In The Name Of Justice: Thus Spake John Rawls

john rawls

An individual who finds that he enjoys seeing others in positions of lesser liberty understands that he has no claim whatever to this enjoyment.

~ John Bordley Rawls (21st February 1921-24th November 2002)


John Rawls’ has explained the theory of justice through his political philosophy. The political philosophy of Rawls is based on the tradition of enlightenment that is also based on the foundational idea of the fairness of justice. Political conception of justice   is based on the three main features that explain the political conception of justice as “a moral conception worked out for a specific kind of subject, namely, for political, social, and economic institutions”. The ethical and political idea of justice is central to political philosophy of Rawl. Therefore, this paper will provide a critical analysis of the John Rawls’ political philosophy and ethics.

The main aspect of the Rawls’ political philosophy is not just that he wrote of theory of justice, but also because he studied, taught and wrote about the history of political philosophy and compared it with his own theories and ethics. Rawls has used the reflective-comparative approach to the history of political philosophy. According to the study of Niţu, (2013) Rawls used the historical political concepts, theories and philosophies and compared them with his own theory of fairness as justice. He used the moral and ethical approach towards defining the concept of justice in political philosophy.

The theory of justice is divided in two principles. The first principle is that “Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all”. This means that Rawls’ principle is based on the argument of the equal welfare state. However different authors have claimed that welfare state is necessary, but the theory of justice given by Rawls is not sufficient for it. For example, Susan Okin, who was a feminist has explained this inequality in terms of gender and family. Okin finds that justice in terms of family and gender is not explained by Rawls. According to Okin, the inequalities based on gender between men and women are highly evident in the traditional families and Rawls has neglected to give a proper account of justice within family Rawls’ political philosophy is also inconsistent with the gender structured society. According to Susan Moller Okin, Rawls’ theory did not focus on the injustice and inequalities that are specifically embedded in the hierarchies of the familial relations. Rawls focused on the basic social structure, while the feminists focus on “personal is political” approach. Rawls political philosophy and ethics are criticized because they could not explain the solution for the inequalities in the patriarchal relations and gender division of labour.

According to the Cohen’s theory of justice and criticism against Rawls’ theory is that theory of justice is not considered to be compatible with the incentive-based argument for inequality. Rawls has also focused on the social inequalities through his second principle of the fairness of justice. According to this principle Rawls explains that social and economic inequalities are to be effectively arranged so that the social institutions should provide the equality of opportunities and must focus on the benefit of the least advantage sections of the society. Rawls informs that inequalities are to be allowed in order to provide benefit to the least fortunate. However, according to Cohen the accommodation of inequalities for the purpose of incentives limits the scope of the theory of justice. Cohen argues that incentives can b considered as good in the practical sense, however, the society that is being considered to be perfectly just should not have the impairments and problems associated with incentive-based inequality. This can be considered as contradistinction with the statement of Rawls, where he considered political approach to be intrinsically just and moral and believes in existing incentive based inequalities.

This principle and statement is contradictory with the Rawls’ claim that “political values are intrinsically moral”. On the one hand Rawls explains the political conception of justice which is influenced by the religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines, while on the other hand he suggests that political conception of justice is intrinsically moral. Also, Rawls’ philosophy could not completely explain that what is the meaning of morality in political conception of justice. According to Klosko (2014) Rawls’ theory of “Justice as Fairness” is seriously flawed. This is mainly because this theory has been specifically motivated from the self-interest. Klosko (2014) further explains that the main problem with this political philosophy of Rawls is that the choosers will mainly focus on crafting the principle that is more beneficial to them. For instance, the people who are unusually talented will focus on disproportionately rewarding the talented people, while those who lack talent will choose not to provide incentives disproportionately. The people who will have the greater bargaining power will impose their choices and preferences on others.

