The Two Main Principles of Rawls’ Theory of the Original Position

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Distributive Justice

Part I – Introduction

John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is based on the idea of distributive justice, that is, how justice should be distributed to each individual within a society. Rawls’ theory contrasts with the theory of utilitarianism, because it values the welfare of each individual over the ‘greater good’, and does not believe that one person should sacrifice their own needs or desires in order to benefit a larger number of people. This has led Rawls to develop the idea of the ‘Original Position,’ a hypothetical social contract, which Rawls believes would lead to an ideal society of ‘justice as fairness.’ (Rawls, A Liberal Theory of Justice, pp 577, para 1.) Throughout this essay, I will outline Rawls’ theory of the Original Position, and the main two principles of justice that make up his theory. I will discuss two common objections against this theory, and possible responses that Rawls would have to these objections.

Part II – Original Position defined

The Original Position is Rawls’ conception of justice, which would set up rules that an ideal society would abide by in order for justice to be fairly distributed amongst each member of the society. In order for fair and equal opportunities to be allowed to each individual, Rawls believes that a society must first start out with each member in an initial position of equality, under what he terms ‘a Veil of Ignorance.’ This veil would ensure that nobody knows their position in society, and that everybody is ignorant to specific details regarding race, class, religion and economic standing. Each person would be provided with only the basic details of how the society is structured. (Rawls, A Liberal Theory of Justice, pp 578, para 1.) Such a veil of ignorance, Rawls believes, would encourage each person to be rational and mutually disinterested when choosing the rules of society, and because nobody knows which position they would be in when the veil is lifted, an individual would choose a set of rules that would benefit the least advantaged in case they found themselves to be in that position. This is what Rawls refers to as the ‘Maximin rule,’ where the rules would ensure that the least advantaged position is maximised to the best it could possibly be. (Rawls, A Liberal Theory of Justice, pp 585, para 2.) This theory is based on two main principles of justice. The first of these is the equality of basic liberties, which Rawls believes everybody is entitled to. These liberties include, but are not limited to, political liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of a person to hold personal property. The second of these principles is the idea that social and economic liberties must be arranged in two ways. Firstly, these inequalities must be “attached to offices and positions that provide equal opportunity to all.” Secondly, that these inequalities are “to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged”, also referred to as the Difference Principle. Furthermore, Rawls believes that these principles should be lexically prioritised, where the first principle must be met before the second. (Rawls, A Liberal Theory of Justice, pp 582-583.) In other words, he states “that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages.” (Rawls, A liberal Theory of Justice, pp 581)

Part III – Common Objections

It would appear that the Original Position would seem to be a social contract that any individual would favour, as a society that abided by the rules made under the veil of ignorance, would be a just society, in which advantages are not afforded to those people who have simply been born into better circumstances. Under the veil of ignorance, one would not know his position in society, and would therefore choose a set of rules that would ensure that no one person would be at a disadvantage, because they were not afforded luxuries such as...
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