John Rawls’ theory of Justice

Justice is primarily of discovering the right course of action. It is mainly concerned with providing fair treatment to every individual without any due.

John Rawls is an American philosopher. A good society is characterized by several virtues. He believes justice is the first virtue of a good society. According to Rawls, the problem of justice consists in ensuring a just distribution of primary goods which include rights, liberties, power, wealth, opportunity and so on.

In the first place, Rawls severely criticized the idea of “Utilitarian theory”. The Utilitarian theory emphasizes the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’. But he argue that “justice for all” is important. It is not for majority or minority, but all. He feels that the maximum amount of happiness for one section can be produced by the distressing or enslavement of a minority.

John Rawls described his society as well order and very just. He also defines the character of the individuals in his society as follows:

– Moral in nature

– Believe in reciprocity

– Always follows ethics

A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you would be willing to enter it in a random place

John Rawls

Strict compliance theory is followed by the people in Rawls’ society. It means rules and regulations should be strictly followed. A slight deviation from them also is not allowed. Rawls’ theory is very hypothetical. It applies to a limited area. It cannot be applied to the global level. So, we can say that it can be followed in a closed system.

John Rawls concentration is not on the concept of justice i.e.,( Equal distribution or protection of resources and property), but on the conception of justice. The conception of justice means the rules and regulations in a society can be framed by the approval of all the people in that society. And they are free to change those rules at any time but the consensus of all people is mandatory. Here, he also used the term social contract, which means a group of people agreeing on certain principles.

Rawls’ theory is connected with the social contract, but it is different from Thomas hobbes’ social contract. According to Hobbes, the state deal with a variety of issues in people’s lives and it is systematic prospective. In systematic theory, justice is one part. Whereas, Rawls focus is only on justice. So it is not systematic.

An institution is a public system that defines offices and positions with their rights, duties and power. Social institutions are the fundamental aspect of Rawls theory. There can be constituent rules of an institution to establish rights, duties in society. And there can be strategies and maxims to an institution. They used to take the best advantage of the institution for a particular purpose.

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Individuals are regulated by the institutions. At the same time, all the rules given by the institutions are formulated with everyone consent. So, there is no ‘force’ factor here. The principle of justice is the end and social institutions act as means to achieve the end. Rawls used procedural justice as his instrument. Procedural justice concerned with impartiality, fairness and giving voice to its people along with transparency in delivering justice.

Rawls proposed the chain of connection which ask to start strengthening the weakest link to strengthen a chain. And have to repeat the process by identifying the weakest link on each occasion.

Rawls introduced three important concepts to ensure the ethical character of the people. They are

  1. Initial situation
  2. Original position
  3. Veil of ignorance

The initial situation is the state of nature. In the original position, people were not aware of their social and economic circumstances. They are not conscious of their class, caste, the importance of being wealthy, etc. They are covered in a veil of ignorance where they do not know any conditions which lead to discrimination and conflict in society. They just have some ‘sense of justice’. Rawls thought that the people who are in the veil of ignorance will recommend the greatest benefit for the least advantaged.

The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance

John Rawls

He proposed two principles of justice agreed to in the original position, initial situation and veil of ignorance.

First principle

Ensuring basic liberties to every individual. Basic liberties includes

i. political liberty

ii. Liberty of conscience

iii. Freedom of thought and expression

Second principle

The Second principle has two parts

  • Difference principle – any departure or violation from equal distribution of primary goods can be justified only when it could be proved to bring the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.
  • Equality of opportunity, acquiring positions or offices.

Critical appraisal

  1. John Rawls’ theory of justice gave much importance to basic liberties than the economic needs of the people.
  2. It marginalizes the efficiency because he does not give priority to individual enhancement.
  3. Physically challenged people lack the ability to do their desired action. But, Rawls theory not talked about the welfare of that section.
  4. A slight improvement in the condition of the most disadvantaged section will be treated as an excuse to permit vast socio-economic inequalities.
  5. identifying the disadvantaged sections is very difficult. if income and wealth are treated the sole criteria for identify such sections, then what about people with disability or suffering with emotional insecurity

Rawls’ theory is the convergence of libertarian as well as communitarianism. With the chain of connection principle, it went close to communitarianism. By emphasizing basic liberties, and giving a chance to liberate themselves by framing their rules in the veil of ignorance brought this theory close to libertarianism.

At the end of the day, Justice is a dynamic idea that continuously changes based on our social consciousness. That’s why many philosophers, social scientists and also common people come up with their own sense of justice definition.

The sense of justice is continuous with the love of mankind

John Rawls

References: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

An Introduction to Political theory by O P Gauba

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