Since the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 there has been an outpouring of philosophical literature on social, political, and economic justice unmatched in the history of thought. During the previous two hundred years, utilitarianism had been the predominant view in Anglo-American political philosophy. Utilitarianism argues that laws, governments, and economies ought to be organized to promote (“maximize”) the greatest sum total of happiness (“utility”) in society. Adam Smith’s argument that the “invisible hand” of the market coordinates everyone’s self-interested choices to promote the public good long ago established utilitarianism as the primary justification for capitalism. The great British classical economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, F.Y. Edgeworth) were utilitarians, and economists still make utilitarian arguments to justify their single-minded focus on economic efficiency without regard to distributions of income and wealth.
Rawls claimed that because it ignores distributions of rights, liberties, opportunities, and other social goods, utilitarianism respects neither the separateness of persons nor the freedom and equality of democratic citizens; utilitarianism is prepared to sacrifice the rights, liberties, and opportunities of the few to promote the greater happiness of the many. Drawing on the social contract tradition of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, Rawls argued that justice requires that societies be governed by principles that free rational persons would agree to from a position of equality.
He proposed a thought experiment: imagine an impartial situation where we are ignorant of particular facts about ourselves and society, but know all general facts from the social and natural sciences. From this “original position,” people would then agree to principles of justice to govern society. Rawls’s first principle of justice guarantees equal basic liberties for all: liberty of conscience, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association, equal political rights, and freedom of conduct with a right to personal property. (Rawls crucially omits economic liberties such as the right to own and control means of production.) Rawls’s second principle affords everyone “fair equal opportunities” to develop their capacities and talents and to compete for social positions. This requires, he argues, extensive educational and health care benefits for all.
Finally, Rawls’s “difference principle” requires that economic inequalities be arranged to provide maximum benefit to society’s least advantaged members. This means that the economy should be organized to distribute income, wealth, and economic powers and responsibilities, so that the least advantaged class is better off than it would be in any other economic system. This, Rawls says, justifies a “property-owning democracy,” which, unlike our “safety-net” capitalism, requires that income, wealth, and economic powers be more evenly distributed across society.
Rawls’s theory encouraged the development of alternative theories of justice from different political perspectives. For example, Robert Nozick’s libertarian “entitlement theory”…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.