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The Pursuit of Fairness (John Rawls Theory of Justice)

Cohen, Joshua, “The Pursuit of Fairness (John Rawls Theory of Justice),” The Boston Sunday Globe, 1 December 2002, D1,4.
(Download this article review as a PDF)

Joshua Cohen is Goldberg Professor of Humanities at MIT and his original essay on Rawls appeared in Classics of Political and Moral Theory, ed. Stephen Cahn. The following may be considered a brief, introductory synopsis of the penetrating essay.

A professor of philosophy at Harvard for many years, John Rawls died in November of 2002. He is recognized as having revived the classical liberal tradition of Western, democratic ideals. Traditional liberal theories of economics and justice, as represented by John Locke and Adam Smith had come into disfavor of egalitarians who saw “legal rights and liberties” giving preference to the rich as over against the poor and ordinary workers. Classical liberals condemned the paternalism and sacrifice of rights made in hopes of a utopian future or happy welfare state.

Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) sought to bridge the chasm between Friedrich von Hayek’s classical liberalism and Karl Marx’ s socialistic egalitarianism. Cohen explains:

(Rawls) proposed a conception of justice—he called it “justice as fairness”—that was committed in equal measure to the individual rights we associate with classical liberalism, and to egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions. Justice as fairness, he said, aims to effect a “reconciliation of liberty and equality.”

Although his views did not win widespread support in American politics, his work prompted a remarkable renaissance of political philosophy in the United States and elsewhere (A Theory of Justice) has been translated into more than 20 languages), and has provided the foundation for all subsequent discussion about fundamental questions of social justice.

Cohen proceeds to explain the two principles that underlie Rawls theory of justice.

The first principle—of equal basic liberties—says that each citizen has a right to the most extensive system of equal basic personal and political liberties compatible with a similar system of liberties for others…. A person’s chances to hold office and exercise political influence should be independent of socioeconomic position. Citizens with motivation and ability to play an active political role should not be disadvantaged by a lack of personal wealth.

Rawl’s second principle of justice restricts the extent of social and economic inequalities. It requires, first, that jobs and positions of responsibility—which often carry unequal rewards—must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. The demand of fair equality is that people who are equally talented and motivated must have equal chances to attain desirable positions, regardless of their social background. Access to well-compensated, rewarding work should not depend on the circumstances in which people happen to have been raised.

Those disadvantaged by race and poverty immediately see the difficulty in working this out. So many things—from birth to daycare, to private school, to Ivy League, to contacts in the Big Boy Network—predetermine who will get the large slices of the pie in the end. Rawls was not only committed to address such disparity, but the inequality of natural talents themselves. In short, we might say that those with great athletic, musical, surgical or managerial skill should not be entitled to salaries extraordinarily greater than most workers.

To address this concern (Cohen continues), Rawls proposes what he calls the “difference principle,” which requires that we maximize the economic expectations of the least advantaged members of society. This striking principle requires that we limit the extent to which some people are richer than others just because they happen, though no doing of their own, to have been born with a scarce talent—say, the hand-eye coordination of a great hitter or an unusual mathematical gift.

Justice as fairness does not require flat equality: a surgeon might legitimately be paid more than a teacher because the higher income compensates for expensive training and education; income equalities might also be used as incentives to encourage lawyers or venture capitalists to take on tasks they would otherwise decline. But justice commands that such inequalities work to the greatest benefit of those who are least well-off.

Attacks from libertarians and communitarians led to Rawls’ Political Liberalism (1993) dealing more deeply and specifically with problems of religious, moral and philosophical pluralism. His Law of Peoples (1999) dealt with issues of global justice. In both these books people are brought together from different traditions, with different values and ideas of justice through his concept and process of initial contract. This is an important idea for Rawls. He asks all to imagine themselves behind a veil of ignorance… before experiencing life at all. There we are to consider what principles of justice would be fair to us no matter how we are born and raised. There are no class or ethnic lines behind this veil of ignorance. Without knowing what may lie ahead, we imagine principles of justice that would be fair in all cases.

Underlying Rawls theory seem to be presuppositions about human autonomy, the need for human community, the repository of human decency, and the notion of a common good.

This is an inadequate summary of Cohen’s fine article; and a less adequate introduction to work of John Rawls. If you are serious about justice in your society, you might want to read these books. This article is philosophical; remember that John Rawls was a philosopher. Cohen concludes his article with this paragraph:

Inevitably, philosophy will be criticized by the Aristophaneses of this world—not to mention the Machievellis—for keeping its head in the clouds, or buried in the sand. John Rawls was aware of this concern, and, in one of his final essays, acknowledged that his work might seem “abstract and unwordly” to some readers. But, he concluded, “I do not apologize for that.”



1.     How interested/concerned are you in/about justice?  How important is this idea?  In what ways? What is the cost of disinterest?

2.       What most impressed you with this article? What do you question, or what would you change, in it?

3.       How have both those on the right and the left of the political spectrum failed those who are the victims of injustice in your society?

4.       What do you think of the expression and general idea of justice with fairness?

5.       Must there not be a common idea of justice in a secular, pluralistic society?

6.       What is your concept of justice? What example of injustice most concerns you?

7.       How would you teach and defend your ideas of justice in public schools?



1.       No society can exist for long without widely accepted standards of justice.

2.       Students in the upper elementary grades and middle school are concerned and open to discussions and teaching about justice. High school students need to be asked hard questions and to discuss their ideas and implications of justice. College students should participate in efforts to improve justice.

3.       Justice and peace are basic values and goals for any society. This article makes us think a little more about the nature of both.


Dean Borgman  cCYS