The Remarkable Utility of John Rawls

My Introduction to Rawls


Many of today’s political debates seem to focus solely on political ends – red vs. blue, progressive vs. liberal – rather than means used to arrive at those ends. For Liberal, secular members of society, there is (purposefully) no single doctrine that guides the policies we so adamantly advocate. One prominent 20th-century philosopher, John Rawls, realized this and defined a set of values that would be broad enough to meet the needs of disparate parties yet prescriptive enough to provide guidance to our debates. Rawl’s theory, Justice as Fairness, is modern by philosophy standards yet feels particularly relevant for our current times (it’s often cited by bookish politicians from President Obama to Pete Buttigieg.) His writing, rather than painting a utopia, outlined a series of tools we could use to evaluate the fairness of society. In this post, I’ll describe these tools and show why their simplicity offers a powerful yet simple way to analyze the most critical questions we face today. 


My Rapid Rawls Reader


Rawls’ arguments are grounded in social contract theory (shared by other political thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant), which is the idea that governments should be based on the consent of those governed. Rawls wrote that a developed society is, “a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles.” Because it is nearly impossible to solicit consent from everyone, his goal was to define a system of governance that free and equal citizens would agree to if given this choice. 

Like John Locke, Rawls also belonged to the political school of (small “l”) liberalism. He believed the government’s role is not to make value judgments but instead to guarantee everyone a basic level of liberty and equality. Rawls was, therefore, not as concerned with the individual, societal values (i.e., faith, generosity, etc.) but rather on what he calls “social justice.” Social justice he saw as being carried out through specific institutions that govern taxation, fiscal policy, education, etc. He thought that if the basic structure of these institutions is just, then society as a whole can be assumed to be just. (I should add that, although Rawls is not interested per se in the interests of individuals, he was concerned with their ability to fulfill their interests.)

In deciding where society should start in this decision-making process, Rawls had a now-famous insight. Rawls feared that principles that individuals would agree on to govern society would be highly skewed according to their place in society (e.g., the wealthiest members may be more likely to accept economic inequalities). To fairly decide the moral code of the institutions in question, Rawls proposed the use of a veil of ignorance. From behind this veil, Rawls argued we would agree to start from an open position where we have no knowledge of our place in society – from income to special interests and preferences. It is only from this position, what he calls the original position, that we could determine how institutions should equitably distribute rights and duties.  

Rawls believed that, behind the veil of ignorance, we would agree on three principles that would serve as the foundation for distributive justice. These principles, which Rawls arranged in order of importance, constitute the focus of justice as fairness:

  • Equal basic liberties: the requirement that every individual in society is granted a “fully adequate scheme” of equal basic liberties.
  • Fair equality of opportunity: Those with similar abilities and skills should have the same life chances.
  • The difference principle: social and economic inequalities should be distributed in such a way to benefit the least-advantaged members of society. 

Key to understanding how Rawls evaluated whether something should be guaranteed, optimized, or ignored is the concept of primary goods. Rawls defined these goods as those any rational man would “prefer more of rather than less” throughout their life, including rights, opportunities, power, and wealth. Rawls categorized Primary goods as either natural or social. Natural goods include intelligence, motivation, and other characters of a person that are distributed at birth through what Rawls called the social lottery. Rawls wrote, “no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society.” Because Rawls thought it would be unfair for society to attempt to equalize for these natural inequalities, Rawls’ principles of distributive justice focused on the distribution of goods not allocated by the genetic lottery. These goods, called social goods, include rights and liberties, wealth, income, opportunity, and self-respect. In a perfectly ideal world, social goods would be distributed roughly according to the distribution of natural goods. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, Rawls sought to define a middle ground – allowing for some inherent inequalities while mitigating the tendency of those with natural advantages to retain as much of the social goods as possible for themselves or their families. 

Rawls’ first principle, Equal Basic Liberties, is central to Rawls’ position as a (lowercase “l”) liberal and his belief that all rational individuals demand some level of rights and liberties. Unlike other goods, for which Rawls permits a certain amount of inequality, Rawls argues all individuals are equally entitled to certain rights, including freedom of association, of speech, to vote, and to run for public office. He initially described this theory as the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others but updated his thinking in later works to describe a specific set of liberties. Rawls’ theory is set-up such that this principle takes precedence over the other principles (i.e., the second principle cannot be applied to society if the first principle does not stand, etc.) 

The next principle is the principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity (FEO). Rawls initially compares this principle with what we might call a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a system in which jobs, positions, etc. are assigned according to merit (i.e., talents, qualifications, etc.) Rawls takes a further step in stipulating that society should not only assign opportunities according to merit, but also the qualifications necessary to acquire those qualifications. Rawls writes, “Assuming there is a distribution of natural assets, those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.” That is, unlike serving as a fundamental requirement of society, Rawls designed FEO to correct for injustice found in society. One example is the economy: Rawls believes the free market alone is not capable of regulating itself to follow this principle, so institutions require policies that “[regulate] the overall trends of economic events and preserve the social conditions necessary for fair equality of opportunity.” Another is education: Rawls thinks all children should have access to equal levels of education, which means he sees tuition to private schools as barriers to access that undermine FEO.

The final principle, the difference principle, states that inequalities in the distribution of social and economic inequalities should be arranged, “to improve the long-term expectation of the least favored.” Importantly, unlike what he calls the Principle of Redress, the principle allows for inequalities as long as those inequalities are in the best interest of society as a whole, especially the worst-off.

In other words, the point of the difference principle is to establish a system in which the worst-off members of society would be better off than in any other possible solution. One example is laissez-faire economics: though many people may benefit from such a system, the system would harm the rest of the population, particularly the worst-off. An alternative example is free trade: if free trade would harm individual firms that rely on tariffs for high-profits but would benefit everyone else, “it is justified even though more specific interests suffer.” The idea is that the worst-off members of society would be better in such a society than any other conception of a basic structure. Rawls looked to groups such as tax collectors or financial regulators to create these rules at the institutional level.  

Together these three principles established a robust but straightforward baseline of freedoms and beliefs that anyone analyzing our society could apply to a broad range of topics from housing (the subject of my college thesis) to education to health care. For example, should healthcare be guaranteed for everyone – entirely or to a limited extent – or are inequalities in care fair insomuch as they create a better overall system? Rawls’ writings on equality of opportunity helped me articulate what I think is fair and just in the world and provided me with tools in which to evaluate the institutions that govern our society. Though Rawls designed his principles to create an ideal world, they work best in assessing our very unideal one.

P.S. A special shoutout to my college advisor, Andrew Schroeder, himself a grand-advisee of John Rawls, for introducing me to his work and to the field of political philosophy in general. 

 Works Cited

  • Pogge, Thomas. Realizing Rawls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989)
  • Rajczi, Rawls Reader, Unpublished
  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism, expanded ed., Columbia Classics in Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, ©2005), 5-10.
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. original ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, ©1971.
  • Rawls, John. Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Richard Freeman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 219-35.