Is Rawls’ Theory of Social Justice Feasible?

Justice is one of the most contested principles in political theory; however the theory of justice proposed by the American political philosopher John Rawls has come to be one of the most influential theories of the present day. By first explaining the ideas behind the theory, such as the initial position and the difference principle, then putting Rawlsian justice under scrutiny we shall come to discover an understanding of Rawlsian justice as well as realise that despite being a desirable theory for the modern political era it is undesirable and unfeasible for a post-modern political era.

Rawls begins his theory by first pointing out what role justice has to play within the political sphere, his posits justice with the role as “a set of principles…required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of…distributive shares. These principles are the principles of social justice…they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation”[1].  Or in short Rawls sees (social) justice as the underlying system for deciding how best society should be arranged so that resources can be distributed in a fair manner. Miller adds another dimension to this by claiming “justice is more than simply a virtue…it is fundamental to the institutions of a mass of individuals into a political community”[2]. By combining the two we can say that the role of justice is to turn individuals into a community by establishing a system whereby resources and burdens are shared out fairly amongst all members of the community.

Before Rawls then goes on to explain his theory of justice he firsts argues that for such a system to be completely fair to all involved it must be devised from what he calls the ‘initial position’ as “the principles of justice for the basic structure of society…are the principles that free and rational persons…would accept in an initial position”[3]. The initial position is something which cannot be actualised in reality a point Rawls acknowledges as he refers to it as “a purely hypothetical situation”[4], in which we each must imagine ourselves as being in a blank state so that “no one knows his place in society, his class…or social status, nor…his fortune in the distribution of natural assets”[5] to ensure “the principles are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”[6] Once we have placed ourselves behind this veil of ignorance and are imagining ourselves as featureless, talentless shadows moving within a system yet to be implemented we can then begin devising the set of principles and laws which will keep the system fully functioning without being unduly unfair to any particular individuals or group within the whole community, the principles Rawls argues we would all decide upon boil down to two main concepts.

The first of these of these two principles is often referred to as ‘the principle of basic freedoms’ in this principle, which Rawls posits as being the most important and therefore should not yield to the other principle under any circumstance, “the basic liberties…are political…these liberties are to be equal by the first principle”[7]. These basic freedoms, as already mentioned, are political freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom to vote in a system where each vote is counted as one and no more than one, amongst others. At first it may seem like Rawls has become side-tracked by establishing a principle of political justice in what is meant to be a system of social justice, however Rawls is justified in doing so as he argues “it seems…acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune”[8], hence in order for any theory of social justice to work it must first secure that all individuals are covered by an equal distribution of political freedoms so that those of higher social status are able to manipulate and exploit those lowering down the ladder.

The second principle is broken into tow parts with the first being referred to as ‘the principle of equality of opportunity’ which means that the “positions of authority and responsibility must be accessible to all”[9], although this comes in as a second part to the second principle it is often taken to be prior to the second, known as ‘the difference principle’ which goes as thus; “the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage”[10]. These two principles go together forming one basic notion, that all positions are to be made open to everyone and we each have an equal opportunity to obtain these positions followed by any differences in the distribution of resources which emerge over time must be to the advantage of all otherwise they are unjust and must be rectified. Not only does this then fairly distribute wealth and income but also power, authority and reasonability (in Rawls’ opinion), devising a theory of social justice which offers political justice a fair distribution of all social resources not just wealth and income.

In a number of the systems currently in place in today’s world Rawls’ principle of equality of opportunity is in effect as Kymlicka points out “the prevailing justification for economic distribution…is based on…’equality of opportunity’…it is acceptable to pay someone $100,000 when the national average is $20,000 if there was fair equality of opportunity.”[11] Where Rawlsian justice differs from the current model is the fact that the model in place supports a meritocratic society based upon a principle of just deserts in which “it is fair for individuals to have unequal shares of social goods if…inequalities are earned and deserved by the individual”[12], however we can see that the current model doesn’t always work, one example being those who have worked hard to obtain high grades at school are still not always able to obtain placements in universities because of their background; an attribute assigned by luck not merit; thus the idea of equal opportunity is not as stable as first appears. Rawls argues against systems working upon this unfair principle of equal opportunity as he claims that unequal distribution of wealth can only be fair if the benefits given to those higher up the ladder benefit those lower down the ladder, but which system is better? We cannot simply say the current one must be otherwise another would have be implemented by now without sufficient evidence to back the claim as this would be a logical fallacy. However by looking at Kohlberg’s theory of moral development we may be able to find a way of arguing which of the systems is more desirable.

Kohlberg originally devised his theory to map out the moral development of individuals throughout their lives, but it can be used to chart the moral development of societies and political communities over time as a way of determining which systems are most desirable in terms of morality. Kohlberg came to realise that many of the systems in place today are grounded upon stage four moralities with some elements of stage five moralities[13]. Thus modern society is grounded upon what Kohlberg calls ‘conventional morality’[14]. It can be argued that since politics is now moving into an age of post-modernism then we should be moving into ‘post-conventional morality’ grounded upon stage five and stage six moralities. By looking at Rawls’ theory of justice it seems to be one that is to be implemented on a universal level as it effects all peoples equally without exception which suggests Rawlsian justice is a stage six model of morality, exceeding the current stage of morality we are currently in, this being the case then Rawlsian justice is a very desirable theory but we are not yet able to achieve it until we have made further progress with our development as rational, moral agents. Hence despite being desirable it is, at present, not a feasible theory.

