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Rawls Theory of Justice

Rawls Theory of Justice

  • John Rawls has sought to accommodate social justice and procedural justice together in hid theory of justice. John Rawls, in his celebrated work A Theory of Justice, points out that a good society is characterized by a number of virtues and justice is the first virtue of a good society. That is, justice is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a good society.
  • According to Rawls, the problem of justice consists in ensuring a just distribution of ‘primary goods’, such as- rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, self-respect and so on.
  • Rawls theory of justice is a pure procedural theory. It means that once certain principles of justice are unanimously accepted, the distribution resulting from these will be necessarily just.
  • He attacks utilitarianism because in calculating the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ it may violate the rights of any particular individual. Rawls argues that the sufferings of the distressed or minority cannot be compensated by enhancing the joys of the prosperous or majority.
  • Rawls evolves a unique method to arrive at a unanimous procedure of justice. Following the tradition of the ‘social contract’ Rawls has envisaged an ‘original position’ by abstracting the individuals from their particular social and economic circumstances. These individuals are placed behind a veil of ignorance, where they are supposed to be deliberating as rational agents.
  • They are completely ignorant of their interests, skills and abilities as well as of the conditions which lead to discrimination and conflict in society. But they have an elementary knowledge of economics and psychology, and also have a ‘sense of justice’. They are self-interested but not egoists.
  • According to Rawls, in such a state of uncertainty, each individual will hypothetically place oneself in ‘the least advantaged position’ while recommending the criteria of allocation of the primary goods and thereby, each of them will demand greatest benefit for the least advantaged and thus, they would unanimously accept justice as fairness.


  • Macpherson argues that Rawls does not present a universal account of justice but an account which is culture-specific and rationalizes liberal beliefs and values.
  • Communitarian critique: Communitarians object to the idea that individuals abstracted from their social, economic and cultural contexts can make choices. Michael Walzer in his book, Spheres of Justice, argues that no system of justice can be evaluated as inherently just or unjust.
  • He says, the goods that need to be distributed are social goods because their meanings and values are created socially. Thus, justice can only be understood within a communal framework and not on the basis of abstract, universal principles.                                  Rawls Theory of Justice
  • Feminist critique: Susan Moller Okin in her book, Justice, Gender and the Family, argues that any theory of justice which is silent about the inequalities within the family is an incomplete one.
  • Susan’s suggestion is to deny people in the original position any knowledge of whether they are men or women and then undertake an evaluation of the family, for it is part of the basic structure of the society. She argues, this will result in an evaluation of the injustices within the family and thus, a truly humanist notion of justice could be created.
  • Amartya Sen’s extension of Rawls’ Theory of Justice: According to Amartya Sen, liberty is central to Rawls’ theory of justice. Sen’s approach to justice is based on capability.
  • He says that capability means a person’s freedom to choose between alternative lives that they value. Sen argues that equality of freedom to pursue our ends cannot be guaranteed by equal distribution of what Rawls describes as primary goods.                                          Rawls Theory of Justice

People not only value different things as good but they also have varying capabilities to achieve freely the ends that they value. Variations could be related to age, sex or genetic endowments. These variations influence people’s abilities differently to build freedom in their lives, despite having the same primary resources.




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