Rawlsian Justice Sara S.
September 26, 2001
Ethical Theory

An Analysis of Rawlsian Justice

In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls discusses an example of contract theory which he calls justice as fairness. Justice as fairness consists of two things: (1) an interpretation and method of the initial drafting of the contract and (2) the set of agreed-upon principles that the contract would outline (Rawls, 14).

Rawls is concerned that someone who acts in self-interest and is given the power to formulate founding principles for a society will choose an unfair society based on principles which will be to his own advantage, rather than to the advantage of everyone. With this in mind, his interpretation presents the veil of ignorance as a requirement for developing social contracts. The veil of ignorance conceals all self-knowledge from the wearer of the veil. He describes the veil as something behind which no one knows his place in society, and therefore an impartial position from which a rational being can make decisions that will not be influenced by information about one's intelligence, economic and social status, etc.

The interpretation of the initial concept need not be real; it can operate as a hypothetical tool, a thought-experiment, for evaluating the justness of a set of principles. Rawls' interest is not that individuals have a chance to establish the principles for a society and enter it voluntarily, but rather that the society is one that they would have entered into voluntarily. That is, the principles of the society are the same principles that would have been agreed to by free and equal persons under fair circumstances (Rawls, 14).

So what is this just society that Rawls seeks to obtain? He outlines two principles of justice (Rawls, 53):

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.

  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

It is essential for Rawls that a notion of common good never override civil liberties. Under no circumstances can imposed sacrifice (loss of freedom) on one be outweighed by a larger sum of greater advantages by many. Here the Rawlsian position differs significantly from that of Jeremy Bentham whose principle of utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing the total utility in order to bring about the greatest combined happiness. Rawls, unlike Bentham, holds the individual above all else. His is an attempt to rearrange inequality into equality. In place of utilitarianism, Rawls advocates ``raising the bar'' for the least advantaged. To construct a society that is fair to all, one must not abstractly consider the ``sum'' of a society, but rather put oneself in the shoes of the least fortunate individual and attempt to compensate for his initial misfortune. One should not sympathize with this person, but empathize. Because Rawls is interested in maximizing the minimum, his principle is known as the maximin principle.

Rawls believes that the veil of ignorance is necessary to produce a fair set of principles about which there can be a consensus. The principles agreed upon will be those of individual rights and redistribution of inequality to help the least advantaged. This, he believes, will satisfy his principles of justice by making all initially equal and maintaining that equality. In the remainder of this paper, I shall discuss advantages and disadvantages of the veil of ignorance and the maximin redistribution to which Rawls believes it will lead.

It is crucial that the effects of the contract on all individuals be considered. That utilitarianism allows for the sacrifice of personal liberties for the so-called ``common good'' is unjust. In contrast, the veil of ignorance leads to a system in which individual freedoms are inalienable.

Inequality and the distribution of inequality curve normally associated with a free capitalist society are unfair. How does one justify the fact that the top ten percent of a population holds eighty percent of its wealth? Why should the bottom one percent be so significantly disadvantaged when compared with the top one percent? Intervention is needed to remove this injustice. A principle of redistribution is a step in this somewhat egalitarian direction. Improving the economic and social advantage of those most disadvantaged (in fact, the least advantaged individual) will lead to a resultant society that is more just than the same society prior to the adjustment.

In this way the maximin principle can be used to compare the ``justness'' of two social contracts. A society is more just when reformed in favor of the least advantaged and most just when the worst-off are as well-off as they can be. The maximin principle clearly leads to the most just society for the individuals who would otherwise be most underprivileged. Rawls' concern with these least privileged stems from his conviction that it is necessary for one to consider oneself in this unfortunate position.

It is with the disadvantaged, as well as with the advantaged, that the power to decide on a social contract rests. Indeed, a conception of justice devised by an advantaged few will not be just. Justice as fairness requires that power positions are equally accessible by all and that no one is handicapped at birth in such a way as to prevent them from attaining the levels of happiness and success that are available to others.

Because the decision-making power rests with the veiled who know nothing of their social position, no one can selfishly choose principles that would be to their advantage but would disadvantage others. Without the veil of ignorance, rational beings with self-knowledge would attempt to act in ways to further their personal best interests and could never unanimously agree on anything, much less something that would be best for everyone.

Thus Rawls says that for a social contract to be fair, it must be conceived (or be the same as what would have been conceived) behind this veil of ignorance. But I am not convinced that the veil of ignorance is possible in the real world, nor that his veil (assuming that it is possible) leads to fairness. Some of his critics go so far as to say that the veil of ignorance cannot lead to fairness. Nagel, for instance, raises the argument in his essay ``Rawls on Justice'' that stripped of personal knowledge, one cannot formulate the values needed for a just society. Furthermore, by suppressing morally relevant information, the veil of ignorance is likely to lead to an unfair conception of justice.

