Rawl’s Theory of Justice Summary

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Justice is a concept that has been the focal point of normative political theory over the past 50 years, and John Rawls’s Theory of Justice is widely seen as the most important attempt to formulate a philosophy of justice and a theoretical program for establishing a fair and reasonable social account of social justice (Arrow, 1973: 245). Rawls considered his theory as a way of preserving individual liberty and social justice. His pioneering work has spawned a genuine critical industry since its publication (Arrow, 1973: 245).

In this essay I am going to critically discuss and analyze John Rawls’s theory of justice. In order to achieve this, a thorough introductory explanation of Rawls’ theory will be carried out, referring to its content and with the use of relevant examples. And while I do agree with the establishment of Rawls’s theory of justice, there are some qualities of his theory that are impractical and cannot be applied in reality, hence this paper also seeks to explain the problems with Rawls’s theory. A conclusion will then be drawn up from the discussion.

The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice

Rawls believes that a society should be well structured and favorable for its citizens, because a well-structured state is not only designed to advance the good of its citizens but it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice (Rawls, 1971: 207). Rawls (Rawls, 197 claims that his aim was to ‘present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, in Locke, Rousseau and Kant.’

Rawls has created what is possibly the most abstract version of the social contract theory. Rather than showing that we would or even have signed to a contract to establish society, it instead shows us what we must be willing to accept as rational persons in order to be constrained by justice and therefore capable of living in a well ordered society.

Rawls theorizes that in the original position, which is a hypothetical situation developed as a thought experiment that asks, what principles of social justice would be chosen by parties in depth knowledge about human affairs in general. These two principals of justice are related to each other by a specific order.

The first principal is the equal rights and liberties principal. It advocates for everyone to have the best possible life without causing harm to others (Rawls, 1971: 213), it is prior to the second principal which distributes social and economic goods. In other words, we cannot choose to forgo some our civil liberties in favor of greater economic advantage , rather we must satisfy the needs of the first principal, before moving on to the second.

These principals are more fundamental than the social contract as it has traditionally been conceived. These principals compel that contract, and lay out the limits of how to shape the ideal society. For example, if we consider the constitution as the concrete expression of the social contract theory, Rawl’s principals of justice describe what such a constitution can and cannot require of us. Any infringements of an individual’s rights or inequality outside the parameters of the principals of justice are unjust. In other words, people agree to rules in society that are pursuant to their own general well-being. However, they decide on these rules behind what Rawls calls the ‘The veil of ignorance’ (Rawls, 1971: 217).

The veil of ignorance is a concept founded by John Rawls that links to how a just society can be formed. Behind this veil of ignorance, people are unaware of their identity. They are completely oblivious to things like gender, race, or level of intelligence. Furthermore they have no concept of economic standing or social standing. The individuals are capable of developing justice to act in a way that is a lot more just than in a society where inequality is rife (Kannan, 2010). The purpose of the veil of ignorance is to allow those in the original position to agree on rules concerning their own mutual interests.

Rawls thinks that behind the veil of ignorance, free of prejudice and unfairness with reasonable thought, individuals would agree to a society governed by his principals of justice. He believes this, because it would be the only way to ensure a fair initial status quo in society. This is significant as it allows for justified inequalities which later will be regulated of unjust inequalities.

People wouldn’t want to make things unequal from the start, because they would have no way of knowing their actual place in society behind the veil of ignorance. For example, if someone had suggested that all UCT students get free tuition at the expense of other universities paying for it, it would be within the individuals best interest to disagree as he has no way of knowing if he is a UCT student in society or one of the other universities students that now have to pay more.

The Problems with Rawls’ Theory of Justice

There are many possible problems with Rawls’ theory of justice. The first problem arises from the impractical nature of the original position and the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance is considered a thought experiment (Wenar, 2018). And in this thought experiment, citizens have respective representatives that will reach an agreement and come up with standards of justice that will initiate the political order of the citizens (Wener, 2018).

Citizens need representatives so that there are no factors that will influence the process apart from the desire of the fee and equal citizens. If the theory of justice were to be applied in reality, the original position would not work. Though it is merely imagery, if someone were to construct a concept for society, there wouldn’t be any room for imagination. Citizens may be equal and free, but they also have their own interests, and it is in their nature to protect those interests. Having representatives will not work either, this is because the said representatives have their own interests too. Citizens may seek fairness and equality, but in the end, they also have needs they want to be addressed.

The veil of ignorance is another problem. The veil of ignorance is supposed to conceal the factors that may affect the judgment of the said citizens (Rawls, 1971: 213). Factors that the veil is supposed to conceal are gender, race, and financial status and the like (Kannan, 2010). Though the process of justice will be unbiased, and the factors mentioned may not be revealed, but each and every one of us has bias. Everyone has preconceived opinions and notions of people and things, and these biases will work against the goal of fairness.

Rawls in his theory formulates a seemingly universal moral theory (Munoz-Darde, 1998: 336). However among its most fundamental assumptions are some that could justify a differential morality for woman (Munoz-Darde, 1998: 337). Rawls considers love and the family unit to be so natural that he does not include them in the scope of the principals of justice where all other institutions are subject in the just society (Munoz-Darde, 1998: 336).

By doing so, Rawls may retain a nuclear family structure with a sexual division of labor, which is the delegation of different tasks on the basis of the sex of the person. Male and female children will have different experiences within this kind of family structure. This institutionalized injustice will most likely prevent both sexes from developing the crucial sense of justice. Rawls’ theory is thus flawed from its very establishment. An unjust family structure cannot produce just citizens.


In the view of the argument presented above, it can be stated that Rawls’ main aim of the Theory of justice is to establish a fair and reasonable social account of social justice (Rawls, 1971: 207). To this, he talks about the two fundamental principles of justice, which if implemented into society, would grantee a fair and just way of life (Rawls, 1971: 213). Rawls sets up a hypothetical contract to test what he wishes to establish for society.

This hypothetical contract is called the original position, and it is a neutral space which allows individuals to make decisions for society without the interference of prior knowledge about society. The theory of justice is also great in idea, but difficult in application. The flaw of theory lies in the veil of ignorance and the original position. Both concepts are great in theory but they cannot be applied in reality.


Cite this paper

Rawl’s Theory of Justice Summary. (2020, Sep 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/rawls-theory-of-justice/



What are Rawls 2 principles of justice?
Rawls' two principles of justice are the principle of equal basic liberties for all individuals and the principle of fair equality of opportunity. These principles aim to ensure that all individuals have equal access to basic rights and opportunities, regardless of their social or economic status.
What is an example of Rawls theory of justice?
Rawls theory of justice is an example of a social contract theory. This theory states that people in a society agree to cooperate with one another in order to improve their lives.
What is the main idea of Rawls theory of justice?
The main idea of Rawls theory of justice is that everyone is entitled to the same basic rights and liberties, and that society should be organized in a way that benefits everyone equally.
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