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Theory of Justice

Importance of Justice in political philosophy:

Justice is architectonic concept. (fundamental, base, taken from architecture). It is the most fundamental, political value. The entire western political philosophy revolves around the concept of justice. To begin with Plato’s REPUBLIC, the subtitle of the REPUBLIC is ‘concerning justice’. Justice is the foundation on which state is based. Why justice is such a important concept? Society cannot exist without the idea of justice. People will adhere to the social norms, institutions only when they find these institutions as just. Hence John Rawls writes that

Justice is the first virtue of the social institutions, just as truth is the first virtue of any system of thought.

John Rawls

Various Types of Justice

Social justice

This conception of justice broadens the theory of justice beyond political and legal borders. It advocates the social treatment and opportunities for individuals and communities in a state. To put explicitly, it suggest that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice, privileges, opportunities, regardless of different circumstances.

Political justice

Political justice refers to the use of the judicial process for the purpose of power sharing in politics. For example the provision of universal adult suffrage, separate electorate, reservation policy etc. deal with political justice.

Economic justice

The theory of justice aimed at achieving equal economic opportunities for all individuals and to establish a foundation to lead a life of dignity and opportunity. It mainly deals with economic policies of state.

Legal justice

Simply put, it stands for the justice as it is enforced by legal entities, in accordance with the laws established. It is more concerned with following the just procedures (procedure established by law) than upholding the value of justice. Consequently, legal justice may or may not comply with other forms of justice. For example the abortion may be legal in eyes of law in some states, but it may not enjoy the ‘just’ status in eyes of community or religion.

Distributive justice

It deals with the justice at the level of distribution. Distribution of resources by the state. Various schools have different opinions to achieve such justice. Classical liberal suggest least state intervention to allocate resources. Nozick suggests state intervention only when the life is at threat. Dworkin has suggested just initial distribution. John Rawls suggest difference principle to establish social security net for disadvantaged sections. And Amartya Sen has suggested ‘capacity building’ approach to achieve the goal of distributive justice. Socialists take this concept to another level when they suggest state ownership of industries and extreme intervention of state to ensure ‘just’ allocation of resources.

[Note: The concept of justice and equality is quite intertwined – so same answer is also applicable for distributive equality.]

Procedural justice and Substantive justice

Procedural justice concerns itself at the level of application. The procedures followed must be just and the legal codes should not be violated. The Substantive justice, on the other hand, is concerned about the outcome of the process. While the former is concerned about ‘letter of law’, the latter is more about ‘spirit of law’.

Procedural justice is based on ideas like equality before law, When procedural justice is about ‘procedure established by law’ and substantive justice is about ‘due process of law’.

The idea of substantive justice can be said to be a more mature approach than procedural justice. The idea of procedural justice inspires minimal state (no use of discretion by state – just follow the procedure) and is largely inspired from classical liberal school. Substantive justice encourages state intervention to ensure ‘justice’. It allows state to use its discretion in favour of weaker sections, or to ensure justice in fullest sense of the word.

We can given an example of Indian constitution. Originally Art 21 contained provision only for ‘procedure established by law’. But Supreme Court found the clause inadequate and expanded the ambit of the article to also include ‘due process of law’ (substantive justice).

Rule of law

In simple words, it means ‘law’ rules. Law is supreme and is determinant of all activities – those of government and also individual. Law provides a framework for the actions, codifies individual and collective rights and also enlists any exception to such rights. Rule of law is also called as ‘constitutionalism’.  It has been developed to establish stability in a state.

AV Dicey in his work INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE LAW OF THE CONSTITUTION has given four features of rule of law. 1) No one should be punished except for breach of law.  2) The law should not discriminate against persons and apply equally to ordinary citizens and government officials.  3) There must be certainty of punishment when law is broken.  4) Rights and liberties of individual should be embodied in the ‘ordinary law’ of the land.

Critics have argued that it creates a situation where citizens are compelled to obey the rule. It does not talk about content of the law. The rule of law was even observed in Third Reich (Nazi Germany) and in Soviet Union  to justify the oppression. Marxists consider law to be a part of superstructure, only to protect the property of capitalist class, and communitarians argue that law only represent the values and attitudes of dominant group.

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Introduction of Rawls as a thinker:

John Rawls is considered as the greatest philosopher of twentieth century. He has been given the credit for the revival of political theory. (political philosophy). There was a time when scholars have declared the death of political theory. Under the influence of behavioralism, a movement to convert political science into ‘pure science’, there was decline of political philosophy. Political science as a discipline started losing relevance. 1950s and 1960s were the decades of social upheavals in USA, there was growth of movements like Black Rights movement, feminists movements, environmental movements, movements for disarmament, opposition to Vietnam war. Political theory had nothing to offer as a solution.
To make political science, science, political scholars neglected the normative issues like Justice, Liberty, Equality etc. whereas there was a demand for the new theories which can guide the policy makers. In this context came Rawls’ theory of justice. The publication of Rawls’ theory of Justice in 1971 is regarded as the revival of normative political theory or philosophy. Just like classical political philosophy is attributed to Plato and Aristotle, considered as footnotes to their thoughts, similarly contemporary political philosophy can be considered as footnote to Rawls. Rawls is a reference point for all contemporary scholars like Nozick, Amartya Sen, Dworkin, Isaiah Berlin, Will Kymlicka.