My primary objection to Rawls is with the maximin principle. I am not convinced that the ``fairness'' described by the maximin principle is just. If the maximin principle is not really fair, then either the veil of ignorance leads to an unjust society or the conception of justice that Rawls presents is not the one that rational individuals would choose.

Although I certainly would not advocate forced sacrifice in all (or even many) cases, I think there are scenarios in which disadvantaging some can be justified by the greater happiness it brings to many others. I will present two (silly) examples in which I believe the positions that Rawls might take are not the best positions.

Suppose several dozen people are captured by a tribe of (weight-watching) cannibals. The cannibals present the following choice to the captives: they will eat either one finger off of each hand and then free the captives or they will eat six fingers off of one person (which person is unknown) and then let them all go free. I believe that the second choice cannot be consistent with Rawls' notion of justice as fairness, because he would not accept as justification that the sacrifices of one person are outweighed by the resultant advantages for the others and the society as a whole.

Consider a wealthy benefactor who wishes to give three million dollars to help poor people in need of expensive (say $500,000) heart transplants. It can be assumed that those in need of the transplants have no money of their own and other donations are highly unlikely. She considers sponsoring six people to pay for the full costs of their transplants, but after talking to her Rawlsian friend is convinced that she should divide the money up evenly between the thirty transplant candidates. While this may initially seem like the fair solution, the result is that none of the candidates can afford the operation!

As I hope these examples begin to illustrate, a society based on equality might not be truly fair. In an attempt to raise the bottom bar, those who would otherwise be, or become, advantaged can become, in effect, disadvantaged. Rawls' position is not far from one of radical egalitarianism, in which advantages are assigned so as to make all people equal. In order to achieve this, it seems necessary to have an anti-meritocracy in which those who work hardest are not satisfactorily rewarded for their labor, those who are prettiest must be forced to hide their beauty behind ugly masks, and those who are naturally most intelligent are held back and not allowed to learn - all in this attempt to be fair. (Kurt Vonnegut explores such a society in his short story ``Harrison Bergeron''.)

To return to the cannibal thought-experiment, it seems that the potential flaw with Rawls' theory is that he considers, above all else, what it is like for the least advantaged individual. I do not believe that this is how people would reason, even if they did not know their place in society. I think that in many instances veiled thinkers would be willing to take the gamble that they might be disadvantaged and they would be rational in doing so. Rather than consider possibility, they would evaluate probability and their expected personal advantage. Wanting more than the minimum, or being selfish, is consistent with the principle of rationality.

I take issue with the idea that maximin would be endorsed by rational individuals. Rawls addresses utilitarianism, but (at least in what I have read) neglects the possibility of other proposals for evaluating utility. A comparison between the two societies can be expressed mathematically as an order imposed on sets of individuals by a relation operator. The ``position'' of each individual can be represented by a number on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high). Under the maximin operator, > m, the set A = {2,4,5,6} is ``greater'' than the set B = {1,4,6,7} because minA = 2 > minB = 1. Similarly, the utilitarian operator > u is defined in terms of the sum, such that A > u B A > B. Thus, while A > m B, B > u A because the sum of the elements in B (18) is greater than the sum of the elements in A (17). This clearly shows that the two methods for relation are distinct and lead to different results. And these are only two of (infinitely) many possible operators.

The maximin ordering is concerned with the absolute minimum position, but says nothing about the ``next-to'' minimum (or pen-minimum) position. For example, maximin would consider the sets {1,1,2,3} and {1,3,5,7} to be equal. One modification to the standard maximin position would be to order the terms of each set and compare the minima successively. Alternatively, there are many different orderings that do not specifically concern the minimum. I believe that there are many orderings based on criteria such as the median (middle position), standard deviation (distribution), and logarithmic mean (specific type of average) that are more ``fair'' than the ordering that maximin provides.

On the whole, the Rawlsian veil of ignorance and maximin principle seem to lead to his conception of justice, but this is because he defines justice as fairness to make this trivially true. By interpreting ``reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage'' as ``everyone's individual advantage'' or even ``not to the disadvantage of any'', Rawls is able to present an argument that leads to the desired conclusions without considering any of the alternatives mentioned above.

While I find that Rawls' maximin principle has many strengths, I do not believe that he has presented a sound, or even valid, argument that veiled, rational beings would agree upon a notion of equality based on this kind of arrangement. His argument is compelling and worth serious consideration, but numerous objections leave me unconvinced that his conception of justice is really ``just'' and ``fair'' to all individuals. Furthermore, although I agree that utilitarianism does not lead to his notion of fairness, there are a number of other theories that Rawls avoids discussing. Upon further examination, any number of these may prove to be a better alternative than Rawls' method of redistribution.


Nagel, Thomas. ``Rawls on Justice'', Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No 2 (April 1973), pp. 220-34.

Rawls, John A. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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On 27 Sep 2001, 00:20.