Rawls on justice
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Rawls on justice. Michael Lacewing [email protected] Theories of distributive justice. Equality: everyone is equal, so everyone gets the ‘same’ Need: justice is everyone’s needs being met Desert: justice is everyone getting what they deserve

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Rawls on justice

Rawls on justice

Michael Lacewing

[email protected]


Theories of distributive justice

Theories of distributive justice

  • Equality: everyone is equal, so everyone gets the ‘same’

  • Need: justice is everyone’s needs being met

  • Desert: justice is everyone getting what they deserve

  • Rawls: complex combination, but starting from equality


Rawls starting point

Rawls’ starting point

  • Society is a system of cooperation for mutual advantage between individuals

  • Principles of justice should ‘define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social co-operation’. (A Theory of Justice, p. 4)

  • Principles of justice must be ‘the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association’ (p. 11).

  • So justice is fairness.


The original position

The ‘original position’

  • The ‘veil of ignorance’: For our agreement to secure a fair, impartial procedure, we need to eliminate any possible bias. So imagine that we come up with the principles of justice without knowing what our position in society will be or what we believe is ‘good’.

  • The goods to be distributed by justice are only those that we can assume everyone will want. These include rights, liberties, powers, opportunities, income, wealth, and self-respect.

  • We will only agree to an equal distribution, unless a certain amount of inequality will work to everyone’s advantage. And we will value our basic liberties more than other goods.


The two principles of justice

The two principles of justice

  • ‘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; and

  • social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both

    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged… and

    • attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.’ (p. 302)


The difference principle

The difference principle

  • All inequalities must benefit the worst off: is Rawls right that we would choose this principle? Consider the table below:

  • Should we ‘maximise the minimum’ (A) or ‘maximise the average’ (B)?


Self and society

Self and society

  • Rawls assumes that society is a cooperative pursuit of what is in our individual interest, which can be identified prior to our existence in society.

  • This assumes we are essentially separate, not essentially social.

  • Is the original position a position we can adopt? Would I be me in the original position? Not if my values are part of my identity.


Self and talents

Self and talents

  • Nozick: People are autonomous. They own themselves, and their talents, and so they own what they create with their talents. So it is wrong to tax them on what they earn. But Rawls rejects any inequality that doesn’t benefit the worst-off.

  • Rawls: What people own and earn is the result of their social position and their natural talents, both of which are morally arbitrary. Therefore, any inequalities in ownership are unjust.

    • This treats talents as a ‘common resource’, not something I own.


Property rights and justice

Property rights and justice

  • What rights people have to property can’t be decided before deciding on the principles of justice. People don’t have a right to the earnings their talents bring them, only to that share which they keep according to the principles of distributive justice.


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