School of thought: We can consider Rawls as social liberal, or liberal egalitarian.

Prominent works of Rawls

1] In 1958 his article JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS was published.
2] In 1971 his THEORY OF JUSTICE was published
3] In 1993 his another book POLITICAL LIBERALISM was published.
4] In 1999 his book THE LAWS OF THE PEOPLE was published.

Rawls’ purpose in giving theory of justice?

In light of the social unrest, he believed that there is a need for new principles of justice on which American society can be based. Principles on which all can agree or which can result into consensus.
Like Plato, Rawls also believes that there has to be ‘ultimate principles of justice’. The principles which will appear rational to all. Thus Rawls’ approach is  a) Universalist  b) Rationalist. 
Rawls’ theory of justice ultimately appear to be based on the principles of liberalism, which he projects as most rational principles. Thus he has been accused of propagating the hegemony of liberal discourse. However Rawls tried to be rational and impartial. Rawls’ tragedy that others never regarded him as impartial, rather an advocate of liberalism affirms the fact that man is ‘situated self’. Since Rawls belonged to USA, it was natural for him to consider liberalism as the ultimate way of life.

Features of Rawls’ theory:

Till Rawls’ theory of justice, utilitarian theory of justice has been the dominating theory in liberalism. Utilitarian theory is based on the principle of the greatest happiness of greatest number. The theory ultimately led to the support of such policies which result into the maximization of national income but disregard for ‘distributive justice’. The flaw of utilitarianism is the neglect of human dignity. This is the reason it has been criticized as inhumane.

Rawls’ Theory of Justice

What Rawls does?

There are two broad traditions in liberalism.
1. Utilitarian tradition represented by Bentham which focuses on utility or pleasure. (teleological approach / consequentialist approach)
2. The tradition of human dignity, which comes from Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant held that human dignity is ‘categorical imperative’, which means cannot be violated for any reason. It is the foremost duty to respect human dignity. (deontological approach).
Rawls revives the tradition of Immanuel Kant and calls his theory of justice as ‘deontological’. In the words of John Rawls “Each person posses inviolability founded on the principles of justice.” (Inviolability – human dignity). It shows that human dignity has to be the fundamental principles of theory of justice. If any theory of justice which is not based on human dignity, compromises human dignity, it cannot be accepted as the theory of justice.
Rawls describes his theory as ‘purely procedural’. He wants to show that his theory is completely rational. It is not based on some prior values or biasness. He suggests that to find out the most rational principles of justice, we have to live it on ‘rational procedures’. Whatever is the outcome of the rational procedure, will be accepted as rational or the ultimate principles of justice.
Rawls revives the tradition of social contract. Social contract tradition has been sidelined in liberalism because liberalism came to be dominated by utilitarian tradition based on ideas of Hobbes. e.g. Bentham rejects the concept of natural rights as nonsense. However Rawls revives social contract, adopt it in his methodology. He considers contract is the most rational approach. Social contract assumes that human beings are rational. Contract is a rational procedure. Contract represent choice. It has not been forced. Hence people obey the contract because contract represents their ‘rational choice’.

Concept of moral judgement. (intuitionism)

Rawls principles of justice are based on intuitions. Intuitions are moral judgements. According to Rawls, the principles of justice which we follow should be in accordance to our intuitions or moral judgements. If they are not in accordance to our moral judgements we will not be able to follow such principles of justice. Because our soul will not be in peace. The purpose is being happy or satisfied soul.
Hence Rawls propose a method of ‘reflexive equilibrium’. It is a type of logical reasoning by which we can understand our own preferences or judgements more clearly. It is a process by which we can bring our intuitions, reasons in sync with our actions. According to Rawls utilitarianism cannot be the sound principle of justice. Utilitarianism will not be in conformity with our moral judgement with respect to justice. According to utilitarian ethics, pleasure should determine right which means what I should do or not depends on whether that action gives me pleasure/profit. To quote Bentham, “Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters…..” According to Rawls, such principles may not be in sync with our moral judgement.
For example, as per utilitarianism, we should think about maximization of profit. Profit maximization by the capitalist may put the life of worker in the state of exploitation. Making profit at the cost of human life may not be in sync with our moral judgements. Capitalists may be rationalizing it but ignoring his moral judgements. He may be making profit but will not be at peace.

