Published in


Rawls’ Justice as Fairness 1

Freedom, Equality and Fairness

John Rawls, 1971. Published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Photograph taken by Alec Rawls. Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

In Political Liberalism, John Rawls set out to defend the liberal political state in light of the deep divisions that might exist between citizens’ private conception of the good.

In terms of legitimacy and stability, Rawls outlines the minimum requirements for upholding a liberal political state:

A shared public political conception of justice that is freestanding and can be incorporated into all citizens’ world visions.

But the book does not outline a specific conception of justice that a liberal state ought to adopt, and Rawls admits there are many that could be defended.

A Theory of Justice

In his earlier book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls outlines and defends what he views as the optimal conception of justice that a liberal political state should adopt.

The name he provides for this vision is “justice as fairness.”

The main purpose of the book is to resolve the perceived tension between the concepts of freedom and equality, and to set out justice as fairness as a superior explication of justice to that of utilitarianism.

The primary focus of the book is what Rawls refers to as the “basic structure of society”: the major political and social institutions of a society; the political constitution, the legal system, the economy, the family, etc.

Justice must be discussed in the context of the basic structure of society because it is these institutions that most influence one’s life prospects, goals, relationships, character and attitudes.

Two Principles of Justice

Citizens freely come together in society to benefit from mutual cooperation, but they are not indifferent as to how the burdens and benefits of a society are allocated.

Rawls posits justice as fairness as composed of two principles:

1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:(a) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
(b) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society (the difference principle). (A Theory of Justice: A Restatement)

The first principle relates to the political and legal institutions of the liberal state, and the second principle to its social and economic institutions.

The first principle takes precedence over the second, reflecting the widespread conviction of the importance of basic rights and liberties of all citizens.

In the second principle, equality of opportunity takes precedence over the difference principle, reflecting first the imperative to address inequalities of opportunity that arise purely from chance, eg., the social economic environment one is born into, and secondly, the need to redistribute income and wealth such that all members of society believe they benefit from overall economic arrangements.

Together the principles form a vision of a deeply united society in which citizens “agree to share one another’s fate.”

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


Please join my email list here or email me at

Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Tomas Byrne

Tomas Byrne

Jagged Tracks Music, Process Philosophy, Progressive Ethics, Transformative Political Theory, Informed Thrillers, XLawyer