The first principle of justice

A Theory of Justice
November 24, 2000

Nearly three decades after its appearance in 1971, and despite innumerable attacks, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is alive and well. Rawls’s view of "justice as fairness", which claims that sound principles of justice are those that would be chosen by rational individuals fairly situated behind a veil of ignorance, and which render coherent our considered convictions, remains central to contemporary political philosophy.

Although the revised edition of A Theory of Justice has only recently appeared in English, its text dates back to 1975, when it was published in German. It thus includes only a few of Rawls’s responses to the vast numbers of criticism his view has attracted. Rawls now makes clear that his "first principle" of justice regulates the protection of an equal set of basic civic liberties, rather than an indiscriminate right to liberty as such. He also explains how his account of social primary goods, which define individual advantage for purposes of justice, is related to a particular conception of the person as free and equal and as possessing certain capacities and interests. Fuller elaboration of these revisions is to be found in some of his other writings, and readers of Rawls will already be familiar with them.

Since writing A Theory of Justice , Rawls has acknowledged that his "first principle" fosters the existence of a variety of ethical, religious and philosophical views, and that, as a result, a reformulation of justice as fairness was necessary. He has spent much of the past two decades on this task. To show how justice as fairness can generate its own support once implemented and command the assent of all reasonable citizens despite their conflicting comprehensive views, Rawls presents his conception as a narrow and freestanding political conception of justice. Justice as fairness, that is, is a conception that applies only to the basic structure of society and is not dependent upon any particular sectarian assumption.

Some have assumed that Rawls’s concern for consensus has led him to compromise the original egalitarian dimension of justice as fairness. The preface to the revised edition, written in 1987, casts doubt on this assumption. Despite the revisions and the subsequent developments of his view, Rawls insists that he remains committed to the fundamental claims defended in A Theory of Justice . In particular, he still affirms the "difference principle", which, subject to the constraints of protecting equal basic liberties and fair equality of opportunity, requires that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they maximally benefit the least advantaged members of society.

The revival of philosophical egalitarianism is one of Rawls’s most significant achievements. The legacy of A Theory of Justice is even greater. His great work remains an indispensable reference point in contemporary moral and political philosophy, amply corroborating Robert Nozick’s observation that "[P]olitical philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory or explain why not”.

Serena Olsaretti is research fellow, Emmanuel College, Cambridge.


A Theory of Justice: Second edition

Author - John Rawls
ISBN - 0 19 825054 1 and 825055 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 538

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