John Rawls

A Theory of Justice

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A Theory of Justice Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 76-page guide for “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 9 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Original Position and The Veil of Ignorance.

Plot Summary

John Rawls published A Theory of Justice in 1971 and the work is credited with the rebirth of normative political philosophy. A Theory of Justice argues in support of Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness, which commands:

  • equal basic rights
  • equality of opportunity
  • and raising the prospects of the least advantaged in society.

To do this, Rawls employs a thought experiment called the original position. In the original position, mutually-disinterested rational persons, in a hypothetical original situation, shielded from the particulars of society and their place in it by what Rawls calls the veil of ignorance, agree on the kind of society in which they choose to live. This thought experiment leads Rawls down a social contractarian philosophical journey that addresses distributive justice from a Kantian perspective, with the aim of offering an alternative to utilitarian doctrines.

Through the original position, Rawls reasons the two principles of justice, which dictate that:

  • each person has the same claim to a full scheme of equal basic liberties
  • that offices and positions are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and
  • that social and economic inequalities must be arranged so that they benefit the least-advantaged members of society. Rawls refers to this last proposition as the difference principle.

An important element of Rawls’s two principles is that the first principle, that requiring equal liberty, is given priority to the second principle, and within the second principle equal opportunity is given priority to the difference principle. Through its eighty-seven sections, A Theory of Justice develops this theory to include:

  • a four-stage sequence for the development of principles and application of rules
  • addresses the problem of intergenerational justice
  • argues for inclusion of natural duties and obligation within the conception of justice
  • justifies civil disobedience and conscientious refusal as essential to any conception of justice, and
  • addresses the good, the right, self-respect, the excellences, shame, envy, and the principles of moral psychology.

All reasoning is performed with the objective of fully articulating the theory of justice as fairness, so that it may serve as a reasonable alternative to utilitarianism.

Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness is articulated in three parts, which support each other to form one unified theory. The first part of Rawls’s theory establishes its theoretical structure and includes the chapters“ Justice as Fairness,”“The Principles of Justice,” and “The Original Position.” The second part of the theory establishes the institutions of justice and includes the chapters “Equal Liberty,”“Distributive Shares,” and “Duty and Obligation.”The third part of his theory establishes that the principles established in Parts 1 and 2 create a feasible conception of justice. This third section includes the chapters “Goodness as Rationality,”“The Sense of Justice,” and “The Good of Justice.”

The final articulation of the two principles of justice as fairness is presented as follows:

“FIRST PRINCIPLE: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

“SECOND PRINCIPLE: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

“FIRST PRIORITY RULE (THE PRIORITY OF LIBERTY): 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 all; (b) a less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser liberty.

“SECOND PRIORITY RULE (THE PRIORITY OF JUSTICE OVER EFFICIENCY AND WELFARE): 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. There 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” (266).

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