[ This is also similar to Gandhian idea where Gandhi proposed that for one who commits violence, it causes more harm to himself that victim. The offender is harmed at mental and spiritual level. And such a person will never be in peace. ]

Good is not prior to right rather determined by right

According to utilitarians, end should determine whether the action is right or wrong. According to utilitarian ethics, if any action gives us pleasure, we can call such action as right. Hence for utilitarians, good is prior to right and determines right.
From Rawls point of view, above principles do not conform the principles of justice. Above principles cannot be brought in equilibrium with our moral judgements. Utilitarianism makes profit maximization principle of industry as a yardstick for the political actions as well as ethics. Profit maximization at the cost of putting the life of workers in danger cannot be considered as the principle of justice.
Like Immanuel Kant, Rawls also believes in the categorical imperative of human dignity. Human dignity as a principle cannot be compromised in human society. Hence human dignity determines the standard of rights and rights should determine good. Profit maximization can be allowed, but not at the cost of human dignity. Hence Rawls mentions that the principles of justice as fairness is based on the idea of inviolability of each person. In the words of Rawls, “Each person posses inviolability founded on the principles of justice, that even the welfare of the society as a whole cannot override.” For this reason, Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by the greater good shared by others. [rejection of ‘greatest happiness of greatest number’ (GHGN) principle.] It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society, the liberties of equal citizens are taken as settled. (Human dignity cannot be violated). The rights secured by justice are not subjected to political bargaining or calculus of social interest (GHGN)… Being first virtue of human activity, truth and justice are uncompromising (deontological approach).

Rawls’ Approach

Rawls’ challenge is to convince others that his principles of justice are the universal and ultimate principles of justice. Hence Rawls is very specific about the procedure. Rawls calls his theory as ‘purely procedural theory’.
To arrive at universally acceptable principles of justice, Rawls suggest that such principles should be the outcome of purely rational procedure. It means it will not involve any pre-conceived notion of justice based on any ideology. Whichever principles of justice emerge out of the procedure, will be accepted as the ultimate principles of justice. Rawls procedure is called as a thought experiment.
To understand thought experiment, we have to understand the concept used by Rawls like primary goods, original position, veil of ignorance.
Rawls revived the tradition of social contract to show that the principles of justice are  a) Voluntary  b) Based on reason.  Like the old social contract thinkers talking about the state of nature, Rawls talks about the original position.

Features of original position

People have come together to device the principles. They are not Hobbesian men. They do have moral reasoning/judgement or inherent ideas of justice. They are ‘mutually dis-interested. Though they are mutually dis-interested, they understand that to live in the society, they have to agree on some basic principles of cooperation. They have come to determine the distribution of primary goods.
Every person has some rational plans, primary goods are needed to pursue these rational plans. Rational plans means goals e.g. becoming IAS, Dr. etc. Rational goals are secondary goods. For the secondary goods, we need some primary goods. e.g. Liberty, Rights, Income, Wealth and Dignity. 
People are kept behind the veil of ignorance. The purpose is to bring people in original position hence in a thought experiment it is assumed that people do not know particular facts about themselves. They only know some general facts, means a general understanding of society, economics and psychology. They do not know which position they will be placed in, in that society. They may be rich or poor, advantaged or disadvantaged, male, female or transgender.
Considering this these people have to decide what should be the system with respect to the arrangement of primary goods. In the thought experiment, Rawls wants to show that person will neither prefer liberty alone as libertarians think nor equality alone as socialists think, any rational person behind the veil of ignorance will require both – liberty as well as equality. Thus he ends up justifying social welfare state/approach.

Maximin principle

To determine the order of priority, Rawls believes that maximin principle is the most rational way. Maximin principle implies 1) Any rational person would like to maximize the benefits of any advantage he has.  2) Any rational person would like to minimize the impact of any disadvantage if he has.  3) Any rational person will put himself in both the situations. 1) What if he is best off?  2) What if he  is worst off?
People in the original position will consider different options and will ultimately opt for the option whose worst outcome is better than the worst outcome of any other option. e.g. If they only think they are most talented, hence they will not have concern for equality but this choice will lead them in worst position, if after removing the veil of ignorance they come to realize that they were least advantaged. They will realize that they should have agreed for social security net.
Similarly if they think they may be worst off and just include equality and ignore the liberty but once they come out of ignorance, they realize that they were most advantaged, hence they will feel that they are now the worst off.
According to Rawls, any rational person will give primacy to thinking about the advantages over disadvantages. Rational person will give priority to liberty over equality.

