John Rawls' 'A Theory of Justice'

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  • 0:01 Choices Based on Status
  • 0:53 Justice as Fairness
  • 2:13 The Original Position
  • 3:44 Equal Opportunities
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Does your position in society affect how you think about justice? This lesson looks at a thought experiment proposed by John Rawls that involves imagining social justice from a new perspective.

Choices Based on Status

Let's say you are a wealthy business owner and there is a new tax structure that is about to be established. You will see a 10% reduction in your after-tax income. You have an opportunity to vote for or against this change. How do you think you will vote?

Now let's say that you have very little income, and the new tax structure will mean that there will be funding for your child to receive a free college education, among other benefits. How do you think you will vote in this case?

This lesson looks at how you might respond to this question if you didn't know whether you are the wealthy business owner or the person with less income. We'll see how this question relates to the philosophy of John Rawls and how he envisioned social justice.

Justice as Fairness

John Rawls was an American philosopher who focused his attention on the political domain of society in his work, A Theory of Justice. Like other philosophers before him, he considers the concept of a social contract, an agreement among people to live under a system of government. In particular, Rawls emphasized justice as fairness.

But what is fair? To a wealthy business owner, what feels fair might be a reward for your hard work to achieve success and keeping more of the money you have earned. For a person of less means, equal access to a good education for your children would feel fair.

What Rawls proposed was a thought experiment. A thought experiment is using your imagination to consider a new way of thinking. In his thought experiment, you would imagine that you have a representative that will meet with the representatives of every other citizen in a society to come up with principles of justice.

This meeting is not a literal election or vote like in our example earlier about the tax structure. Rawls meant these representatives in the thought experiment to be hypothetical only and not a situation that would happen in real life.

The Original Position

There's something very unique about this particular imaginary gathering. Those who are involved in this get-together are part of what Rawls describes as the original position, or an impartial point of view used to establish the principles of justice.

What makes the original position of the participants so impartial and fair? Well, they've been given a strange characteristic. Each citizen's representative knows nothing about the actual social or economic standing of the person they are representing. They don't know your income, or whether you are the wealthy business owner, or the lower-income parent, for instance.

They don't know your ethnicity, your gender, or your age, either. They don't even know what political or economic situation has been established in your society. This lack of information about the relative situation of those they represent is called the veil of ignorance.

What do they know? They know you have a certain plan for life. They know you have an interest in having enough for yourself.

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