Justice is almost impossible to define. It has no social indicators. We realise when things go wrong or bad but not when things are right or good. We can define war but not peace; similarly, we can define injustice but not justice. John Rawls’ has done a remarkable job while addressing the concept of justice in his book ‘A Theory of Justice.’ In his book, he defends the concept of justice as fairness. Rawls’ is an anti-utilitarian; he believes that justice can’t be derived through utilitarianism which says- the greatest happiness of the greatest number – which unfortunately ignores the needs of the minority. He is a Contractarian and hence designed his work based on the social contract theory.

Principles of John Rawls

While designing his justice theory, Rawls has given two principles on which, according to him, is the core of the concept of justice. The concept of ‘original position’ played a significant role in Rawls’ principles along with the ‘veil of ignorance.’ He believes to base these principles by imagining a group of people who are unaware of their age, sex, race, religion, or economic class, wealth, income, intelligence, talents, etc. This group of people would agree upon the following principles for the realisation of justice –

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both –
    • To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.
    • Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

The first principle states that all the people are to receive the basic liberties and rights that are basic to human existence. Also, these liberties are to be provided equally to all the masses. Few liberties that are basic to all are – freedom of thought and conscience, liberties necessary to secure the rule of law, sanitation, health, and etcetera. Basic liberties can’t be infringed for any reason, even if it were to bring greater economic prosperity to a larger number of people. Unfortunately, economic prosperity would happen at the expense of the ones that don’t belong to the larger group.

The first point of the second principle is known as the ‘difference principle.’ It means that even if there is an unequal distribution of income and wealth then it should be such that the most disadvantaged should be better off than they would be in any other kind of distribution consistent with principle one including equal distribution.

The second point of the second principle points out that society should provide all citizens with the basic means that would enable them to participate in the competition. Like education and health facilities.

Considering these principles, Rawls also provided with a procedure to realise them and also directed his idea of justice based on psychology and philosophy.

The procedure of Realisation and other concerns

Rawls points at the hypothetical four stages of the developmental process – from the ‘original position’ through a series of constitutional, legislative, and administrative stages. This is to be done in order to bring forth a connection between the two principles and the day to day operation of society. He believes that all the justices in the society should be built on the two principles mentioned above. It is said that there should be a proper institutional set up after which the market should be brought into the picture which in turn decides the distribution patterns of the commodities. The proper institutional setup here means the basic liberties that are to be provided as mentioned in principle one. Rawls approves the private property system over the socialist system. He is of the notion that through the private property system, society can achieve justice in economic relationships. If provided with the right institutional framework, it would achieve greater efficiency.

Rawls, in his book, also deals with the philosophical questions. According to him, rationality, as understood in economics, is only necessary, not a sufficient condition for moral choice and action. He brings in the ‘Aristotelian Principle’, which is – other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realised capacities (their innate and trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realised, or the greater its complexity. According to this principle, all the masses should be provided with facilities so as to begin at an equal footing while they try to realise their greatest happiness.

Rawls also considers the psychological viewpoint of his theory and states that the process of social and personal development is a necessity to acquire a sense of justice. He also says that family plays an important role to acquire the insight, motivation and detachment characteristic of a mature and just member of society.


No theory passes without its share of critiques and neither does this one. Kenneth E. Boulding particularly criticises the theory on the following grounds –

  • Fairness is not the only dimension of justice; surely it is an important dimension but not the only one.
  • Rawls’ principles are neither dynamic nor evolutionary, nor do they take into account uncertainty or evaluation of chance. A theory needs to have all these qualities in order to sustain the changing scenarios of the world.
  • It is difficult to know when these principles are being violated; it is very hard to use them even if we accept them as correct, to differentiate between just and unjust societies.


Rawls tries to draw a boundary between just and unjust society. This is as difficult as reaching the best optimum for an economist. Nonetheless, Rawls has done an extraordinary job in stating what justice is, a topic difficult to define. He has brought in a new and challenging perspective on the idea of justice based on systematic economics. Owing to the fact that this theory is recent than many others, we are yet to realise and understand its full impact on society if applied.



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Sunaina is an undergraduate student pursuing Political Science and Economics from the University of Delhi. She finds herself in a never-ending quest!