Correcting John Rawls’s Social Justice

John Rawls is the modern architect of social justice. His blueprint for its design was published in 1971 as, “A Theory of Justice.” Theological philosophy (specifically, political theology) has been wrestling with it ever since.

According to John Rawls, the most fundamental virtue in any of society’s institutions is justice. Irrespective of efficiency and order, these institutions are to be abolished or changed if they contain any injustice. In other words, justice is the virtue of virtues. This is a direct inversion of the Augustinian view of order as the prime social virtue.

Furthermore, he seems to understand social justice and justice itself as coterminous, since he declares that the principles of justice are social justice, which he defines as principles that are to “provide a way of assigning rights and duties the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens of social operation.”

What is the basic argument for social justice? Dr. Samuel Fleischacker breaks it down this way:

  1. All human beings are equally deserving of respect  (Smith, Rousseau, and Kant).
  2. Respecting human beings means promoting their free agency (Kant).
  3. All human beings have capacities for agency that need development (Kant).
  4. Society shapes the degree to which they can develop these capacities and does so in particular by making resources available to them  (Marx).
  5. Society is a cooperative effort that we can shape and reshape if we wish  (Marx).

Conclusion: then we should distribute the resources in our society so that it better helps all its members develop their capacities, and our obligation to respect other human beings entails that we should do so. However, you may want to read a fuller treatment of the development of social justice.

Summary of John Rawls

Fundamental to Rawl’s view of justice is the (slightly) modified social contract he proposes. The social contract is a hypothetical thought experiment (however, John Locke saw it is as a historical reality), originally utilized to explain and justify the authority of government. In Rawls’ case, the social contract is used not so much to explain government authority, but to frame the parameters necessary for a universal and impartial justice which everyone would (or rationally should) consent to.

Instead of a social contract that creates a society directly (as originally understood), he holds that the contract is a judicial fiction, a thought experiment that can allow us to determine what the structures of society are, or should be. What is his thought experiment? He asks us to imagine what rules we would like to govern society when we create our social contract together. Since I might try to make rules biased in my own favor, it is imperative that I do not know anything about myself. If I do not know anything about myself, I will choose rules and laws that will be based on a number of key principles, equality being one.

So, the social contract indirectly determines our political and social program. Whatever these principles are, we determine them based on the collective rational choice of all parties involved, who seek to further their own gains but only as understood in this state of nature. Everyone is behind a “veil of ignorance” whereby we are able to deduce the principles of justice that all rational people ought to assent to.

This way of determining justice is what he calls “justice as fairness.” This is not because he understands justice and fairness to be the same thing. He makes it clear that the relationship is different. He explains that justice is, or should be, determined upon the rational and collective choice of individuals in a “fair” condition.

This ahistorical condition of fairness and equality is necessary, he contends. Social contingencies and natural inequalities, such as special endowments of intellect and strength, are not morally determined. Therefore, being morally arbitrary, he holds they should not determine outcomes of social and political inequality.

This leads us to his “difference principle.” The difference principle gives some merit, he says, to the principles of redress, which is the “undeserved inequalities” such as natural endowments and social contingencies which are unmerited. He believes that the “principle of redress” is a valid principle, which demands that these “undeserved” advantages are compensated for. The example that he gives is spending more resources on the less bright students. (The corollary seems that we punish those who don’t deserve to be punished.)

He maintains that the persons in the “initial situation” would choose two principles:

Principle 1. requires equality in the assignment of the basic rights and duties.

Principle 2. holds that the social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.


What are we to make of all this? Let’s analyze. The following distinction is profoundly simple, but it is profoundly overlooked. Thomas Nagel and Young Kim, however, are just a few who have observed the importance of the personal and the impersonal in any ethical foundation of a political theory. Put simply, justice is connected to the nature of man. Therefore, a valid system will take into account ‘man-in-the-abstract’ as well as ‘man-in-his-relationships.’ The former being impersonal, and the latter, personal.

If Samuel Fleischacker is correct, then the basic assumption that Rawls begins with, (or the first premise of social justice in general at least) is that justice demands that everybody is treated with equal respect. Aristotle, on the other hand, had the diametrically opposite view. He held that some people were naturally made for superior positions, and others for inferior, or subordinate roles.

In other words, John Rawls wishes to consider man qua man, whereby a father and a son are equally deserving of respect. This is a legitimate way of viewing a father and a son, of course. But Aristotle reminds us of another way. He does not want to consider man as man, but man in his relationships. Both are only providing half of justice by only seeing half of man. But Aristotle is getting at something that Rawls is missing which we need to focus a bit more on.

That is, man-in-the-personal; a man as a father and as a son. The question is, does the average citizen owe respect to the president in the same precise degree that he owes respect to a prisoner? Is a civilian obliged to pay the exact same respect, without distinction, to the war hero as he does to the coward and traitor? These questions depend on whether we are considering man in his moral-ontological status or in his socio-economic status. If what is owed is different, and if justice is giving what is owed, then justice will be unique (and equal or unequal) depending on how man is considered.

For example, all though it is true that all women are equal, and therefore, on this account, all deserve to be treated alike, it does not follow that I must treat all women as I treat my wife. That is called adultery and is an injustice. All women are equal in the abstract, by my wife is not equal to other women in her relationship. Justice has particular demands which are “personal” as Nagel puts it, or, “relational” as Young puts it. Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel agrees. Any consideration of justice that only accounts for one-half of man can only give one-half of what is owed.

An Alternative

Claims to justice and equality that are predicated on a balanced view of human nature, human nature that can account for ‘man-in-the-abstract’ and ‘man-in-his-relationships,’ is one that must, therefore, make the distinction between equality of kind and equality of degree (and the corollary of inequality of degree.)

If you and I both have apples, and you have three apples and I have five apples, we have here an equality of kind, and an inequality in degree. Because human nature is equal in kind (the moral-ontological man-in-the-abstract) justice only demands that equality be in kind. But since man is unequal in degree (socio-economic man-in-his-relationships) justice demands inequality in degrees.

Rawls confuses and conflates the two different kinds of equality because he confuses the two different aspects of man. Justice demands that every human have health, (equal in kind). But justice also demands that health be unequal in degrees. One man is a smoker and another man is a triathlete, for example, is a scenario where justice does not demand the triathlete pay for the decisions of the smoker. Perhaps this is why reformed theologians have traditionally been against the idea of material equality and redistribution programs. For further reference for an alternative to Rawls, Mortimer J. Adler provides a helpful guide in his book, Six Great Ideas. But in the meantime, Christians still have the hard work of moral and political reasoning to do.

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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