John Rawls' Theory of Justice (debunked)

For the following reasons

1. Circular Argument - It assumes what it is trying to prove.

  (a) Because the Veil of Ignorance's neutrality is an attribute or conception of justice, therefore you cannot say that the original position will produce a system of justice. Neutrality and equality are part of the Original Position, but are subsets of a concept of justice.
  • The Veil of Ignorance is supposed to remove the idea of justice, but it smuggles concepts of justice into the Veil of Ignorance via "neutrality" or "equality".
  • It leaves concepts of justice outside of the Veil of Ignorance
  (b) The Veil of Ignorance's neutrality is not neutral.
  • Neutrality -- (a) The state or quality of being neutral; the condition of being unengaged in contests between others; state of taking no part on either side; indifference. (b) Indifference in quality; a state neither very good nor bad.
  • Screens out your character
  • Equal treatment is unjust. It is an assumption that neutrality and equality fulfill all needs for justice. That is incorrect. Equity versus equality. Neutrality is a harsh and insensitive form of justice.
2. Desert is an important or crucial role in justice
  • Natural capacity and deserving are two different concepts (the lazy talented man versus the hard working untalented person)
  • According to Rawls, all individuals are required equal justice and treatment after the veil of ignorance, but how will responsibilities be enforced? Some people are more sensitive to the needs of justice than others and act accordingly. What to do when no one in your family, but you, takes care of your grandparents?
3. Justice in Society (Rawl's Nation State)
  • We belong to overlapping societies, not merely nation-states
  • Society is not self-sufficient
  • John Rawls' original position isolates our relationship with others. ie. The daughter has equal freedom to stay up at 11pm. The father cannot say no.
  • Justice should be derived from our relations to others.
  • { Because treating everyone equally, regardless of relationship, is unfair/unjust. (Your mother, your family, etc)
  • { Because justice is the concept that most helps us to see how to balance our obligations between overlapping societies (families, neighborhoods, clubs, regions, states, world).
  • { Therefore, assuming that equality and neutrality is justice, is incorrect. Equity (fairness) should not be confused with equality.
  • Justice should not exclude:
  • { Desert - That which is deserved; the reward or the punishment justly due; claim to recompense, usually in a good sense; right to reward; merit.
  • { Character - Moral quality; the principles and motives that control the life; as, a man of character
  • { Community - Society at large; a commonwealth or state; a body politic; the public, or people in general.


  • Rawls' system of justice is well-meaning, but deficient.
  • The Greeks { Aristotle focuses on the importance of continually behaving virtuously and developing virtue rather than committing specific good actions. Aristotle believed that as long as a person is striving for goodness, good deeds will result from that struggle, making the person virtuous and therefore happy. This affects society as a whole.
  • Confucius' philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity.

Rawl's Objective

Rawls' primary objective in A Theory of Justice is to posit an alternative to utilitarianism. The main problem with utilitarianism is that it allows the rights of some people to be sacrificed for the greater benefit of others, as long as the total happiness is increased.
"The greatest good for the greatest number" can be abused, leading to the "tyranny of the majority". --

The "Original Position"

Rawls posits that a just social contract is that which we would agree upon if we did not know in advance where we ourselves would end up in the society that we are agreeing to. This condition of
ignorance is known as the original position. In the original position, 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". [Rawls, p 12]
From behind this veil of ignorance, we can discern the form of a truly just society, since our judgment would not be clouded by knowledge of our own personal circumstances. Rawls' social contract is ratified in a condition of perfect equality:
They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association [Rawls, p 11]
The original position is simply a thought experiment in an attempt to allow us to discover the nature of justice.[1] From this "original position" Rawls deduces two organising principles of justice which would be needed to govern the assignment of rights and duties and to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages for such a society:
  • Rawls: Because of the "original position", therefore you will have equal liberty.
  • Rawls: Because of the "veil of ignorance", therefore you will have the difference principle.

The First Principle of Justice: Equal Liberty

"Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all." - Rawls
"The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; freedom of the person along with the right to hold property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law." - Rawls


  • Liberty comes before equity or equality of food, clothing, shelter? Or do we interpret Rawls with a broader understanding than even with his own examples?

The Second Principle of Justice

"Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
  1. to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle), consistent with the just savings principle, and 
  2. attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." - Rawls


1. The priority of justice over efficiency and welfare
2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
  (a) The Difference principle
  (b) The Fair opportunity principle - Do we all have fair opportunity? eg. has to be reasonably wealthy to be a doctor, a prime minister or a president.


  • PH100 Introduction to Philosophy Unit Reader
  • PH100 Lecture Notes, Prof Brian Mooney
  • Wikipedia:

[1] This seems very similar to Game theory. Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that studies strategic situations where players choose different actions in an attempt to maximize their returns. Although similar to decision theory, game theory studies decisions that are made in an environment where various players interact. In other words, game theory studies choice of optimal behavior when costs and benefits of each option are not fixed, but depend upon the choices of other individuals. -