Rawls’ principles of Justice

Rawls suggests that under the situation of Veil of Ignorance, the rational choice of people would be:

1] Everyone would like to take the benefits of any advantage/talent if they have any. Hence they would agree for maximum equal liberty. [Liberty Principle]
“Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with similar liberty for all.” (1)
2] 2nd Principle: 2nd Principle is called as Equality of Opportunity principle. Everyone would like that they should be given equal opportunity to explore their talents. [Equality of opportunity principle]
3] 3rd Principle: 3rd Principle is called as Difference Principle. Difference principle suggests that our policy should be such that benefits the least advantaged section of the society. [Difference principle]

Lexical Order

It is a definite order of priority. Rawls’ suggests that principles of justice are prioritized in following sequence. 1 will have preference over 2, 2 will have preference over 3.
In other words, liberty will have preference over equality of opportunity which in turn will have preference over difference principle.

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Rawls’ concept of democratic equality

According to Rawls the concept of equality found in western countries may not be adequate. It needs to be democratized, which means making it pro-poor. This can be done by affirmative action policies in favour of the least advantaged.
He suggests how inequality is an interesting concept, more we offset, more we end inequalities, new forms of inequalities become visible. For example initially there was no equality before law. Once this system was institutionalized, it was realized that many people are not in a position to live a life of dignity. Hence came the idea of equality of opportunity. Still large number of people were not in a position to live a life of dignity. Hence it was realized that there is no level playing field in the society. Thus it appears just, match to our inherent conception of justice if we provide for affirmative action policies.
Thus Rawls justify progressive taxation, welfare state and the system of social security. According to Rawls, natural distribution is neither just, nor unjust. It is not unjust that a person is born in a society at some particular position. These are simply the natural facts. What is just and unjust is how the institutions deal with these facts. Hence according to Rawls, justice and injustice is a matter of social institutions. It is within the capacity of human beings to change the social system based on the principles of justice as fairness.
There will be no peace if there is injustice in the society. According to him, society is like a chain, where the weakest link is as important as the strongest. He is sure that reasonable persons will never disagree on offering each other ‘fair terms of cooperation’.
Why rich should agree? 1. Matter of being fair.   2. It was their rational choice behind the veil of ignorance.   3. It is the best possible way they can maximize their advantage.   4. Welfare policies are like social insurance, anyone may require insurance anytime. 
Why poor will agree? 1. Matter of being just.   2. Accepted it behind the veil of ignorance.  3. The rational choice is to go for the option whose worst consequence is better than the worst consequence of any other option. It will be rational for poor to opt for the option which will make them better off rather than worst off.
He suggests that socialism will result into everyone being worst off. Socialism is not productive. It is like sharing equal poverty. Difference principle is just because it is not unfair for those who are talented and hardworking.  It is the best possible utilization of inequality. Society will have more resources to help the poor. It will lead them better off rather than worst off.
Rawls uses the concept of advantage and disadvantage. He wants to show that there is a difference between pure talent and advantages. What person possess is not just because of his own talent. (Rejection of possessive individualism). Thus he incorporates chance factor. It may be a matter of chance that a person is born in a good family, went to good school and so on. For example professor Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande suggest that government should make disadvantage index while formulating merit.

Rawls makes a difference between personal and political. Social institutions will be economic, political, educational etc. Church or family will be personal institution.

Critics of Rawls

Rawls thought that he will be able to give most rational and universal theory of justice. However he has been criticized by almost all schools of thought. The major critics are communitarians. Other critics are socialists, libertarians, feminists, positive liberals.


Socialists consider Rawls concept of democratic equality based on difference principle as vulgar. It is a vulgar justification of inequalities. It is not a theory of justice, it is a theory of injustice.


Susan Moller Okin, Carole Pateman. They criticized Rawls for separating personal from political, ignoring the need of the discussion of the theory of justice from the perspective of women in the family.

Carole GilliganETHICS OF CARE (concept) in book IN A DIFFERENT VOICE.

According to Gilligan, the entire idea of justice is masculinist. Instead of talking about justice, we should talk about care. We can talk about morality in two ways. 1. Justice 2. Care. In every society, men focus on justice, whereas women focus on care. When we give priority to justice over care, we are downplaying the importance of care and involvement of women in care.

Benefits of ethics of care.
Principles of justice are based on the approach of individualism. They give priority to the claims of individual over groups. Ethics of care focus on human connectedness, self sacrifice and obligations to others. It gives importance to emotions, the support we give to the persons with whom we have close relations like the relationship between mother and child. Justice is based on rationality. Care is based on emotions. We live in a society where we give preference to reason over emotions. Ethics of care is superior because it leads to peace, compromise and stability. It gives value to the work of women. It helps in achieving gender equality. The abstract principles of justice demand women to give priority to work over children. Hence giving preference is not always bad. However ethics of care is criticized because it will be difficult to apply. It may not be convincing to give primacy to the worker who gives more priority to family than his profession.

However ETHICS OF CARE is criticized by feminist themselves because it is based on the concept of ‘essential feminism.’

