To justice is the primary feature of

To understand Rawls meaning behind justice,
the following ideas will be the primary focus of this essay; the original
position, the veil of ignorance, the principles of justice and the priority
rules although several other principles are discussed in his book. However the
theory has come under critique by fellow philosophers such as Dworkins and Okin
whose position will be discussed in this essay. This essay will aim to justify
that Rawls’s understanding of justice is correct, by analytically disproving
the argument presented by fellow philosophers.

To begin with, Rawls understanding of the role
of justice is critical to understanding Rawls meaning of justice. Rawls
believes that justice is the primary feature of social institutions therefore however
effective laws or even institutions maybe, they must be removed if they are
unjust for society. According to Rawls there is an individuality of benefits,
since social cooperation’s enable the opportunity of an improved life for
everyone, which wouldn’t have been attainable by individual efforts, however
there is also a battle of interests, as those involved are unware how the interest
should be distributed fairly, as everyone would favour a larger share. As a
result of this conflict Rawls suggests that principles of social justice are
need to identify the proper distributive shares which deliver the correct
portioning of the benefits and problems of social cooperation. Furthermore,
Rawls considers the original agreement to be the overriding doctrine of the
principles of justice, a basic position recognised as equal by a rational
person concentrated on increasing their own interests which govern the form of
social cooperation that can be entered. This classification of the principle of
justice, are to be named justice as fairness1

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The first notion which illustrates Rawls’s
meaning behind justice is the original position. Rawls states that the original position is a hypothetical condition which enables the conclusion towards a
definitive conception of justice. In the original position, individuals within
the society are oblivious to important human characteristics such as class
position, intelligence and strength. The principles of justice are selected
behind a veil of ignorance; the purpose of this practice is to ensure that no
one in society gains an advantage or is disadvantaged in the choice of the principles,
by reason of usual chance or the eventuality of social conditions. For Rawls,
as everyone is in a similar position, without the ability to formulate
principles which favour their specific conditions this allows the principles of
justice to lead to an equal agreement. The individuals within the original position
are equal therefore have similar rights in choosing principles, to make
proposals, submit reason for their acceptance, as so on, which embodies
equality amongst humans beings as moral persons. Alongside the veil of
ignorance, which will be discussed further along in the essay; these
circumstances exemplify the principles of justice, as those which free persons
motivated to develop their interests would agree to as equal, when they aren’t
influenced by the rewards and difficulties of communal and natural

Rawls provides a method to view the original
position, which would enable us to gather whether the principles picked match
the measured conviction of justice, or encompass them in an acceptable manner.
The application of these principles could lead to two possible outcomes, one
which would be the identical judgement about civilization that we would make instinctively,
in which we have the ultimate assurance, or where we are hesitant about our
current judgements, and these principles deliver solutions, which we are then
able to confirm through consideration. According to Rawls there are certain
questions that have a fixed answer, for example that religious intolerance and
racial discrimination are unjust, based on unbiased judgements that are unlikely
to be affected by an extreme consideration of our own benefits, however the question
of what is right distribution of wealth and authority does not have a fixed

For Rawls, to find the perfect answer we start
by describing the situation, which exemplifies normally shared and preferably
fragile conditions, to see whether these conditions are resilient enough to
yield a significant set of principles, if not then we aim to find
correspondingly rational principles, but if so and these principle complement
our measured beliefs of justice, then this satisfactory.  As there are likely to be inconsistencies, this
means that we have choice to change the account of the original situation or
reconsider our current judgement. This process is likely to lead to a solution
which concurs with the original position, thereby articulating conditions that
are considered rational and produce principles which match our judgement. Rawls
refers to this as the reflective equilibrium
“because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective
since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of
their derivation4”.

Furthermore Rawls proposes the notion of ‘the
strain of commitments’, as each party will be mindful that they have a sense of
justice, this means that they will be bound by any principles that they select,
knowing that they 5
“cannot enter into agreements that may
have consequence that they cannot accept”6
therefore all the parties must evaluate the consequences that there selected
principles will have on other individuals. For this reason Rawls argues that
following his principle would be far simpler than those of average utility, as
for the benefit of the parties, this would eliminate living with7″the
worst eventualities”8

The purpose of the original position is to
create a fair procedure, so that the principles approved are just. The intention
is to use the principles of justice, to remove the consequences of
eventualities which enable people to take advantage of natural and social
circumstances for their own good. Rawls believes to nullify this procedure the
parties are positioned behind the veil of ignorance.9

The veil of ignorance is a situation where the
parties will be anonymous of exacting facts, for example “no one knows his place in society, his class position … his
intelligence and strength… More than this, I assume that the parties do not
know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not
know its economic or political situation or the level of civilization and
culture it has been able to achieve…
the persons in the original position
have no information as to which generation they belong.” The purpose of
this disclosure is to ensure that the parties decide their principles based on
universal considerations. The wider restrictions imposed on knowledge, as there
because queries of social justice ascend among generations as well as within
them, for example the appropriate rate of capital saving.10 However
it is presumed that the parties will have knowledge of general facts about
human society, such as “political affairs
and the principles of economic theory”, but most importantly there will be
no limitations placed on the intake of general information for the parties as
the principles of justice must be adapted based on the characteristics of society,
which they control11

These observations suggest that the original
position shouldn’t be thought of as a universal assembly, which at one moment
includes everyone that will live at some point, or as an assembly that may live
at some time, as this understanding would lack intellect, along with failing to
be a guiding intuition. For Rawls, the original positon must be implemented, as
such whereby a person can at any time adopt its perception, without taking into
consideration when and who the viewpoint is taken by, but the restriction being
that same principle are always chosen. The veil of ignorance is a key factor in
meeting this requirement, as it makes sure that not only is the information
applicable, but identical at all times12

Furthermore Rawls provides two principles of
justice that complement the original position13:

principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the
most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme
of liberties for others.

