“A Theory of Justice” Book by John Rawls


A Theory of Justice is one of the most prominent pieces of literature in political and moral philosophy. Through his deliberate attempt, Rawls tries to formulate a specific philosophy of justice that constitutes political compositions prepared for justice and personal liberty. The author’s concern is to express the way to establish a well-structured society in which people could enjoy all rights or live in mutual conformity on basic principles of morality and justice.

In this major work, Rawls discusses various issues such as personal liberty, social equality and the various conflicts in the society and individual. Rawls develops his views and concepts about Original Positions as a substitute for Utilitarianism. The author searches for more philosophical or abstract basis by beginning a discussion with the principles of justice, which would legalize ideal society. Furthermore the author defines how justice becomes restored to an undeserved society. Political liberty, liberty of speech, liberty of conscience, freedom for property and the freedom from arbitrary arrest are included in the basic liberties.

In his book entitled A Theory of Justice, John Rawls shares his views about the significance of personal liberties. The author says; “Now it is impossible, at least theoretically, that by giving up some of their fundamental liberties men are sufficiently compensated by the resulting social and economic gains.” (Rawls, 56). The paper discusses the role and effectiveness of Rawls theories and ideologies about welfare state, justice, liberty and public education. When analyzing Rawl’s theory, one understands that Rawl’s theory has great impact on the issues of estate tax, welfare society and public education. His theory of welfare state promotes solutions for the evilness of Utilitarianism.

The concept of justice

Rawls modifies the concept of justice and introduces specific principles of justice, as a substitute for the existing Utilitarianism. The problem is that the act, rule or institutions often will be both to the benefit of a specific group of people and to the disadvantage of other people. The principle of justice is important to the structure of constitutional democracy and also needed for the smooth functioning of a well ordered society.

In a sense of mental disruption, Rawls advances the notion that justice, as fairness is unrealistic for a democratic society. Rawls introduces two kinds of justice. The first one is principle of equal liberty; meaning each person has equal rights to the wide liberties well matched with the similar liberties of all. The second principle is the difference principle, which insists that the social and economic inequalities must be arranged in a new way.

Unequal distribution of benefits and burdens are the greatest curse of modern Utilitarian society. Rawls demands justice, which provides some benefit for the least advantaged while the most advantaged still benefits from this ‘median theory’; by raising the median of the standard of the living, it will somewhat benefit the least advantaged. This kind of justice is needed for establishing a welfare state. Implementation of effective system of taxation and public education system is based on the existence of the welfare state.

He says that the cooperation between citizens should be free and equal. He stresses the concept of primary goods such as the basic right and liberty, powers and prerogatives of office, income and wealth and the basis of self-respect. He gives the idea of “difference principles” which facilitates the freedom of both most and least advantaged by considering the worth of liberty. Justice, an unsettled tension between political and metaphysical implications, is independent of philosophical, moral and religious doctrines, which arise from the interpretive understanding in the traditions of constitutional democracy. Rawls has given importance to political constructivism.

He gives first priority to the liberty that means everyone must enjoy the freedom. The second principle of justice is wealth which gives importance to the principle of efficiency. The implication of efficiency includes the efficient allocation of wealth so that wealth should be utilized efficiently. According to Rawls, justice is general in form, it is universal in application, it is publicly recognized and it is a final authority and gives importance to conflicting claims but by analyzing these factors one can understand the fact that justice and laws are equal everywhere in abstract sense but it is yet to be fulfilled practically. It is subjectivity that plays a major role in implementing justice; so it is difficult to implement the justice as it is mentioned everywhere.

The author explains the relevance of the principles for the following purposes. Firstly to provide a structured way of transmission of rights and duties in the institutions of the society and the next one is to define the benefits and burdens.

One of the major problems is that people in the society are highly interested and ignorant of the bargaining strength of themselves and others. Rawls points out that “In this sense its members are autonomous and the obligations they recognized self- imposed.” (Rawls, 12) The ultimate aim of Rawls’s Theory is to find alternative to utilitarianism. For achieving the real, the basic rights and liberties of an individual should be free from political, racial, economical and social discriminations. When discussing individual justice Rawls differentiates obligations and duties of an individual.