Miller accepts that “one principle of just distribution…is equality”[15] but also acknowledges “there is a long tradition that holds that helping the needy is a matter of charity”[16]. It is often accepted that Rawlsian justice is a justice according to needs theory where those worse off (the needy) require more then the better off for equality to prevail as “a ‘need’ is a necessity; it demands satisfaction…for this reason, needs are often regarded as ‘basic’ to human beings”[17] but should these basic needs be satisfied out of duty or through charity? “The need criterion thus implies that those in the prosperous West have a moral obligation to relieve suffering and starvation in other parts of the world”[18] as “to allow people…to be hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick or to live in fear, when the resources exist to make them otherwise is immoral”[19], therefore it is implied that justice according to need is a stage six morality according to Kohlberg[20]. However in the United Kingdom (UK) this duty is implemented by taxation of its citizens to fund a National Health Service (NHS) so that wealth is passed from the better off to the worse off allowing an equal amount of medical care to be available to each individual. Although the theory behind the NHS is commendable in practise it does fall down as certain groups such as smokers, the clinically obese and elderly tend to use up more than their ‘fair share’ of medical resources whilst contributing less than their ‘fair share’ of tax towards its costs, thus to have a system according to needs is not feasible as needs become a “kind of black hole into which all of society’s resources are likely to disappear”[21] in the name of equality.

Another reason as to why justice according to needs, and therefore, Rawlsian justice is not feasible is because needs are not an objective ground to base a theory of justice upon since “needs…depend on what is expected in the society someone inhabits”[22], by this argument then Rawls’ theory despite being seen as stage six morality theory in actuality falls short making it a level five morality theory at best, hardly any better than the current level four/five [23]sphere we currently move in nonetheless it still ranks higher on the scale and therefore is still desirable. Yet “if needs exist they are in fact conditioned by the historical, social and cultural context in which they arise” [24]so that what is a need in one part of the world will not be a need in another part of the world, for example in the UK’s maritime climate the citizens ‘needs’ require protection from a rapidly changing condition of the atmosphere whereas in Siberia’s sub-arctic climate the citizens ‘needs’ require protection from freezing temperatures. Therefore it can be argued that justice according to needs is feasible for the modern era of politics where focus was on the national level but as politics shifts into a post-modern era where the global supersedes the national justice according to needs ought to be replaced with an alternative theory. Otherwise justice will fail as an objective ground for what counts as a ‘need’ can not be achieved on a global scale.

To conclude Rawls’ interpretation of justice according to needs is one which appeals to the modern political era as being a desirable theory but as it has been shown it is not one that is feasible. Furthermore as politics shifts into a post-modern era justice according to needs is not only unfeasible but it also becomes undesirable as it contains no objective grounding making the concept of ‘needs’ completely arbitrary, allowing inequality to spread unduly as some nation-states harvest more social resources than others, in a way which can already be seen in today’s world where the developed countries own half of the world’s wealth[25] at the expense of developing countries.

 Appendix I

Fig 1: Kohlberg’s scale of moral development based upon information from and

  • Stage 1 – Hedonistic Morality (what is right = what serves your base instincts)
  • Stage 2 – Egotistic Morality (what is right = looking after oneself)
  • Stage 3 – Teleological morality (what is right = excelling within one’s social  function)
  • Stage 4 – Utilitarian Morality (what is right = what serves the greater good)
  • Stage 5 – Social Contract Morality (what is right = protecting social cohesion and peace)
  • Stage 6 – Universal Morality (what is right = protecting & obeying an objective code of conduct)
  • Stage 7 – Trancendental Morality (what is right = moving beyond an established objective code of conduct)


[1] Rawls. J, A Theory of Justice, 1999, pg.4

[2] Miller. D, Political Philosophy a Very Short Introduction, 2003, pg.74

[3] Rawls. J, A Theory of Justice, 1999, pg.10

[4] Ibid, pg.11

[5] Ibid, pg.11

[6] Ibid, pg.11

[7] Ibid, pg.53

[8] Ibid, pg.16

[9] Ibid, pg.53

[10] Ibid, pg.53

[11] Kymlicka. W, Contemporary Political Philosophy (2nd Edition), 2002, pg.57

[12] Ibid, pg. 58

[14] Ibid

[15] Miller. D, Political Philosophy a Very Short Introduction, 2003, pg.80

[16] Ibid, pg.81

[17] Heywood. A, Political Theory (3rd Edition), 2004, pg.295

[18] Ibid, pg.296

[19] Ibid, pg.296

[20] See appendix I

[21] Miller. D, Political Philosophy a Very Short Introduction, 2003, pg.81

[22] Ibid, pg.82

[24] Heywood. A, Political Philosophy (3rd Edition), 2004, pg.297

Posted on March 2, 2013, in ethical/political, philosophical and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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