A Theory of Justice

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In society, there is no greater question or importance than the relationship between the state and that of an individual. John Rawls directly addresses the issue in his famous work “A Theory of Justice”, in which he offers a comprehensive argument for an active welfare state. Rawls offers a framework based in the context of social contract theory that appears both logical and egalitarian; his conclusions appeal to both intuition and reason almost undeniably. This essay will discuss that Rawls principles conflict on the freedom of an individual and will argue that the relationship of individual liberty outweighs the importance of social equality.

Rawls begins with a statement that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” In the beginning, Rawls acknowledges the tension between an individual and society as a whole. The principles of justice, within his theory, are the principles that best resolve the interests of the two parties. Society is described as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” although “it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests.” Conflict occurs because humans are self-interested. “Social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts,” but “persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed.” While society makes each individual member better off, they are constantly competing for the spoils of their cooperative efforts.

Necessarily, “a set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages.” This set of principles, which decides how goods are to be distributed, represents the principles of justice for Rawls. Proper principles must proceed from a position of fairness and equality: “they are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association.” Rawls terms this the original position, from which any reasonable person would derive the same principles of justice. Each member of society must enter the original position behind a “veil of ignorance,” meaning “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like.” In other words, anything that can produce inequality is unknown to the social contractors. Every individual agrees on a set of principles when they are blind to their own advantages, therefore they agree with each other on an equal basis. Rawls points out that under these circumstances, society’s member “are autonomous and the obligations they recognize self-imposed.” Any free, rational, self-interested human would choose the same principles if placed in such a scenario, he believes. Based on these presumptions, he deduces a precise formulation of the principles.

The first of the two is stated as follows: “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” Consistent with most other social contract theories, libertarian citizens guarantee the basic liberties of others so long as their own basic liberties are guaranteed in return. Secondly, according to Rawls, “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 second principle offers something much more unique and controversial. Section A requires any disparity in wealth or income to be for the good of society as a whole, while section B demands equality of opportunity. The latter is a right familiar to modern, Western democracies, and Rawls carries it...
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