And A Theory of Justice begins with these famous words. Rawls says, after saying
what he hopes to do in the book, that "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions
as truth is of systems of thought." He says, "Just as a theory, however elegant and
economical, must be rejected or revised if it's untrue, so, too laws and institutions,
no matter how efficient or well arranged, must be reformed or abolished if they are
This is an articulation of what Rawls sees as the central commitment of a certain
outlook of the legitimacy of government. A Western picture--and perhaps more
general picture--according to which, a social structure, an arrangement of
fundamental institutions by which lives are governed, is legitimate if and only if
the institutions which it supports are just.
So just as a theory which is extraordinarily elegant but false should be rejected on
the grounds that it's untrue, so too, says Rawls, should a societal structure which is
elegant but unjust be rejected. He goes on to identify what he sees as some
fundamental commitments of this sort of picture. He writes, for example, that "each
person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society
as a whole cannot override. For this reason, justice denies that the loss of freedom
for some is made right by a greater good shared by others." Now we thought about this question--the question of the trade-off of goods across
individuals--in the context of our discussion of consequentialism on the one hand
and other moral theories, deontology and virtue theory on the other.
“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that entering into a
social contract with one another--whereby as a way securing the rights to life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness, we subject ourselves to a rule of law, which we
thereby take to be legitimate--is central, both to the social contract tradition as
articulated in Hobbes and his successors, Locke and Rousseau and Kant, and to this
document, which all of us have presumably encountered previously.
Moreover, continues this document, “whenever any form of government becomes
destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to
institute a new government.” What kind of new government? What's Jefferson's
answer? A new government, where “laying its foundation on such principles and
organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their
safety and happiness.”
So the idea that we set out to create a government that gains its legitimacy through
our recognition that thereby our self-interest is advanced is a central notion to the
American political tradition. Chapter 2. Rawls on Justice [00:11:33]
So how does it manifest itself in the particular text that we're thinking about today?
How does John Rawls, in this book from the 1970s, attempt to give contemporary
voice to this set of concerns that 200 years prior to him were given voice to by
Thomas Jefferson and 150 years prior to that were given voice to by Thomas
So Rawls begins by saying what it is that he takes society to be. Society, that which
we're trying to identify a set of characteristics for, is “a more or less self-sufficient
association of persons, who in their relations to one another recognize certain
rules of conduct as binding” and who, “for the most part, act in accordance with
You'll recall that at the end of the Prisoner’s Dilemma lecture last week and also in
our readings for last Thursday, we looked at mechanisms other than the ones that
Hobbes identified for enforcing social contract.
Hobbes thought the most effective way was the imposition of a sovereign, whose
threat of penalty and punishment would hold people to behave in certain ways. So Rawls has told us what it is that he thinks a society is for the purposes of
discussion. It's “a more or less self-sufficient association of persons, who in their
relations to one another recognize” something--that is “certain rules of conduct--as
binding” and, “for the most part”--not always, I know some of you talk on your cell
phone while you drive--“act in accordance with them.” These rules “specify a
system of cooperation that's designed” to do what? It's designed to do the thing
that Thomas Hobbes was talking about in Leviathan. They specify “a system of
cooperation that is designed to advance the good of those taking part of it.” The
legitimacy of government on this picture derives from the fact that it is to the
advantage of those who participate in it.
However--and this is the perplexing feature that makes political philosophy a
discipline of great intellectual interest--“although a society is a cooperative venture
for mutual advantage,” it is, says Rawls, undeniably typically “marked by conflict as
well as identity of interests.” Why is this? It's because while there is an identity of
interests--because social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any
would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. That is, we get dividends as
the result of not having to expend our energy on protecting ourselves from the
threat of others' harm.
Each of us--as we know from the last two lectures--is better off when we can count
on others to be cooperative.
It is nonetheless the case that there is a conflict of interests in any society since
“persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits of their collaboration are distributed.” Roughly speaking, each prefers a larger to a lesser share. If there are
cooperation dividends, that is good and produces a reason for cooperation. But
when there are cooperation dividends, each of us--reasonably enough--wants as
many of the dividends as we can get.
And the consequence of that is that although “society is a cooperative venture for
mutual advantage,” it's typically “marked by conflict as well as identity of interests.”
So this gives rise to the next level question. When we read Hobbes we read only the
very beginning of his discussion of the social contract.
Rawls is now turning to a question beyond that. Namely, what set of principles
ought we to adopt, given the fact of conflict?
