A THEORY OF JUSTICE
the belknap press of
harvard university press
Â© Copyright 1971, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
This book is a revised edition of A Theory of Justice,
published in 1971 by Harvard University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rawls, John, 1921â€“
A theory of justice / John Rawls. â€” Rev. ed.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-674-00077-3 (cloth : alk. paper). â€”
ISBN 0-674-00078-1 (paper : alk. paper)
1. Justice. I. Title.
formulate a conception of justice which, however much it may call upon
intuition, ethical or prudential, tends to make our considered judgments
of justice converge. If such a conception does exist, then, from the standpoint of the original position, there would be strong reasons for accepting
it, since it is rational to introduce further coherence into our common
convictions of justice. Indeed, once we look at things from the standpoint
of the initial situation, the priority problem is not that of how to cope with
the complexity of already given moral facts which cannot be altered.
Instead, it is the problem of formulating reasonable and generally acceptable proposals for bringing about the desired agreement in judgments. On
a contract doctrine the moral facts are determined by the principles which
would be chosen in the original position. These principles specify which
considerations are relevant from the standpoint of social justice. Since it
is up to the persons in the original position to choose these principles, it is
for them to decide how simple or complex they want the moral facts to
be. The original agreement settles how far they are prepared to compromise and to simplify in order to establish the priority rules necessary for a
common conception of justice.
I have reviewed two obvious and simple ways of dealing constructively with the priority problem: namely, either by a single overall principle, or by a plurality of principles in lexical order. Other ways no doubt
exist, but I shall not consider what they might be. The traditional moral
theories are for the most part single-principled or intuitionistic, so that the
working out of a serial ordering is novelty enough for a first step. While it
seems clear that, in general, a lexical order cannot be strictly correct, it
may be an illuminating approximation under certain special though significant conditions (Â§82). In this way it may indicate the larger structure
of conceptions of justice and suggest the directions along which a closer
fit can be found.
9. SOME REMARKS ABOUT MORAL THEORY 9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory
It seems desirable at this point, in order to prevent misunderstanding, to
discuss briefly the nature of moral theory. I shall do this by explaining in
more detail the concept of a considered judgment in reflective equilibrium and the reasons for introducing it.24
24. In this section I follow the general point of view of â€œOutline of a Procedure for Ethics,â€
Philosophical Review, vol. 60 (1951).
Justice as Fairness
Let us assume that each person beyond a certain age and possessed of
the requisite intellectual capacity develops a sense of justice under normal social circumstances. We acquire a skill in judging things to be just
and unjust, and in supporting these judgments by reasons. Moreover, we
ordinarily have some desire to act in accord with these pronouncements
and expect a similar desire on the part of others. Clearly this moral
capacity is extraordinarily complex. To see this it suffices to note the
potentially infinite number and variety of judgments that we are prepared
to make. The fact that we often do not know what to say, and sometimes
find our minds unsettled, does not detract from the complexity of the
capacity we have.
Now one may think of moral theory at first (and I stress the provisional
nature of this view) as the attempt to describe our moral capacity; or, in
the present case, one may regard a theory of justice as describing our
sense of justice. By such a description is not meant simply a list of the
judgments on institutions and actions that we are prepared to render,
accompanied with supporting reasons when these are offered. Rather,
what is required is a formulation of a set of principles which, when
conjoined to our beliefs and knowledge of the circumstances, would lead
us to make these judgments with their supporting reasons were we to
apply these principles conscientiously and intelligently. A conception of
justice characterizes our moral sensibility when the everyday judgments
we do make are in accordance with its principles. These principles can
serve as part of the premises of an argument which arrives at the matching judgments. We do not understand our sense of justice until we know
in some systematic way covering a wide range of cases what these principles are.
A useful comparison here is with the problem of describing the sense
of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language.
25 In this case the aim is to characterize the ability to recognize
well-formed sentences by formulating clearly expressed principles which
make the same discriminations as the native speaker. This undertaking is
known to require theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc
precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge. A similar situation presumably holds in moral theory. There is no reason to assume that our
sense of justice can be adequately characterized by familiar common
sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A
25. See Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, Mass., The M.I.T. Press,
1965), pp. 3â€“9.
9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory
correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and
theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards
cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. Thus the idea of the original position and of an agreement on principles there does not seem too complicated or unnecessary.