Libertarian Theory: Nozick

Nozick has given entitlement theory of justice. According to Nozick, Rawls theory compromises liberty for the sake of equality. It goes against the principles of human dignity. For Nozick, progressive taxation is like bonded labour and it goes against the principle of non aggression. Like Hayek, he also believes that so called social justice programs only result into corruption.
For Nozick, minimal state is right and inspiring. Like John Locke, he revives the concept of ‘night watchman’ state, believes that man should have absolute right over his property. (entitlement of man).
State does not have any role in distributive justice (welfare state) according to Nozick. The state’s role in property has to be limited only to the extend that state has to see 1) Property is acquired by right means.  2) Property is inherited or transferred in the right manner. Thus he gives the concept of regulatory state.
He admits that there may be historical injustices. However past should not be stretched too far in the present. If we stretch past too far in the present, it will create more problems.
However there is only one situation where Nozick allows state to intervene in man’s property. When a person asserts his right in a way that puts the life of large number of people in danger e.g. There is a single well in a village and is the only source of drinking water. Owner of the well bars others from taking water from the well, thus he puts the life of everyone under the threat. In this scenario, state is right in intervening and preventing that person from such action.


Nozick’s theory is often used to explain / justify US actions in middle east. e.g. USA’s war against Saddam Hussain, where Saddam Hussain has put fire on the oil well, thus destroying the oil wells of Iraq. It is alright for ‘self appointed’, ‘global policeman’ to punish Saddam Hussain because large number of people around the world depend on oil. Even when oil is a national property of Iraq, it does not have right to destroy it.

Nozick’s theory is just a criticism of Rawls’ theory from libertarian point of view. It cannot be considered as a sound theory in comparison to Rawls.

Criticism by Social Liberals: Amartya Sen

He has objection with respect to methodology Rawls theory. In place of rational choice, Amartya Sen supports social choice’. Rational choice is based on ‘abstract individuals’ negotiating in ‘abstract situations’

What is social choice?
Real persons negotiating in real life situations e.g. Amartya Sen presents real persons in real situations. He argues that Rawls’ theory is too particular about the procedural aspect of justice. Rawls believes that justice is outcome of right procedures.

In this context Amartya Sen brings the concept of Niti and Nyaya. The two Indian concepts of justice. Niti is procedural, Nyaya is ‘realization focused approach’. For Amartya Sen, ‘Nyaya‘ is more important than ‘Niti‘.
Amartya Sen questions Rawls aim to achieve universalist idea of justice, the idea of justice which is acceptable by all and which appears rational to all. According to Amartya Sen, in real life situations among real persons, we can never have such formula which all will accept.
Rawls’ theory is deontological whereas Amartya Sen prefers consequentialist approach. To show that there cannot be universally accepted formula for justice, he gives example of three children fighting over a flute.
Carla:  ‘I know how to play it’. [utilitarian argument]
Bob:  ‘I have no other game’. [socialist argument]
Ann:  ‘have made it’. [libertarian argument]
According to Amartya Sen, Rawls is too particular about the right procedure which will result into the principles of justice, which appear rational to all. This is never possible in real situation. Despite being mature, we also behave in the way children behave. Amartya Sen gives the example of Krishna and Arjun. Arjun was suffering from dilemma whether it would be right to kill his own family members, the scale of possible destruction and whether the victory will come at the cost which is worth paying. Arjun’s position was consequentialist. On the contrary, Krishna’s position was deontological. He suggests that do your duty and don’t think about the consequences.
According to Amartya Sen, Arjun’s position is more desirable. Many lives would have been saved. Amartya Sen gives the example of Buddha. Buddha understood the importance of minimizing suffering. Instead of searching for some universal ideas or justice or truth, Buddha preferred to help those who were in sorrow.
Thus Amartya Sen suggested realization focused approach/capability approach. Substance is more important than procedure. Nyaya is more important than Niti.

Criticism by communitarians

What is communitarianism?

It is a reaction against libertarianism/liberalism. It should not be confused with communalism which is also reaction against liberalism.
Focus of communitarians is to tell the importance of community. They suggest how community is extended kinship group. Community is natural and man is closely related to his community.

Why communitarianism came?

Liberalism/libertarianism gives too much importance on ‘autonomy of the self’ which means importance of individuals. Giving importance to the individuals and his choice was very much needed to liberate man from the chains of the customs and traditions. However later on, its negative consequences have also been realized. It has led to the isolation. It started having negative consequences.
At an individual level, extremely individualistic society led to psychological disorder. It also created social problems, political problems.
Robert Putnam (BOWLING ALONE book ) gives concept of ‘decline of social capital. Just like the capital is needed to run factories, ‘social capital’ is needed to run the society. It means to ensure that our social system works properly. We need to invest our time and energy in social and political sphere also. In many western countries like Belgium, there is considerable decline in voting. This has forced Belgium to introduce compulsory voting.
Scholars like Hannah Arendt has warned against the possibility of the rise of totalitarianism in the absence of people’s participation in the civic affairs. Hence communitarianism has started as social movement. The prominent personality associated with communitarian movement is ‘Amitai Etzioni.’
Communitarian movement led to the emergence of the idea of ‘social networking’. It is also led to the ideas like resident welfare associations, community policing etc.

