[4.2.] The First Principle of Justice: Liberty. The first principle that would be chosen by people in the original position has to do with liberties:
The First Principle of Justice. "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." (JT p.302)
I.e., each person should have the maximum amount of liberty compatible with the same amount of liberty for everyone else. The idea behind this principle is that liberty is the top priority among all goods; if you don't have freedom to pursue your conception of the good life, then no other good things matter very much.
Rawls has in mind the following liberties:
…political liberty (the right to vote and to hold public office) and freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person, which includes freedom from psychological oppression and physical assault and dismemberment (integrity of the person); the right to hold personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. These liberties are to be equal by the first principle. (TJ rev. ed. p.53; Cahn p.1046)
[4.3.] The Second Principle of Justice: Distributive Justice. The second principle has to do with "distribution of social and economic advantages" (TJ p.61), i.e. goods, wealth, authority and responsibility.
The Second Principle of Justice: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged… and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." (TJ p.302; rev ed. p.266)
I.e., inequalities in distribution of goods (wealth, income, authority, etc.) are justified only if (a) they work to the advantage of the worst off persons in society and (b) the positions to which greater goods and authority accrue are open to all persons.
...an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. (TJ p.4)
…social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. (TJ pp.14-15; Cahn p.1040)
Clause (a) is known as the Difference Principle; clause (b) is known as the Equal Opportunity Principle.
[4.3.1.] The Equal Opportunity Principle.
Again, this principle asserts that social and economic inequalities are morally justified only if they are "attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." This seems to be the straightforward requirement that all individuals are to be equally eligible for the positions and offices which bring greater pay and authority.
But this principle also requires action on the part of society to make all individuals equally eligible:
...fair equality of opportunity means a certain set of institutions that assures similar chances of education and culture for persons similarly motivated and keeps positions and offices open to all on the basis of qualities and efforts reasonably related to the relevant duties and tasks. (TJ rev. ed. 245-6)
[4.3.2.] The Difference Principle.
It is because of this principle that Rawls' theory is regarded as an egalitarian view of justice.
Again, this principle asserts that social and economic inequalities are morally justified only if they are of "the greatest benefit to the least advantaged". What does Rawls means by "greatest benefit to the least advantaged"?
He means that the inequality makes those who are worst off better off than they would be in the hypothetical state in which all social primary goods are equally distributed: imagine a hypothetical state of society in which all social primary goods (wealth, income, rights, responsibilities) are distributed equally among all persons. (These are social primary goods; Rawls distinguishes these from natural primary goods, e.g. health, vigor, intelligence and imagination.)
If a specific inequality in the distribution of some primary social good makes the worst off better off than they would be otherwise, then it is a just inequality. For example, the existence of well-paid doctors and entrepreneurs lifts up the conditions of everybody, including those who are worst off (the sick and the poor).
Any inequality that does not work to benefit the worst off people in society is unjustified, and the government should therefore intervene to eliminate that inequality.
[18.104.22.168.] Overcoming the Natural Lottery.
Rawls recognizes that some individuals are born with greater natural talent, intelligence, and beauty than others, and also that some are born into wealthy families. What natural qualities a person possesses, and what sort of family he or she is born into, is a matter of luck, what Rawls describes as the natural lottery (e.g. TJ 75; TJ rev. ed. 65).
As a result of the natural lottery, individuals receive unequal shares of goods (e.g. economic goods-- if you're born into a wealthy family, you inherit more money than someone born into a poor family; and if you're naturally more intelligent, you can get a higher paying job than someone who is naturally less intelligent).
Such individuals do not deserve those unequal shares; so inequalities that result from the natural lottery are unjust and therefore ought to be corrected by redistribution -- unless allowing those individuals to benefit from the natural lottery somehow makes the worst off in society better off than they would be otherwise:
Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out. The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted, but only to cover the costs of training and education and for using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well. No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But, of course, this is no reason to ignore, much less to eliminate these distinctions. Instead, the basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate. Thus we are led to the difference principle if we wish to set up the social system so that no one gains or loses from this arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assets or his initial position in society without giving or receiving compensating advantages in return. (TJ rev. ed. 87; Cahn 1049-50)
[4.4.] How the Principles are Related.
The first principle has priority over the second -- this means "that infringements of the basic equal liberties protected by the first principle cannot be justified, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages." (TJ rev. ed. 53-54; Cahn 1046-7) In other words, Rawls' theory does not permit individuals to give up fundamental rights in order to gain in goods, income, etc.:
Imagine … that people seem willing to forego certain political rights when the economic returns are significant. It is this kind of exchange which the two principles rule out; being arranged in serial order they do not permit exchanges between basic liberties and economic and social gains except under extenuating circumstances. (TJ rev. ed. 54; Cahn p.1047)
 The revised edition of JT omits the word "basic"; otherwise this principle is unchanged. (JT rev ed p.266)
 This is a point emphasized by Talisse in On Rawls, pp.42-43.
 From the first edition of JT: "a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages." (JT p.61)
 From the first edition of JT: "Imagine … that men forego certain political rights when the economic returns are significant and their capacity to influence the course of policy by the exercise of these rights would be marginal in any case. It is this kind of exchange which the two principles as stated rule out; being arranged in serial order they do not permit exchanges between basic liberties and economic and social gains." (JT p.63)
This page last updated 4/21/2003.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.