Rawls in this book tried to establish the theory of justice as fairness to provide an alternative to utilitarianism and intuitionism.
He thought: “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” According to Rawls, the society is well-ordered when it is not only designed to advance the good of its members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice. In the society, justice exists a-priori, and then other rules follow it. Here, good is determined by “what is for him the most rational plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances”.
He introduces the conditions on conceptions of right (23. The formal constraints of the concept of right). According to him, “a conception of right is a set of principles, general in form and universal in application, that is to be publicly recognized as a final court of appeal for ordering the conflicting claims of moral persons”.
To derive the principle of justice, Rawls used the concept of “original position”, as the other philosophers of social contract did as physics analyzes the situation assuming no friction. Rawls’s original position is a hypothetical situation in which no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like, nor do the parties know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. Under the circumstances, Rawls said, the principles of justice are chosen behind “a veil of ignorance”, provided that people are rational. He calls it “justice as fairness”, as the justice here is agreed to in the situation that is fair, or the participants are all equal. (p11, 3. The main idea of the theory of justice)
Then he derives two main principles of justice (P53, 11. two principles of justice).
One is justice about liberty. “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”. The liberty here does not include all sorts of liberties. Rawls says important among the liberties are political liberty and freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person; the right to hold personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizures. The principle primarily applies to the basic structure of society and governs the assignment of rights and duties.
Another is justice about social and economic justice. He said: “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. “ This principle applies to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility.
Regarding the second principle of justice, when Rawls say “everyone’s advantage”, it means that the inequality satisfies two principles: efficiency principle and difference principle (P57, 12.interpretations of the second principle). Efficiency principle is in the same meaning of Pareto’s optimality. Difference principle rules that the inequality is “justifiable only if the difference in expectation is to the advantage of the representative man who is worse off”. The “open to all” means the quality as careers open to talents and equality as equality of fair opportunities.
II. Righteousness of the two principles
Rawls claims righteousness of the two principles because of its reasoning, application to the institutions and comparisons with other conceptions. (26. The reasoning for the two principles)
He argues that the two principles are the result of logical reasoning from the assumption of original position.
1. Logical Reasoning
“There is no way for him to win special advantages for himself. Nor, on the other hand, are there grounds for his acquiescing in special disadvantages. Since it is not reasonable for him to expect more than an equal share in the division of social primary goods, and since it is not rational for him to agree to less, the sensible thing is to acknowledge as the first step a principle of justice requiring an equal distribution. Indeed, this principle is so obvious given the symmetry of the parties that it would occur to everyone immediately. Thus the parties start with a principle requiring equal basic liberties for all, as well as fair equality of opportunity and equal division of income and wealth.”
That is, if I understand it correctly, in the “empty” situation, rational people chose equal liberties and equal opportunities ex-ante. So what about the ex-post inequalities that would be inevitable even under the equality of opportunity?
“If there are inequalities in income and wealth, and differences in authority and degrees of responsibility, that work to make everyone better off in comparison with the benchmark of equality, why not permit them? One might think that ideally individuals should want to serve one another. But since the parties are assumed to be mutually disinterested, their acceptance of these economic and institutional inequalities is only the recognition of the relations of opposition in which men stand in the circumstances of justice. They have no grounds for complaining of one another’s motives. Thus the parties would object to these differences only if they would be dejected by the bare knowledge or perception that others are better situated; but I suppose that they decide as if they are not moved by envy. Thus the basic structure should allow these inequalities so long as these improve everyone’s situation, including that of the least advantaged, provided that they are consistent with equal liberty and fair opportunity. … Taking equality as the basis of comparison, those who have gained more must do so on terms that are justifiable to those who have gained the least.”
In original position, people are disinterested each other, and they do not care about the motives of others, but about the fact of inequality from the viewpoint of justice. Then, he says, the inequalities are allowed only if they improve the situation of everyone including the least advantaged one. It is like the maximin principle in game theory, the principle to maximize the payoff when it’s least, i.e. to minimize the severest damage. He says the principle is out of the nature of original position, where participants do not see probability distribution of the events in the future (“darkness” in his term).
