Justice as Fairness

John Rawls

Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical’ is an essay by John Rawls, published in 1985. In it he describes his conception of justice. It comprises two main principles of liberty and equality (with the latter subdivided into ‘Fair Equality of Opportunity’ and the ‘Difference Principle’).

Rawls arranges the principles in ‘lexical priority,’ ordering them from most fundamental and prerequisite to least with the Liberty Principle first, followed by Fair Equality of Opportunity, and concluding with the Difference Principle.

The order determines the priorities of the principles if they conflict in practice. For example, under Rawl’s prioritization, it is impermissible to violate basic liberties for the sake of improving equality in society. The principles are, however, intended as a single, comprehensive conception of justice—’Justice as Fairness’—and not to function individually. These principles are always applied so as to ensure that the ‘least advantaged’ are benefitted and not hurt or forgotten.

Rawls first presented the theory 1971 in the famous ‘A Theory of Justice,’ subsequently revising it in ‘Political Liberalism.’ The first and most important principle states that every individual has an equal right to basic liberties, Rawls claiming ‘that certain rights and freedoms are more important or ‘basic’ than others.’ For example, philosopher and Rawls scholar Samuel Freeman argues that in Rawl’s view ‘personal property’ – personal belongings, a home – should constitute a basic liberty, but an absolute right to unlimited private property shouldn’t. Basic liberties are inalienable: no government can amend, infringe or remove them from individuals.

The Equality Principle is the component of Justice as Fairness establishing distributive justice. He divides it into two parts, Fair Equality of Opportunity (equal access to avenues of success) and the Difference Principle (societal equality, where the least fortunate are not overly disadvantaged by the most). Equality of Opportunity is given lexical priority over the Difference Principle.

Fair Equality of Opportunity maintains that ‘offices and positions’ should be open to any individual, regardless of his or her social background, ethnicity or sex. It is stronger than ‘Formal Equality of Opportunity’ in that Rawls argues that an individual should not only have the right to opportunities, but should have an effective equal chance as another of similar natural ability.

The Difference Principle regulates inequalities. It only permits inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off. This is often misinterpreted as trickle-down economics; Rawls’ argument is more accurately expressed as a system where wealth ‘diffuses up.’ By guaranteeing the worst-off in society a fair deal, Rawls compensates for naturally occurring inequalities (talents that one is born with, such as a capacity for sport).

A key component of Rawls’ argument is his claim that his Principles of Justice would be chosen by parties behind the veil of ignorance in the original position (i.e. before an individual knows where they will end up in society). If individuals could choose the rules of the system they would have to live under without knowing anything about their particular characteristics (e.g. ethnicity, social status, gender, religion), Rawls argues that most would choose the fairest and most egalitarian system. Because they would have nothing to be partial to, they would make an impartial decision.

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