and evil, reward and punishment, are the onl

"Good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided."
John Locke. I am an avid reader of John Locke's works. I tend to compare the present from the past on philosophical aspect.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, July 27, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"The veil of ignorance is a very clever idea Rawl

"The veil of ignorance is a very clever idea Rawls had, to insure that the contract will be fair."
ensure, not insure.

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 1, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Rawls' theoretical justice, is no different than

Rawls' theoretical justice, is no different than the theories of science, or for that same matter the clouded faiths of religion; they are unfortunately nothing but manmade veils of ignorance. Whereas truth for those so in the dark, is simply and clearly the enlightenment of the absolute. I think our time would be better spent discussing it.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, August 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

...our time would be better spent removing those v

...our time would be better spent removing those veils that obscure us, to reveal our absolute true selves.
Descartes' method is a great Way to go, try it and see.

mikesonofwil's picture


Sunday, February 21, 2021 -- 12:42 PM

I just listened to the

I just listened to the rebroadcast of the Rawls program, and I was hoping there’d be some discussion of Rawls’ stipulation in “Theory of Justice” that – in order for his theory to work in the real world – it would have to enjoy full compliance.

Presumably, in the original position (the point at which participants come together to form a social contract), all participants would be in agreement on all matters pertaining to their collaborative welfare because all would be rational and because, in the original position as defined, all would be free from historical antecedents. Thus, the original position is a tautology where all have the same aims because all differences are excluded as irrational.

Nevertheless, the concept of compliance and its opposite (a concept included very conscientiously by Rawls) leads me to perceive noncompliance as withdrawal of the consent of the governed and, thus, an effective tool of protest. In our current political/economic regime, politicians are beholden to powerful corporate influence, which makes them abettors of those who hold power disproportionately in determining priorities of social and environmental justice. This means that the most effective form of protest is not to shake our fists at politicians, not to vote them out of office (because they will be replaced by new office-holders forced to serve the oligarchs if they want to accomplish anything and get re-elected), but to refuse to pay what they claim we owe them. If, in massive numbers, we stop paying our bills while demanding corrections to social inequities, we can force corporate managers to prioritize fairness over maximizing dividends for their investors. I know it doesn’t sound easy, but it’s the only effective tool available.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 4, 2021 -- 5:18 PM

Cross posting from the 2012

Cross posting from the 2012 show...

The very nature of humanity and the ecology of the earth is changing from the world of Rawls. Our relations with technology and ecology are going to define our best selves.

The U.S. Military is an interesting use case for the ignorant veil - though I wouldn't want to write that out too far without caveat. In short, the ranks, chain of command, soldiers, non commissioned officers and officers alike - have a Rawlsian nature where everyone's role is defined and monetized for the greater good.

Another interesting use case are the virtual societies like Second Life, the Sims and Minecraft where people sometimes literally buy in with an assumed equality void of cultural pretense.

This is difficult territory. Interesting to hear these older shows hit forward to current politics (we are currently going through the 2nd Impeachment of Donald Trump - where liberal, liberty and assaults on our overlapping consensus are being worked out.)

Fun times... Rawls helps but this is far from the final word.