Reading Guide For Rawls

“On Justice as Fairness”

Chapter 3 of Social Justice, eds. Clayton & Williams, pp.49-84


In this selection from the recently revised version of Rawls’s seminal 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, we are introduced to the main concepts of his theory of justice, which he calls justice as fairness. Justice as fairness takes its start from the social contract tradition in political theory, beginning as it does with the idea of free and equal persons choosing basic principles for the organization of their society in what Rawls dubs the “original position”. In a novel move, Rawls applies the idea of a “veil of ignorance” to this original position such that persons in it have no idea what their particular station or characteristics will be in the society for which they are choosing principles of justice. Rawls argues that the persons he describes in the original position will choose two principles of justice to animate all of the basic institutions of their society: the principle of equal liberty and the difference principle.


I. The Subject of Justice
• Short discussion of the basic subject and scope of the concept of justice.
II. The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice
• Initial description of the original position.
• Brief discussion of the merits of “contract language”
III. The Original Position and Justification
• First specification of the idea of “justice as fairness”
• Defense of the conception of the original position
• Description and defense of reflective equilibrium as a method of judgment
IV. Two Principles of Justice
• First statement and discussion of Rawls’s two principles of justice: the principle of equal liberty, and the difference principle
• Definition of primary goods
V. Interpretations of the Second Principle (this section is optional)
VI. Democratic Equality and the Difference Principle
• Specification of the democratic interpretation of the difference principle
• Description of general relationship between inequality, justice, and socio-economic efficiency
• Final specification of how inequalities are to be arranged under the difference principle
VII. The Reasoning Leading to the Two Principles of Justice
• General argument that persons in the original position would choose the two principles, as described in sections IV-VI.
• Discussion of the priority of liberty
• The “maximin” argument for the two principles
• A utilitarian objection to the two principles, and Rawls’s reply

Study Questions

1. What does Rawls designate as the “primary subject of justice”? What reasons does Rawls give in defense of this designation?

2. What two limitations does Rawls impose on his discussion of justice? How does he defend his decision to focus on the ideal (i.e. strict compliance) theory of justice as opposed to focusing on the actual practices we have with respect to justice?

3. How does Rawls define the concept of justice at the bottom of page 51?

4. Rawls begins Part II of the essay by describing the principles of justice. Recount that description. What role does the “veil of ignorance” play in the original position? How, if at all, might we make use of the idea of the veil of ignorance apart from Rawls’s schema?

5. Give in detail Rawls’s characterization of the persons in the original position. Comment on whether or not you think Rawls’s description of these persons captures features that are relevant from the standpoint of justice. Defend your critique.

6. How, according to Rawls, can we judge whether a conception of justice is reasonable? Given Rawls’s criteria, is it likely that there will be multiple social arrangements that qualify as just? Why or why not?

7. Describe Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium for making moral and political judgments. What are its advantages and disadvantages? Support your assessment.

8. What two principles of justice does Rawls think the persons in the original positions will choose? How are these principles to be arranged? Do you agree that persons in the original position would arrange them in this way? Support your judgment.

9. Consider the more refined form of the difference principle that Rawls gives near the end of section VI on page 74. Imagine how strict adherence to this principle would affect a characteristic primary good (e.g. wealth, health care, education, etc.), and sketch what you think the result would be like.

10. Summarize the description of free persons that Rawls gives in section VII. Does this description strike you as accurate? Complete? Defend your answer.

11. Rawls holds that the persons in the original position will be driven to use a “maximin” strategy for choosing the framework of justice. What three features of the original situation, according to Rawls, make the maximin strategy applicable? If you found yourself in the original position, would you choose the maximin strategy? Why or why not?

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