Rawls' Theory of Justice

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The concept of justice has been the focus of normative political theory over the past 50 years, and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) is widely seen as the most important attempt during that period to articulate a set of institutions and distributional outcomes that rational individuals would see as legitimate. Rawls’ seminal work has spawned a veritable critical industry since its publication (Miller, 1999). His elaboration of his project and restatement of his theory of “justice as fairness” (Rawls, 2001) promise to sustain interest in his ideas.

This essay is an attempt to critically discuss and analyze John Rawls’ (1921-2002) conception of justice. It seeks to also answer the question of what led him to perceive justice in the way that he did. In order to achieve this, a thorough introductory exposition of Rawls theory will be carried out citing its content with the use of relevant definitions and examples. A conclusion will then be drawn from the discourse.

This essay therefore recognizes that Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is thus an egalitarian theory of moral conduct which applies to all the obligations which individuals have toward each other. It further perceives it as a deontological (that is, it is one which states that the moral content of an action is not wholly dependent on its consequences) rather than a teleological theory (that is, an approach to ethics that studies actions in relation to their ends or utility. Additionally, it conceptualizes it as an antithesis to utilitarian and perfectionist views of justice in order discover how applicable the theory is in the determination of the allocation of social, economic, and political resources. Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) developed a conception of justice as fairness in his now classic work A Theory of Justice. Using elements of both Kantian and utilitarian philosophy, he has described a method for the moral evaluation of social and political institutions. According to Katznelson (2008) a social contract is a voluntary agreement among people defining the relationship of individuals with one another and with government and by this process forming a distinct organized society. Rawls theory proposes that if one had the task of fairly developing a totally new social contract for today's society without necessarily eliminating all of his/her personal biases and prejudices, one would need to take steps at least to minimize them.

Rawls suggests that one imagines himself in an ‘original position’ behind a ‘veil of ignorance.’ Behind this veil, an individual knows nothing of himself and his natural abilities, or his position in society. He knows nothing of his sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. They do know that in the "real world", however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

In other words, people are all self-interested rational persons and they stand behind "the Veil of Ignorance." To say that all people are self-interested rational persons is to say that they are motivated to select, in an informed and enlightened way, whatever seems advantageous for them. To say that they are behind a Veil of Ignorance is to say that they do not know the following sorts of things: their sex, race, physical handicaps, generation, social class of their parents, etc. But self-interested rational persons are not ignorant of the general types of possible situations in which humans can find themselves; and the general facts about human psychology and "human nature".

Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance are given the task of choosing the principles that shall govern the actual world. Rawls believes that he has set up an...
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