John Rawl’s Two Principles of Justice

  • IASbaba
  • December 13, 2021
  • 0
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  • GS-2: Political Philosophy
  • GS-4: Political Philosophers

John Rawl’s Two Principles of Justice

Context: John Rawls was a highly influential American liberal political philosopher of the last century. 

  • The Two Principles of Justice in his 1971 classic, A Theory of Justice,forms the singular-most operative facet of Rawls’ doctrine of justice, which he termed justice as fairness. 
  • This theory of Justice has radically redefined the philosophical debates on achieving greater economic redistribution. 
  • The other concepts elaborated in the book – those of the basic structure of a well-ordered society, the original position, the veil of ignorance and primary goods – are building blocks of the overall edifice of justice

What is John Rawl’s Two Principles of Justice?

  • Equality Principle: The first of Rawls’ two principles says that every citizen has the same claim to a scheme of equal basic liberties, which must also be compatible with those of every other citizen.
    • Rawls enumerates an extensive list of basic civil and political rights, including a person’s freedom of conscience, expression and association; the right to a basic income; and the right to exercise the franchise
  • Difference Principle: The second of Rawls’ two principles grapples with the underlying inequalities of social and economic institutions. Rawls posits that in order to be morally defensible, these institutions must satisfy two conditions. 
    • First, they must guarantee fair equality of opportunities for competition to positions of public office and employment. 
    • Second, social and economic inequalities must be arranged in a manner that they work to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. 

What is the significance of Two Principles of Justice?

  • The political significance of Rawls’ two principles of justice comes from the primacy he assigns to their different components. 
  • Between them, the first principle is accorded absolute priority over the second. That is to say, the primacy of the equal basic liberties of citizens is non-negotiable in a democratic society. 
  • The entitlement of each to the various liberties is as critical as they are universal and non-discriminatory. 
  • Within the second principle, the first part takes precedence over the second. In other words, public institutions could not appear legitimate in the eyes of citizens unless everybody could reasonably expect to enjoy the fruits of fair equality of opportunities. 
  • Rawls reasoned that the two principles of justice would be fair because these are precisely those that would be chosen impartially by rational, free and equal citizens, had they no knowledge of their own individual or social circumstances in life. 


Rawl’s Theory of Justice has greater support & acceptance than a conception of justice that prioritised the maximisation of overall well-being or happiness, but overlooked differences in how benefits are distributed and burdens imposed on particular individuals.

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