Second principle: 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

These principles relate, to the ordinary
structure of society and govern the privileges imposed on parties, including controlling
the supply of financial benefits. The first principle requires that rules defining
basic freedoms, apply to all similarly and that they permit the most extensive
freedom, with a comparable freedom for everyone.  The second principle applies, to the
allocation of income and prosperity. Although the distribution of wealth
doesn’t have to be fair, importantly it must be to everyone’s benefit and
positions of power should be available to all. Rawls identifies 4 interpretations
of the Difference principle, those being Natural aristocracy, Liberal equality,
Natural liberty and the one chosen by Rawls is Democratic equality. As the ‘positions
and offices open to all’ is to be interpreted to demand equal opportunity,
therefore this standard removes obvious discrimination enabling individuals
with equal talents to have similar opportunities to gain success without the
influence of hereditary privileges. The distinguishing factor, between the
democratic equality principle and the other principles identified by Rawls, is the
inclusion of the difference principle when interpreting ‘to everyone’s
advantage’ as under the difference principle the least advantaged are those with
less than half the average wealth, therefore the difference principle aims to
remove the subjective nature of abilities affecting life chances14

In addition to this, the priority rules are
interrelated to the principles of justice and encompass Rawls’s argument about how
the principles of justice are to be applied.15


The principles of justice are to be ranked in
lexical order and therefore the basic liberties can be restricted only for the
sake of liberty.

There are two cases:

 (a) A
less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberties shared by

 (b) A
less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser liberty


The second principle of justice is lexically
prior to the principle of efficiency and to that of maximizing the sum of
advantages; and fair opportunity is prior to the difference principle.

are two cases:

(a) An inequality of opportunity must enhance
the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity;

(b) An excessive rate of saving must on
balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship

Rawls states that these rules are to be
organized in sequential order, with the first principle preceding the second.
The purpose of this assembling is to ensure that intrusions of the basic equal
liberties, which are secured by the first principle can’t be reimbursed for,
nor be secure by superior capital advantages.16
For Rawls, the priority of liberty has a logical significance for the reason
being that as the principles of justice should be applied in lexical order this
implies an ordinal separation of all supplementary features of the theory to
which they relate. The priority rules enable Rawls to differentiate between the
principles of justice from his “general conception” of justice.  Without the priority rules, Rawls principles
would disintegrate in to solitary general principles that17 “all social primary goods…are to be
distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods
is to the advantage of the least favored”18

While Rawls proposes a strong account of his
theory of justice, the ideas have still come under great criticism. Dworkin questions
the hypothetical nature and practicality of the original positon, whereas Okin
argues that the principle of justice don’t apply to a family.

Firstly, Dworkins question the practicality of
the original position. For Rawls, justice is a contract amongst two persons
behind the veil of ignorance. Dworkin refutes this notion, by suggesting that
justice is not a genuine agreement, but rather a hypothetical one which reinforces
Dworkins difficulty in understanding the practical nature of the original position.  As Dworkin states “A hypothetical contract is not simply a
pale form of an actual contract; it is no contract at all” thereby arguing that theoretical agreements, have no
power to bind individuals to fulfill the promises they have made, unlike real
agreements.19 On the other hand, Rawls
could suggest that justice as an agreement shouldn’t be considered as the fundamentals
of his theory, but rather a director concerning the principles of justice. In
this situation, Rawls would interpret the principles as the accepted right of
every person to have equivalent advantages and disadvantages, therefore the
original position alongside the veil of ignorance provide a better
understanding of the rights to equal rewards and difficulties.

Secondly, Okin argues that for
Rawls the family is non-political, therefore irrelevant to the principles of
justice. Okin suggests that by placing the family in a similar group as
churches, Rawls likens the family to a voluntary association whereby members
can leave at any time, thereby disregarding the internal justice of the family.
As Rawls discounts the family from the political, this formulates a separation amongst
the private and political life, which resurrects the mistakes of the
traditional social contract theorists. In response to Rawls’s beliefs, Okin
states that “the
family is a social institution that defies Rawls’ political/nonpolitical
dichotomy” which means that the family is political in
two ways. Firstly, within families problems of power and allotting of resources
occur, and secondly, families have substantial political and social effects
within society.20
Okin further argues that Rawls’s evaluation of the family to a voluntary
association such as a church is incorrect as an individual doesn’t have a
choice in which family he is born in to, unlike voluntary establishments.21

However Rawls argues that the principles are
applicable to a family and that they guarantee equal rights for both women and
their children. Rawls states that the doctrines of political justice apply to
the “basic structure of society
understood as the arrangement of society’s main institutions into a unified
system of social cooperation over time”, however the principles don’t apply
to the internal life of the numerous relations within society, of which the
family is one. Nevertheless Rawls does acknowledge that these principles
enforce “essential constrains” on the
family as they “guarantee basic rights
and liberties and fair opportunities for all its members” therefore the
basic rights and freedoms of the wife will unquestionably be secured by the restrictions
imposed on the family as a basic structure as well as equal opportunities in
the community22

To conclude, Rawls’s conception of justice can
be considered to be an important influence on jurisprudential beliefs. This
essay has examined the main features of Rawls theory of justice and the
application of those principles in society in order to achieve a just outcome
when distributing wealth or other goods. The central criticisms of the theory
have also been critically discussed, showing that although the original
position is a hypothetical situation this shouldn’t be considered as the
guiding principle of the actual theory, as well as rebutting the argument that
the principles of justice aren’t applicable to a family situation.


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