Indeed, these notions are rather simple and can serve only as a beginning.
So far, though, I have not said anything about considered judgments.
Now, as already suggested, they enter as those judgments in which our
moral capacities are most likely to be displayed without distortion. Thus
in deciding which of our judgments to take into account we may reasonably select some and exclude others. For example, we can discard those
judgments made with hesitation, or in which we have little confidence.
Similarly, those given when we are upset or frightened, or when we stand
to gain one way or the other can be left aside. All these judgments are
likely to be erroneous or to be influenced by an excessive attention to our
own interests. Considered judgments are simply those rendered under
conditions favorable to the exercise of the sense of justice, and therefore
in circumstances where the more common excuses and explanations for
making a mistake do not obtain. The person making the judgment is
presumed, then, to have the ability, the opportunity, and the desire to
reach a correct decision (or at least, not the desire not to). Moreover, the
criteria that identify these judgments are not arbitrary. They are, in fact,
similar to those that single out considered judgments of any kind. And
once we regard the sense of justice as a mental capacity, as involving the
exercise of thought, the relevant judgments are those given under conditions favorable for deliberation and judgment in general.
I now turn to the notion of reflective equilibrium. The need for this
idea arises as follows. According to the provisional aim of moral philosophy, one might say that justice as fairness is the hypothesis that the
principles which would be chosen in the original position are identical
with those that match our considered judgments and so these principles
describe our sense of justice. But this interpretation is clearly oversimplified. In describing our sense of justice an allowance must be made for
the likelihood that considered judgments are no doubt subject to certain
irregularities and distortions despite the fact that they are rendered under
favorable circumstances. When a person is presented with an intuitively
appealing account of his sense of justice (one, say, which embodies
various reasonable and natural presumptions), he may well revise his
judgments to conform to its principles even though the theory does not fit
Justice as Fairness
his existing judgments exactly. He is especially likely to do this if he can
find an explanation for the deviations which undermines his confidence in
his original judgments and if the conception presented yields a judgment
which he finds he can now accept. From the standpoint of moral theory,
the best account of a personâ€™s sense of justice is not the one which fits his
judgments prior to his examining any conception of justice, but rather the
one which matches his judgments in reflective equilibrium. As we have
seen, this state is one reached after a person has weighed various proposed conceptions and he has either revised his judgments to accord with
one of them or held fast to his initial convictions (and the corresponding
There are, however, several interpretations of reflective equilibrium.
For the notion varies depending upon whether one is to be presented with
only those descriptions which more or less match oneâ€™s existing judgments except for minor discrepancies, or whether one is to be presented
with all possible descriptions to which one might plausibly conform oneâ€™s
judgments together with all relevant philosophical arguments for them. In
the first case we would be describing a personâ€™s sense of justice more or
less as it is although allowing for the smoothing out of certain irregularities; in the second case a personâ€™s sense of justice may or may not
undergo a radical shift. Clearly it is the second kind of reflective equilibrium that one is concerned with in moral philosophy. To be sure, it is
doubtful whether one can ever reach this state. For even if the idea of all
possible descriptions and of all philosophically relevant arguments is
well-defined (which is questionable), we cannot examine each of them.
The most we can do is to study the conceptions of justice known to us
through the tradition of moral philosophy and any further ones that occur
to us, and then to consider these. This is pretty much what I shall do,
since in presenting justice as fairness I shall compare its principles and
arguments with a few other familiar views. In light of these remarks,
justice as fairness can be understood as saying that the two principles
previously mentioned would be chosen in the original position in preference to other traditional conceptions of justice, for example, those of
utility and perfection; and that these principles give a better match with
our considered judgments on reflection than these recognized alternatives. Thus justice as fairness moves us closer to the philosophical ideal;
it does not, of course, achieve it.