The principle of Liberty

The first principle of justice by Rawls is called ‘the principle of greatest equal liberty.’ This principle asserts that each individual in the society must have equal rights to basic liberty as much as possible, which should be compatible with the rights of liberty for other individuals. Rawls says, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” (Rawls, 60).

This principle ensures that all individuals can enjoy the freedom in order to achieve their goals irrespective of class or race. Rawls speaks about an ‘original position’ where representatives who have limited information about the members of society and the interests they represent trying to ensure that people have equal liberty. In Rawls’ mind, the only way to generate a justificatory argument is to establish a theory under the assumption that the representative or we don’t know who we are.

From behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, rational representatives can provide individual attention to each member of the society without any discrimination and ensure that his client have enough opportunity to pursue his goals. Thus, the standard of liberty will increase. The liberty principle demands that the basic structure needs to give each individual with an adequate format of basic liberties. The author continues his arguments about the liberty principles, by mentioning that the basic liberty includes freedom for conscience, freedom for law and the freedom for expression of a citizen.

The fulfillment of this principle of justice may be achieved abstractly by a constitutional democracy, but in reality, there is wide disparity between individuals’ possession of wealth and property even though many democracies try to ensure equality of socio-political and economic opportunities. Liberty has a close relationship to constitutional and legal restrictions. According to this view, rights and duties of different institutions are also a part of liberty. The government and other authorities have responsibility to ensure that people do not face any obstacle for their liberty.

Liberty is not independent. One liberty is connected with many other liberties. All liberties are for protecting the fundamental interests of peoples. If due to poverty, unawareness and lack of generalization one cannot acquire the benefits of his rights and opportunities, it is counted as the limitation of definitive of liberty. Liberty and worth of liberty are not the same. The term liberty indicates total system of liberties to equivalent citizenship while the worth of liberty depends on the ability to move forward as per the structure with in the system defines.

This concept of liberty on duties and the worth of its own, defines Rawls’ take on conditional grants of welfare. With Locke, Rawls consent on a fact that the grants of welfare should be conditional, meaning, the social services should be based on the people’s willingness of the work. First, by defining the unemployment as social functions, Equal worth of liberty should be available or it should be a basic social minimum where unemployment can be present in order for our system to work.

Criticism against Utilitarianism

Rawls begins his attack against Utilitarianism by arguing that Utilitarianism denies individual liberties of a citizen. Rawls develops his concept of welfare state as a substitute for Utilitarianism. It is unfair that a society itself promotes citizen who enjoys the special right to shift benefits and burdens as per his own greater good. Utilitarianism promotes an ideology, which is based on the aim of maximum utility and it argues the absolute satisfaction of the users.

In his moral theory, Rawls makes meaningful criticism against Utilitarianism. The principles of Utilitarianism violate the basic ideals of human justice. The harmful result of Utilitarianism in a society is that it promotes poverty and slavery in the community.

Through maximizing the sum of utility over the society, it commits a serious violation of human justice. In case of a single person the theory of utilitarianism suggests enough justifications and personal benefits and burdens have a limited influence to the society. However, one cannot find any logical connections with the theory of Utilitarianism in an entire community. Rawls again remarks; “For just as it is rational for one man to maximize the fulfillment of his system of desires, it is right for a society to maximize the balance of satisfaction taken over all its members.” (Rawls, 23).

The author shares his views accompanied by some philosophical notions. A typical Utilitarian society should be biased or seriously influenced on the side of some desire system. The benefits and burdens are bounded with some external forces such as religion, sex, caste, and class when building utility computation. Therefore, without the concept of ‘veil of ignorance’, the distribution of benefits and burdens based on maximum utility is improbable and unfair.

