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RAWLS' THEORY OF JUSTICE
These notes will offer an overview of John Rawls' theory of social justice, along with his "social contract" argument for this account.
In A Theory of Justice Rawls claims that social justice requires that social values be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution makes "everyone" better off than they would have been under strict equality. This is his so-called "general conception" of justice:
All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth ...—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these goods is to everyone's advantage. (Rawls, 1971: 62)
The general theory of justice is incomplete. It "imposes no restrictions on what sort of inequalities are permissible" (1971: 62). In other words, nothing is said about what kinds of trade-offs between values are permissible. For example, would it be just for a certain group of people to sell themselves into slavery in order to increase their levels of wealth (cf. 1971: 62) Rawls' "special conception" of justice restricts this kind of trade-off between different social values. In the case of liberty and opportunity, Rawls says, no deviations from equality are permitted; in the case of income and wealth, deviations from the ideal of equality must be to everyone's advantage. Rawls' special conception of justice then comes to the following:
(1) Each person is to have the equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (1971: 60)
The two principles are in a lexical priority ordering: equality of liberty must be satisfied before the social and economic distribution is arranged. The distribution of social and economic resources must be substantially compatible with equality of liberty and opportunity.
Rawls' main argument for his principles of justice is a social contract argument. A social contract argument justifies ethical or political principles in terms of the rational agreements of contracting parties. Contract arguments, Rawls says, "[consist] of two parts: (1) an interpretation of the initial situation and of the problem of choice posed there, and (2) a set of principles which, it is argued, would be agreed to" (1971: 15).
The elements of a social contract argument can be set out as a series of questions:
This 1600 word solution provides and overview of John Rawls' theory of social justice. The social contract arguments are examined.