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A Rawlsian Theory of Justice

Updated on July 15, 2013

The Original Position

In the formulation of a society faced with a limitation of resources Rawls is in pursuit of a means by which all potential citizens of this society would choose mutually agreed upon principles of justice. The mode of justice can be characterized as, "justice as fairness," namely in regard to wealth and resource distribution.

He directs his hypothetical citizens toward his two main tenets of Justice;

The Liberty Principle &

The Difference Principle

He places these citizens in his, "Original Position, " which is characterized by what he terms, "The Veil of Ignorance," which is a construct that prevents them from foreseeing their place within society a priori to the formation and commencement of that society. The principles of justice will be established collectively from behind this veil which will prevent the formulation of social advantage conferred upon any particular group.

Since every individual is ignorant of their place within society, including class, social status, assets and distribution of resources as well as personal faculties including intelligence, strength, and any other condition that may aid in success or hinder it, this, "Veil of Ignorance," will presumably set the stage for the citizens who do not know their respective places in this society to arrive at a theory that will maximize benefits to the least advantaged. This theory is characterized by The Liberty Principle and The Difference Principle.

Again it is important to point out that this is a thought experiment not meant to have a actual pragmatic application or logistical means of utilization by any group of people.

The Liberty principle and The Difference Principle

The Liberty Principle takes a certain kind of precedence in that it is inviolate, even in the maintenance of The Difference Principle.

Rawls theorizes that basic liberties for all, under his veil, to run for public office, to speak freely and to assemble, to manage personal assets and to be afforded due process would be universally adopted. There is some limitation on liberties that are taken for granted but not necessarily basic such as monopolizing control over a means of production or engaging in a contractual agreement completely free of government regulation.

Rawls recognizes that some basic rights will come into conflict and that arbitration in the form of give and take might be necessary in establishing the most inclusive system of individual rights.

The Difference Principle mandates that economic inequality be arranged so as to be of optimal advantage to the least-privileged members of the society. This point is of import in that it is not arguing for social egalitarianism but recognizes that society as a whole and the least well-off in particular may be more advantage by an unequal control of primary good (those things that rational people want) and this inequality of control is permitted so long as it is arranged to most benefit the least fortunate.

Further, he is moving to moderate the advantage provided by arbitrarily acquired innate talents. He does not regard the ability to acquire indiscriminately as necessarily just when predicated on advantage or incidental individual merit.

The second part of The Difference Principle, which is lexically prior to the first, ensures that all individual's have a reasonable opportunity to develop the skills and merits to allow equal access to all offices and opportunities.

Critiques of "A Theory of Justice"

The contention that the difference principle may not be adequate to allow for equal opportunity to all offices and positions because of the great disparities in wealth, talent, and opportunity that will naturally emerge in a population is a legitimate critique.

Bloom criticizes Rawls' aim at societal concord as the ultimate goal of Justice thus relegating the natural rights to an inferior position in regard to a social construct.

Further concerns ascribed to people's inability to fully exploit primary goods even if they had full access to them have been leveled at Rawls.

In focusing on the basic structure of society, feminist critics have contended that Rawls neglects familiar relationships and Patriarchy in general in his theory.

Sandel further criticizes Rawls for supposing that our hypothetical, "veiled" population could formulate a theory of justice from a place of ignorance divorced from the values that define and elicit justice.

Others have maintained that the reflective equilibrium engendered by the original position could result in a plethora of alternate constructs other than the one characterized by Rawls' two principles.

Despite these critiques "A Theory of Justice," remains a mainstay in the study of Political Philosophy and a rather interesting thought experiment to consider.


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