“To begin with, the veil of ignorance excludes all knowledge of likelihoods. The parties have no basis for determining the probable nature of their society, or their place in it. Thus they have no basis for probability calculations. They must also take into account the fact that their choice of principles should seem reasonable to others, in particular their descendants, whose rights will be deeply affected by it. These considerations are strengthened by the fact that the parties know very little about the possible states of society. Not only are they unable to conjecture the likelihoods of the various possible circumstances, they cannot say much about what the possible circumstances are, much less enumerate them and foresee the outcome of each alternative available. Those deciding are much more in the dark than illustrations by numerical tables suggests. It is for this reason that I have spoken only of a relation to the maximum rule.”
Rawls’s approach, using original position to derive justice principles, was an alternative to the common ways of establishing ethical theories: one is to begin with the first principle and then derive the body of standard and precepts, the method called Cartesian approach; another is to introduce definitions of moral concepts in terms of presumptively non-moral ones, and then to show by accepted common sense and the sciences that the statements thus paired with the asserted moral judgments are true, naturalism approach. He argued both common approaches have defects. He said, “There is no set of conditions or first principles that can be plausibly claimed to be necessary or definitive of morality and thereby especially suited to carry the burden of justification. On the other hand, the method of naturalism so-called must first distinguish moral from non-moral concepts and then gain acceptance for the definitions laid down. For the justification to succeed a clear theory of meaning is presupposed and this seems to be lacking.” Thus he developed the alternative, and let the source of justification on its entire conception and how it fits in with and organizes our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium. (87. Concluding remarks on justification)
2. Application to the institution
Part Two of the book tries to show that the two principles provide a workable theory of social justice and are compatible with reasonable demands of efficiency, by applying the two to some main questions of social justice: conscience, toleration and the common interest, political justice and constitution, the principle of participation, political economy, the problem between generations, time preference, duty and obligation, majority rule, civil disobedience, etc.
3. Comparison with other conceptions
According to Rawls, the other principles (utility, intuition, etc) will lead to institutions that the parties would find intolerable, as when we follow utilitarian principle, we would see some minorities sacrificed for the sake of majority.
III. A few remarks
He limited his discussion of justice into the scope of social justice, or the justice applied to institutions. He said, “the principles of justice for institutions must not be confused with the principles which apply to individuals and their actions in particular circumstances. These two kinds of principles apply to different subjects and must be discussed separately”. That part is criticized by feminism, which says “the personal is social”. Indeed, Rawls may have failed to recognize that the personal relationship represents the society and the personal and social discussions cannot be separated. That said, the feminism’s arguments will not destroy entire structure of Rawls’s proposition. Rawls did not explicitly exclude the feminism issues, and his theory can be feasibly applied to the “social issues” in personal relationship.
The criticism from economists such as Kenneth Arrow seems to be correction rather than criticism. I don't think Rawls had formal economics training, and although his usage of the maxmin principle may be inappropriate, that error would not hurt the essence of his argument.
I think the strong criticism is what communitarian such as Sandel and Taylor made, as they cast doubt on the reasoning itself. Rawls used the conceptual “original position”, or empty space, to develop the two principles. The criticism is toward the setup itself. Indeed, physics made significant progress thanks to its setup of abstraction; theory is developed in the frictionless world, and then it’s applied to the reality. However, in the discussion of the issues deeply related to human beings which innately has values, aspirations, minds, etc., would that be the right setup? I would support the view of communitarians, as I believe that the concept like justice is what is out of humanity and thus that to abstract the considerations that make us human would lead to the false conclusion. With that said, though I now see the communitarian criticism to be plausible, I cannot provide the alternatives to come up with the universal and general justice theory. Maybe the good time to read “Justice” authored by Sandel.
My additional thought is that the proof of two principles is weak. Only several pages are spent for the proof, in this thick 500+ pages book. Without using any axiom, he just deduces his conclusion by using common sense. According to him, the development of two principles is “obvious” in the “original position”, but I could not understand what logical reasoning made it obvious. To introduce what is general and universal, one should start with the premise and process that are also general and universal.
A final tiny comment is that this book is verbose. Unfortunately, this prolixity seems to make the concept less clear to me.
John Rawls, "A Theory of Justice" (revised edition), Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999 Sep 30