A Utilitarian society demands a set of sacrifice and through this it creates a gap between the ideals of the society and the common requirements for justice. A Utilitarian can see the world of injustice around him, the existing social rules and regulations for social justice are inadequate and malfunctioning. In other words, citizens in a Utilitarian society act more selfishly and in a self-centered manner because they care less about the betterment of the society as whole. Here individuals are impelled or even compelled to avoid morality and justice.

Rawls’ views about estate tax, welfare, or educational equity and the concept of Original Position

Rawls’ theory of justice lays more emphasis on the term original position. Rawls concentrates on the idea of ‘a veil of ignorance’, which helps the people who live in a structure society that is formed and bounded by contracts. Rawls constitutes the term welfare society through the implementation of the baseline, which provides absolute economic equality. Rawls argues that his theory of different principle will treat people who are advantaged absolutely as a means to the betterment of the most wanted people who are less advantaged.

The web article titled Rawls, Utilitarianism, and the Welfare State: Did Rawls undermine what Utilitarianism Built? Gives a valuable comment about Rawls concept about welfare society. It says “From that baseline, Rawls’s difference principle, and his principle of fair equality of opportunity, treat people who are advantaged almost purely as a means to the betterment of those who are less advantaged.” (Rawls, Utilitarianism, and the Welfare State).

Rawls put forward the idea that helped to create public schools that ensure education for all including more disadvantaged. The theory of Original Position constitutes the innovative idea of public education. Rawls points out that behind the veil of ignorance people would not know if a child would grow up as the child of a wealthy person or a poor man. The author says that “Assume also that there is fair equality of opportunity underwritten by education for all: and that the other equal liberties are secured.” (Rawls, 87). The veil of ignorance helps individuals to conceal the external identities such as sex, age, financial stability and physical strength. Under the shadow of this veil, people are forced to follow acts and rules for the welfare of entire community.

Rawls argues that a proportional tax is more preferable for a welfare society. It encourages the incentives and it handles all the people in a uniform way. According to Rawls in a welfare state the government laws constitute equal distribution of property and wealth distributed as appropriate forms of taxation.

The term original position means people may disregard the external factors, strength and weaknesses. In an original position, people would like to agree to the principles because the given benefits do not allow a chance of disagreement. With this veil of ignorance people in original position will seek abstractly broadminded principles of religious and moral freedom. In the third chapter, Rawls says that “a state of affairs in which the parties are equally represented as moral persons and the outcome is not conditioned by arbitrary contingencies or the relative balance of social forces.” (Rawls, 120).

The individuals are presented as moral beings and the outcome is something conditioned or structured. Rawls considered original position as a development of the theories of social contract. People in an original position would choose the social justice as fairness and both the liberty principle and difference principle to preside over the basic configuration of the society. Here, people search for a life which is more secure, harmonious, friendly and highly co-operative because they have to consider the society foremost. Rawls is vague on the fact that in a Utilitarian community, the members are in any degree concerned for the comfort of humankind or another’s happiness. Yet he is not trying to tell us truth rather it is his will to just generate a justificatory argument that implies or insists us how to fix the justice before us.


The ultimate aim of Rawls’s ideology is to find an alternative for the existing Utilitarian philosophy. As a political philosopher, John Rawls reveals the problems of Western community, which followed the Utilitarian theory. Unlike Utilitarian society, the people will get equal right and equal liberty: most importantly the worth of liberty will be impartial to both the least and most advantaged. Rawls ensures that the distribution of benefits and burdens must be beyond the external factors such as political status, sex, religion, and financial stability. As an alternative Rawls introduces original position which provides an ideal life to its members.

Because of a complex justification, Rawls explores his concepts about liberty that questions our political behavior in 21st century. One can find that Rawls theory has a vital role in the process of the formation of a welfare society that brings down the evilness of Utilitarianism.

Works Cited

John, Rawls. A Theory of Justice Original Edition. New York: Belknap P, 2005.

Rawls, Utilitarianism, and the Welfare State: Did Rawls Undermine what Utilitarianism Built? THE PUSHPIN PUNDIT. 2006. Web.