Two principles of Justice

An analysis of John Rawls’ famous doctrine

The concept, so-called, of “two principles of justice”, is synonymous with the name of John Rawls, a highly influential American liberal political philosopher of the last century. It forms the singular-most operative facet of Rawls’ doctrine of justice, which he termed justice as fairness. He expounded this position in his 1971 classic, A Theory of Justice, which has radically redefined the philosophical debates on achieving greater economic redistribution. The other concepts elaborated in the book – those of the basic structure of a well-ordered society, the original position, the veil of ignorance and primary goods – are building blocks of the overall edifice of justice. The concept of two principles forms a succinct encapsulation of the core principles of freedom and equality embodied in the constitutions of any contemporary liberal democratic society. As such, they have acquired pre-eminence in a wide range of academic disciplines and in the arena of public policymaking.

The first of Rawls’ two principles says that every citizen has the same claim to a scheme of equal basic liberties, which must also be compatible with those of every other citizen. Rawls enumerates an extensive list of basic civil and political rights, including a person’s freedom of conscience, expression and association; the right to a basic income; and the right to exercise the franchise. Their resonance with the practical world of politics needs no emphasis; consider the chapter on fundamental rights in any constitution.

The second of Rawls’ two principles grapples with the underlying inequalities of social and economic institutions. How can these be reasonably justified to free and equal citizens? Rawls posits that in order to be morally defensible, these institutions must satisfy two conditions. First, they must guarantee fair equality of opportunities for competition to positions of public office and employment. Second, social and economic inequalities must be arranged in a manner that they work to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This latter postulate is Rawls’ famous “difference principle”.

The political significance of Rawls’ two principles of justice obtains equally in the relative weight and primacy he assigns to their different components. Between them, the first principle is accorded absolute priority over the second. That is to say, the primacy of the equal basic liberties of citizens is non-negotiable in a democratic society. The entitlement of each to the various liberties is as critical as they are universal and non-discriminatory. Within the second principle, the first part takes precedence over the second. In other words, public institutions could not appear legitimate in the eyes of citizens unless everybody could reasonably expect to enjoy the fruits of fair equality of opportunities.

Rawls reasoned that the two principles of justice would be fair because these are precisely those that would be chosen impartially by rational, free and equal citizens, had they no knowledge of their own individual or social circumstances in life.

He described the conditions under which his principles of justice would be chosen as the original position, an artificial mental construct that has been compared with the classical social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Members in that original position would not only be free, equal and rational beings. They would also be under a veil of ignorance about their race, gender, social class and every other cleavage. That condition of general ignorance would ensure that the principles they chose were impartial and those that would advance their prospects.

There is another merit in choosing principles of justice from within an original position, Rawls argues. They would garner greater support than a conception of justice that prioritised the maximisation of overall well-being or happiness, but overlooked differences in how benefits are distributed and burdens imposed on particular individuals.

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