Philosophically, communitarians challenge the fundamental assumptions of liberals with respect to the conception of individual. From communitarians point of view, liberal concept of atomistic man is ‘abstract individual’. The real man is ‘situated self (embedded self). It means man is never independent of his community. Community’s traditions, values are part and parcel of individuals personality. His conception of right and wrong. His conception of good. It can be said that we never look at the reality with naked eyes, we always wear glasses of community.
For communitarians, self is not prior to end(good). Rather, self is constituted by the good. Communitarians are critical of the libertarians view of the self. Libertarians believe in autonomous individual. Rawls, in his thought experiment projects persons as fully rational, autonomous, freely choosing their goals. However it is just the abstract idea. In reality we never make free choices, our choices are shaped by our community. Even the profession which we choose, we may think of it as our free choice but it is a choice of the community which is thrust upon us. Hence, self is not prior to good, rather itself constituted by the good.
Thus communitarians suggest that liberals undermine the importance of community. They should take fuller view of community. They should understand that people’s choices are shaped by their communities. Policy makers should keep this fact in mind. We have to accept that there is a politics of community rather than completely rational politics e.g. caste remains the basic structure of Indian society and we cannot expect a politics in India which will be free from caste.

Communitarian concept of community

Libertarians undermine community, they believed that community is not more that aggregate of individuals. Hence they negate the conception of common good. For them common good is nothing more than sum of individual goods. Communitarians suggest to take the organic view of community.

Communitarians concept of right

Libertarians believe that there can be a universalist conception of justice. All communities will accept if they act rationally. On the contrary communitarians support community specific rights or cultural relativists perspective of rights.

Communitarians concept of state

Libertarians suggest that state should be neutral with respect to difference conceptions of goods. Liberals segregate personal and political. Libertarians recommend to keep divisive issues like religion, culture within personal sphere.
As far as public sphere is concerned, they suggest uniformity, universal citizenship, uniform civil code and uniform set of rights.
According to communitarians, when individuals come in public sphere, he does not leave his community at home. Hence even in public sphere we have to consider the role of community in shaping his rationality and morality. Thus libertarians will not support Muslim women wearing burkha in public but communitarians will support it.

Communitarian Prominent Scholars

1] Alasdair MacIntyre
2] Charles Taylor
3] Michael Sandel
4] Michael Walzer


Sandel has criticized Rawls on two grounds.
1] Conception of self
2] Conception of community

Sandel is against Rawls conception of the original position. Man is never independent of his community. ‘Self is not prior to end, rather constituted by end.’ People are not abstract agents making abstract choices, they are moral agents. (live in society). They are located in time and space. Man is embedded in network of social relations.
Rawls has undermined the influence of community. There can be no universalist idea which can be accepted by all. Even Rawls conception of rationality is not free from his own conception of community right or wrong. He believes in individual autonomy because he comes from USA. It is not necessary that what he thinks that rational will also appear rational to an Afghan.


He argues that, there cannot be single principle of justice acceptable by all. There cannot be even single principle of justice in all spheres of life. The principle of justice in sphere of economy may appear unjust in the sphere of politics.
In the words of Michael Walzer, ‘different goods ought to be distributed differently, for different reasons, by different agents. All these difference arise from the different understanding which is inevitable product of different backgrounds, historically and culturally.
He repeatedly uses difference to challenge the universalist assumption of liberals. According to Walzer, the conception of justice vary. For Example; In ancient Greece, people preferred giving money for construction of stadium rather than helping poor. It was based on their conception of justice.
Walzer even gives the example of India, caste system continue even in present times because majority of Indians do not find any problem with the system. They rather subscribe with the system. The system continues because they think it is common sense. Hence it is very natural, if there is role of caste in Indian democracy.
In the words of Walzer, we are one others equals. We are producers of social meaning. We should respect each other, we should not impose our meanings and values on those who can not identify themselves with such values.
Thus he suggests to recognize the differences.

Main theme of communitarians criticizing Rawls?

They are against the universal conception justice – which means one idea acceptable to all. They are against one principle of justice to be applied in all spheres of life.
Their focus is on understanding the differences. Justice is not the science of homogenization but art of differentiation.

Rawls response to communitarians

Rawls in his book POLITICAL LIBERALISM gives answer to communitarian criticism. He accommodated some of the arguments of communitarians. However, he does not make any difference in his principles of justice. He only limits the scope of the principles of justice to the political institutions. Hence he calls it as political conception of justice. He also asserts that his principles of justice are more rational but not applicable for others. (Irrationals, Afghanis, Iranians etc.)