Given that we want cooperation, we want some sort of societal structure. As a result
we're going to end up with more stuff than we would have had if we hadn't been
cooperating. How should that stuff, how should those goods--some tangible, some
So Rawls points out that a set of principles is required for choosing among the
various social arrangements, which determine this distribution of advantages.
These principles “provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions
of society.” Things like what the legal system looks like. Things like what the
economic system looks like. Things like what the fundamental rights and
responsibilities of citizens look like. And what they do is to define an appropriate
distribution of benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Because, as we've already noted, social cooperation brings with it undeniable
benefits but it also brings with it certain kinds of burdens. Your freedom is restricted
in certain ways in a cooperative system. And it may well be the case that the benefits
that accrue to the social system go to someone else.
What Rawls calls the main idea of the theory of justice and how that fits with his
notion of the veil of ignorance?
So the main idea of The Theory of Justice is, as I've pointed out to you
already, something that is part of the social contract tradition.
Rawls explicitly says in the first footnote of the text we read for today that
he's working primarily from the social contact picture as articulated in Locke,
Rousseau and Kant, but that he is harkening back to Hobbes in it.
And this, as you know, is the following idea, that each of us recognizes that
there's a certain advantage to living in a society where we're not constantly
under threat, that each recognizes that non-threat can be achieved--this idea
that you're not constantly at risk in this cold war of all against all.
That non-threat can be achieved only under general cooperation. And that
general cooperation can be achieved only under some sort of implicit or
explicit enforcement system.
So Rawls, with that social contract framework in mind, goes on to ask, what
would it take to get a clear picture of what that enforcement system ought to
look like if, as we recall, it's meant to be something, which is for the good of
each of its participants? And here is what he says. He says, "The principles of justice,” of the basic structure of society, “are those that free and rational
persons concerned to further their self-interest would accept in an original
position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association"
That is there are four fundamental ideas that underlie this picture.
The rules that govern your society, the rules that govern a legitimate society,
into which you ought to contract, are rules that you would accept if you
o with respect to all of the other free, rational and self-interested
individuals who are also contracting into this society.
How can we possibly get there?
How can we possibly determine what free, rational, self-interested and equal
individuals would agree to, given that--as a matter of fact--we're not all equaSome
of us were born into families of wealth and some of us were born into families of poverty.
Some of us were born with certain sets of natural talents; others were born with other sets.
Some of us were born with certain sorts of conceptions--or some of us were raised to have
certain sorts of conceptions--of the good life. Others of us were raised to have others. Veil of Ignorance
Rawls's idea is this: the principles that articulate the legitimate structure of society
are those to which you would agree if you did not know which person you were
going to be.
So he asks you to imagine that you sit behind what's he called a “veil of ignorance,”
where “no one knows his place in society, his class position, his social status, his
fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, his strength
or his conception of the good.” this gives equality
From this position, where you don't know which person you are going to be, you get
the fourth of our four requirements. You get equality. Because nothing particular
about your self-interest will play a role. And having put yourself in this imaginary
position, where ignorance brings with it a certain kind of ability to think clearly about
the question, each party then freely determines on the basis rational self-interest. So
that gives us freedom, rationality and self-interest. The framework that they think
would be best.
So the idea is this: a bunch of people who don't know what role they will play in
society sit behind the veil of ignorance and think, how would I want society to be
structured if I didn't know whether I was going to end up as a shepherd or a
capitalist or a doctor or a construction worker or a police officer or someone who
has difficulties with the authority of police officers or somebody who's differently
abled or perhaps even as a Yale football player? And from behind this veil of
ignorance, recognizing that any one of these identities could end up being the one that they would have, these individuals come up with a framework for how it is that
society would be structured.
So recognizing that they might be extraordinarily wealthy, they may take into
consideration what it would take for society to allow individuals to flourish under
those conditions. But they might recognize at the same time that they might end up
as one of the construction workers. Perhaps they would end up as a doctor. Perhaps
the set of abilities that they had would differ from those of the majority of the
society and so on.
So what you have in the articulation of the veil of ignorance as a way of thinking
about this question, is Rawls's version of a theme that we have seen over and over
and over again in this course. Hobbes says to you: When you think about political
structures, think about yourself as not being different from everyone else. Be willing,
he says, "to lay down your rights to the extent that others are willing to do this the
same. Content yourself with as much liberty against others as others have against
Mill says, "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong
as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Not the agent's own happiness,
but the happiness of all concerned." And Kant, again givin