Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical

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Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical

Journal article

By: John Rawls

Date: 1985

Source: Rawls, John. "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical."Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, 3 (1985): 226–230.

About the Author: John Rawls (1921–2002) was a renowned professor of political philosophy at Harvard University. He obtained his PhD at Princeton University in 1950. Rawls was a prolific writer and made many significant academic contributions over his career, particularly in the area of criminal justice philosophy. Among his best-known works are his books A Theory of Justice (1971), The Law of Peoples (1999) and Justice as Fairness (2001)..


The work of John Rawls has played a significant role in reviving interest in philosophical questions of justice. The publication of his 1971 book A Theory of Justice was met with immediate accolades, sold over two hundred thousand copies, and was translated into twelve languages. The primary focus of Rawl's Theory of Justice was his conception of justice as fairness, an intuitive moral conception of justice, based in the belief that "each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override." This theory posits an approach for the creation of just and equal social policy within constitutional democracies. His perspective is discussed in the primary source, excerpted from a 1985 article.

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


In his book, Rawls asks the reader to imagine that a group of individuals wish to create a just social contract—the foundation for a just and peaceful society. He suggests that the only means by which they may make truly objective decisions about what is most fair and just is if they operate from behind a "veil of ignorance"—if no one is aware of his or her own social status, race, gender, economic position or religion. Without an awareness of these basic indicators of identity, an individual would not know his or her position in the social hierarchy, whether he or she is near the top or at the bottom. Therefore, assuming with Hobbes that individuals are self-interested and wish to maximize their pleasure and minimize their discomfort, and not knowing how the decisions made will effect one's own situation, the rational choice is to choose policies that are fair. Each person will press for social structures and institutions that are in the best interests of all citizens and that are inherently just, because he or she would not want to risk ending up at the bottom of the social hierarchy in an intolerant and unjust society.

According to Rawls' theory, the decisions made by a rational person from behind the "veil of ignorance" will necessarily conform to two basic principles of justice, which he outlines. First, the "liberty principle": "each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all." Essentially, Rawls is arguing that the first principle of justice is that each person is given basic freedoms and rights, and as many freedoms and rights as possible, without impeding on the rights of any other individual. This is essentially a libertarian conception of freedom that believes that the rights of one individual end only where the rights of another begin. The types of liberties that Rawls is arguing for are political freedom (the right to vote and to run for public office), freedom of speech, integrity of the person and the right to own personal property, freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure, and the liberty of consciousness, or freedom of thought, including freedom of religion. These are the types of freedoms that are enshrined in the constitutions of most liberal democracies. The second principle of justice is the "difference principle": "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage [including the most disadvantaged persons] and b) attached to positions and offices [that are] open to all." While the liberty principle guarantees moral equality to all people, the difference principle acknowledges that real-world conditions and competition between individuals will lead to social and economic differences—inequalities. The difference principle states that these inequalities are acceptable, providing that those who are in advantaged positions utilize their wealth and power for the betterment of society as a whole and providing that all individuals have an opportunity to attain these positions of power. In the United States and almost every democratic country in the world, for example, a basic education is provided to each child free of charge, paid for by the taxes of citizens. In this sense, all children are given equal opportunity to become educated and to work their way into positions of power. What this theory does not adequately account for are the many sources of inequality and prejudice that may constrain individuals' ability to succeed in a competitive, capitalist society. Equal opportunity does not necessarily mean equal access for all.

Rawls' conception of the "veil of ignorance" is as a philosophical construct—a useful tool for understanding how governments and societies can become more equal and just. While policy makers in our society cannot literally get behind the "veil of ignorance" in order to make decisions, in order for any individual or group of persons to create just policy, they necessarily must attempt to set aside their own interests and position in society and consider only what is fair for all. Unfortunately, because human beings are self-interested, this is a very difficult reality to achieve. However, Rawls' theory is the philosophical basis for policies such as affirmative action and equal opportunity. These approaches acknowledge the reality of racial prejudice and systemic inequality and endeavor to level the playing field by giving some advantage to those who are traditionally disadvantaged. In this sense, a policy like affirmative action that is inherently unequal in its application is justified and fair because it promotes equality of opportunity and equal access to positions of power.

The famous last sentence of Rawls' book states: "Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view." Although this "purity of heart" and "veil of ignorance" is a difficult ideal to achieve in politics, the function of the constitutions and bills of rights of many nations is to act as a social consciousness and a view that is pure of heart in its regard for the moral equality of all persons. The constitutionality of legislation and policy then is not merely a matter of legality, but one of justice and morality, and the constitution is the safeguard that curtails the self-interest of those in positions of power.



Barry, Brian M. Theories of Justice. Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1989.

Daniels, Norman. Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls' "A Theory of Justice." New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Martin, R. Rawls and Rights. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Rawls, John. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2001.


Brighouse, Harry. "Political Equality in Justice as Fairness." Philosophical Studies 86 (1997): 155–184.

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Rawls, John. "The Law of Peoples." Critical Inquiry 20, 1: 36–68.