Rawls’s main concern is stability in the society. It will be possible when people observe laws. They observe the laws when they find that the laws are legitimate. According to Rawls, to find out why people adhere to the laws, consider them legitimate we have to look into the political culture of the people in democratic society.
If society is not democratic, rulers can impose a particular way of life even on minorities. Minorities will have no rights. On the other hands, democratic society recognizes rights and liberties, freedom of religion is itself a very important part of right to liberty. People can live according to their ‘comprehensive doctrines’ yet the stability is found in the democratic political culture of these societies.
Democratic political culture is based on  a) Public reasoning.  b) Principle of reciprocity.  c) Toleration – people develop toleration because they accept ‘burdens of judgement’. Burdens of judgement show that people accept that different people come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and thus may have different conceptions of right and wrong.
Thus toleration, reciprocity and reasoning are the constitutive elements of the democratic political culture. It results into people developing ‘overlapping consensus’ on the principles of justice as fairness based on the principles of liberty, equality and human dignity.

Concept of overlapping consensus

The term overlapping consensus emerge in the second book of Rawls titled POLITICAL LIBERALISM which he has written in context of the criticism by communitarians. For communitarians, neither there can be one universally acceptable principle of justice across societies nor there can be a one principle of justice applicable to all spheres of life. Rawls accept that his principles of justice can be practiced only in the countries which have democratic political culture. Democratic political culture is rooted in reciprocity, public reasoning and toleration.
In such societies, people may be adhering to different comprehensive doctrines like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Liberalism yet the culture of these societies will enable them to develop overlapping consensus on the principles of justice at least in the political sphere.
Rawls suggest that overlapping consensus differs from ‘Modus Vivendi’. Modus Vivendi is a Hobbesian contract where only compulsion matters. In Rawls, people are rational, have inherent sense of justice, accept burdens of judgement, willing to give each other fair terms of cooperation, develop overlapping consensus. In this case also people use reflexive equilibrium.
Thus people adhering to different ways of life may not have identical reasons but overlapping reasons to agree the principles of justice. Minority may agree because it is the way through which their liberties are protected, majorities agree because it will bring stability. Overlapping consensus on political conception of justice ultimately leads everyone ‘better off’.

Political liberalism?

In the first book Rawls give liberalism (3 principles of justice) as a way of life or as a theory of ethics. In light of the criticisms by communitarians, specifically Michel Sandel and Michel and Walzer, he limits his idea only to political sphere. Thus liberalism as a political way of life rather than way of life. Liberalism forms the basis of  democratic culture in diverse societies. He calls political liberalism as political conception of justice. He suggests that it is not based on any specific, comprehensive doctrine. In case it comes closer to any specific philosophical doctrine, it is just a coincidence. It is to be noted that Rawls is very particular about proving that his theories should appear rational and acceptable. Hence he gives too much emphasis on the methodology.

3rd Book of Rawls: THE LAWS OF THE PEOPLE

Context of book – The question raised by cosmopolitan scholar like Thomas Pogge. According to Pogge – people in the countries of South suffer poverty primarily because of the practices and the institutions imposed on them by the people of North.  And in context of globalization and the rise of global civil society, whether Rawls will agree to expand the application of the difference principle not just within society but between society. It means should people in North be taxed for welfare for people in South.
Rawls does not agree to the extension of difference principle between society. Yet he proposes eight principles which can be adopted by the liberal people, dealing with the descent people. Descent people are legitimate members of society of people. They must satisfy four conditions. 1) Must be peaceful.  2) Secure some basic human rights. 3) Law incorporates the idea of common good. 4) Hierarchy exists but descent. ex. South East Asian countries.
Theme: No need to impose liberal way of life on them. Duty of assistance but reasonable and rational.

Eight principles

1\ Respect freedom and independence.
2\ Observe treaties.
3\ Treat them equals in agreements.
4\ Observe a duty of non-intervention.
5\ No right to war but right to self-defense.
6\ Honour human rights.
7\ Observe some code of conduct in war.
8\ Assist under unfavorable conditions.

Test Your Knowledge!

1] Why is justice such an important concept?
a) Society cannot exist without the idea of justice
b) People adhere to institutions only when they find it just
c) It is the most fundamental political value
d) All of the above

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Ans: d) All of the above

2] Which of the following has the broadest ambit?
a) Political justice
b) Economic justice
c) Social justice
d) Legal justice

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Ans: b) Social justice

3] What does distributive justice deal with?
a) Justice at the level of distribution of resources
b) Justice while regulating actions of people
c) Justice in matters of punishment for crimes
d) All of the above

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Ans: a) Justice at the level of distribution of resources

4] Who of the following has suggested ‘capacity building’ approach to achieve distributive justice?
a) Robert Nozick
b) Amartya Sen
c) Dworkin
d) Gramsci

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Ans: c) Amartya Sen

5] Which of the following statements is true?
a) Substantive justice talks about ‘spirit of law’
b) Equality before law is an example of procedural justice
c) Procedural justice talks about ‘due process of law’
d) Both a and c