This explanation of reflective equilibrium suggests straightway a number of further questions. For example, does a reflective equilibrium (in the
9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory
sense of the philosophical ideal) exist? If so, is it unique? Even if it is
unique, can it be reached? Perhaps the judgments from which we begin,
or the course of reflection itself (or both), affect the resting point, if any,
that we eventually achieve. It would be useless, however, to speculate
about these matters here. They are far beyond our reach. I shall not even
ask whether the principles that characterize one personâ€™s considered judgments are the same as those that characterize anotherâ€™s. I shall take for
granted that these principles are either approximately the same for persons whose judgments are in reflective equilibrium, or if not, that their
judgments divide along a few main lines represented by the family of
traditional doctrines that I shall discuss. (Indeed, one person may find
himself torn between opposing conceptions at the same time.) If menâ€™s
conceptions of justice finally turn out to differ, the ways in which they do
so is a matter of first importance. Of course we cannot know how these
conceptions vary, or even whether they do, until we have a better account
of their structure. And this we now lack, even in the case of one man, or
homogeneous group of men. If we can characterize one (educated) personâ€™s sense of justice, we might have a good beginning toward a theory of
justice. We may suppose that everyone has in himself the whole form of a
moral conception. So for the purposes of this book, the views of the
reader and the author are the only ones that count. The opinions of others
are used only to clear our own heads.
I wish to stress that in its initial stages at least a theory of justice is
precisely that, namely, a theory. It is a theory of the moral sentiments (to
recall an eighteenth century title) setting out the principles governing our
moral powers, or, more specifically, our sense of justice. There is a definite if limited class of facts against which conjectured principles can be
checked, namely, our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium. A
theory of justice is subject to the same rules of method as other theories.
Definitions and analyses of meaning do not have a special place: definition is but one device used in setting up the general structure of theory.
Once the whole framework is worked out, definitions have no distinct
status and stand or fall with the theory itself. In any case, it is obviously
impossible to develop a substantive theory of justice founded solely on
truths of logic and definition. The analysis of moral concepts and the a
priori, however traditionally understood, is too slender a basis. Moral
theory must be free to use contingent assumptions and general facts as it
pleases. There is no other way to give an account of our considered
judgments in reflective equilibrium. This is the conception of the subject
Justice as Fairness
adopted by most classical British writers through Sidgwick. I see no
reason to depart from it.26
Moreover, if we can find an accurate account of our moral conceptions,
then questions of meaning and justification may prove much easier to
answer. Indeed some of them may no longer be real questions at all. Note,
for example, the extraordinary deepening of our understanding of the
meaning and justification of statements in logic and mathematics made
possible by developments since Frege and Cantor. A knowledge of the
fundamental structures of logic and set theory and their relation to mathematics has transformed the philosophy of these subjects in a way that
conceptual analysis and linguistic investigations never could. One has
only to observe the effect of the division of theories into those which are
decidable and complete, undecidable yet complete, and neither complete
nor decidable. The problem of meaning and truth in logic and mathematics is profoundly altered by the discovery of logical systems illustrating
these concepts. Once the substantive content of moral conceptions is
better understood, a similar transformation may occur. It is possible that
convincing answers to questions of the meaning and justification of moral
judgments can be found in no other way.
I wish, then, to stress the central place of the study of our substantive
moral conceptions. But the corollary to recognizing their complexity is
accepting the fact that our present theories are primitive and have grave
defects. We need to be tolerant of simplifications if they reveal and approximate the general outlines of our judgments. Objections by way of
counterexamples are to be made with care, since these may tell us only
what we know already, namely that our theory is wrong somewhere. The
important thing is to find out how often and how far it is wrong. All
theories are presumably mistaken in places. The real question at any
given time is which of the views already proposed is the best approximation overall. To ascertain this some grasp of the structure of rival theories
26. I believe that this view goes back in its essentials to Aristotleâ€™s procedure in the Nicomachean
Ethics. See W. F. R. Hardie, Aristotleâ€™s Ethical Theory, ch. III, esp. pp. 37â€“45. And Sidgwick thought
of the history of moral philosophy as a series of attempts to state â€œin full breadth and clearness those
primary intuitions of Reason, by the scientific application of which the common moral thought of
mankind may be at once systematized and corrected.â€ The Methods of Ethics, pp. 373f. He takes for
granted that philosophical reflection will lead to revisions in our considered judgments, and although
there are elements of epistemological intuitionism in his doctrine, these are not given much weight
when unsupported by systematic considerations. For an account of Sidgwickâ€™s methodology, see
J. B. Schneewind, â€œFirst Principles and Common Sense Morality in Sidgwickâ€™s Ethics,â€ Archiv fÃ¼r
Geschichte der Philosophie, Bd. 45 (1963).
9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory
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