According to the analysis of Sen (2009) “the Rawlsian system of justice as fairness, direct attention is bestowed almost exclusively on ‘just institutions’, rather than focusing on ‘just societies’ that may rely on both effective institutions and on actual behavioral features” (p, 67). This can be considered as correct because Rawls’ two principles are mainly about the appropriate choice of the correct institutions and only lay the path for the appropriate behavior. Sen (2009) also informs that because of such thinking the individual and social psychology becomes mainly dependent on the type of political ethics. Rawls is also mainly concerned regarding the basic structure of the society, while significantly neglected the attitude of the people, which is highly influenced by the way such institutions are integrated in the social system. The integration of the political and social institutions in the society significantly affect the way people think and perceive and also significantly shape their plans and desires. Therefore, the basic structures of the society are significantly subjected to justice.

The collectivists scholars have also argued that Rawls have raised the argument regarding the justification of existing capitalist system. He has also informed that if the rich get the freedom of accumulating wealth, then least fortunate will get the benefit automatically. However, this could also be the major for of injustice and significantly contradicts with the idea of justice for fairness. If the Rawls’ principle of fair equality of opportunity is completely applied in the society and strictly enforced, it will not be able to improve the condition of the people, who are disadvantaged. However, the slight improvement in the condition of the least advantage people could be considered as an excuse to the vast socio-economic inequalities.

Though some of the concepts given by Rawls are very significant to be understood, such as the concept of equal distribution of social goods is very significant for promoting equal access and equal opportunities. However, completely eliminating the already existing inequalities in the social structure is something, which is not possible through Rawls theory and political philosophy. The scholars find that Rawls have placed an over-emphasis on the social and political institutions and guarantors of justice, and have not considered the effect of human behavior on the social institutions and their ability to maintain justice and to promote a just society. The veil of ignorance is also found to be misguided by many authors, which is considered to be the only possible outcome of the reflective equilibrium.

Rawls political philosophy and ethics have made a significant contribution to the literature and the study of political philosophies. Rawls theory of justice and two principles has also informed about his interest in equality, equality of opportunities, benefiting the least advantage and poverty. However, many flaws have been identified in his theories and ethical positions. The few pence which have been shared herein-above provides a critical discussion of the Rawls political philosophy and ethics and presents the scholarly criticism by including analysis and concepts of various scholars which at the end could not be concluded without quoting Dr B.R. Ambedkar who said, “Justice has always evoked ideas of equality, of proportion of compensation. Equity signifies equality. Rules and regulations, right and righteousness are concerned with equality in value. If all men are equal, then all men are of the same essence, and the common essence entitles them of the same fundamental rights and equal liberty..In short justice is another name of liberty, equality and fraternity.”


Anderson, E. (2010). Cohen, Justice, and Interpersonal Justification. Retrieved from:

Cohen, G. A. (2009). Rescuing justice and equality. Harvard University Press.

Di Rollo, G. (2016). Gender and politics: the role of women as members of family, society and politics: a study on Susan Moller Okin.

Dutta, S. (2017). Rawlss’ Theory of Justice: An Analysis. Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS), 22(4), 40-43. Retrieved from:

Heywood, A. (2015). Political theory: an introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.

Klosko, G. (2014). Rawlss, John (1921–2002). The Encyclopedia of Political Thought.  Retrieved from:

Li, Z. (2016). The public conception of morality in John Rawls’ political liberalism. Ethics & Global Politics9(1), 28679.

Niţu, C. G. (2013). The Rawlsian Way of Doing History of Political Philosophy. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences71, 141-147.

Sen, A. K. (2009). The idea of justice. Harvard University Press.

Aniruddha Vithal Babar,, D.H.R.L., LLM (International Law and Human Rights), M.A. (Political Science with specialization in International Relations and Conflict Studies), Former Advocate; Bombay High Court and independent researcher with interdisciplinary temperament. He has respectable hold on political and Socio-legal philosophy and thought with research interests include International law, Tribal Jurisprudence (with special emphasis on the development of Naga Jurisprudence), Applied Politics, Idea of justice, Peace & Conflict Studies, Northeast Studies, Subaltern Studies and Human Rights. Presently he is pursuing his PhD in the interdisciplinary fields of Law, Governance and Conflict Management at SSLG, JAIPUR NATIONAL UNIVERSITY. He may be contacted at [email protected]




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