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Ans: d) Both a and c

6] Which of the following is not a feature of Dicey’s concept of ‘rule of law’?
a) Law should apply equally to citizens and government officials
b) Content of law should be just
c) Certainty of punishment when law is broken
d) No one should be punished except for breach of law

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Ans: c) Content of law should be just

7] How do communitarians view law?
a) As values and attitudes of dominant group
b) Tool to protect capitalist class
c) As a part of superstructure
d) As a necessary evil

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Ans: a) As values and attitudes of dominant group

8] Why is Rawls given credit for the revival of political theory?
a) He made political science empirical
b) He guided American politicians during Vietnam war
c) He revived normative political philosophy
d) He led the Black rights movement in USA

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Ans: b) He revived normative political philosophy

9] Rawls is not the author of
a) Justice as fairness
b) Justice and equality
c) Theory of justice
d) Political Liberalism

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Ans: c) Justice and Equality

10] What was Rawls’ purpose?
a) To give principles of justice on which all can agree
b) To prove that man is ‘situated self’
c) To propagate liberal discourse
d) To remove inequality

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Ans: a) To give principles of justice on which all can agree

11] What is the biggest flaw of utilitarian theory of justice?
a) It is too normative
b) It neglects human dignity
c) It supports maximization of national income
d) It respects human dignity

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Ans: c) It neglects human dignity

12] Kant considered human dignity as ‘categorical approach’. This can be called
a) Teleological approach
b) Consequentialist approach
c) Deontological approach
d) Modern approach

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Ans: b) Deontological approach

13] Which of the following is not true regarding Rawls’ theory of justice?
a) Human dignity is inviolable
b) He revives the tradition of social contract
c) Rawls describe his theory as ‘purely procedural’
d) He adopts utilitarian principle

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Ans: d) He adopts utilitarian principle

14] Why should the principles of justice be in sync with our intuitions according to Rawls?
a) So that our soul is in peace
b) To create an ideal state
c) So that people don’t revolt
d) To convince the clergy

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Ans: a) So that our soul is in peace

15] What is ‘reflexive equilibrium’?
a) It is a formula to calculate greatest happiness of the greatest number
b) It lists down the characteristics of a just individual
c) It lays down conditions when one can revolt against the state
d) It is a type of logical reasoning to keep intuition in sync with actions

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Ans: d) It is a type of logical reasoning to keep intuition in sync with actions

16] According to utilitarians, when an action can be considered right?
a) When it gives us pleasure
b) When it benefits state
c) When it satisfies out moral judgements
d) When it gives us pain

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Ans: a) When it gives us pleasure

17] Which of these is the characteristics of men in the original position?
a) They are ‘mutually dis-interested’
b) They have no understanding of society, economics or psychology
c) They have some rational plans
d) Both a and b

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Ans: d) Both a and b

18] What is the second principle of Rawls’ theory of justice?
a) Liberty principle
b) Difference principle
c) Equality of opportunity principle
d) Maxim principle

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Ans: b) Equality of opportunity principle

19] Which of these is correct according to Rawls’ lexical order?
a) Liberty will have preference over equality
b) Equality will have preference over liberty
c) Difference principle will have preference over equality
d) Difference principle will have preference over liberty

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Ans: a) Liberty will have preference over equality

20] What does ‘difference principle’ suggest?
a) Everyone should have equal opportunity to explore their talents
b) There should be maximum equal liberty
c) Our policies should benefit the least advantaged section
d) There should be differentiated liberty

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Ans: b) Our policies should benefit the least advantaged section

21] Which of the following concepts was not given by Rawls?
a) Veil of ignorance
b) Harm principle
c) Original position
d) Maxim principle

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Ans: c) Harm principle

22] Why should rich agree to Rawls theory of justice?
a) It was their rational choice behind the veil of ignorance
b) It is a matter of being just
c) It is the best possible way to maximise their advantage
d) All of the above

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Ans: d) All of the above

23] Why does Rawls not support socialism?
a) It is established after a violent revolution
b) It is unfair for those who are talented and hardworking
c) Marx’s economic determinism is flawed
d) It is a productive system

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Ans: b) It is unfair for those who are talented and hardworking

24] Which of the following has been rejected by Rawls?
a) Possesive individualism
b) Both a and b
c) Utilitarianism
d) Equality of opportunity

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Ans: b) Utilitarianism

25] Which of the following scholars has suggested ‘disadvantage index’ while formulating merit?
a) Amartya Sen
b) Hamza Ali
c) Satish Deshpande
d) Fareed Zakaria

Show Answer

Ans: b) Satish Deshpande

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Jyoti Tomar

Would you check question number 5 please i think the correct options are (a and b )as procedural justice talks about “procedure established by law” rather than “due process of law”


Can anyone explain what is the difference between procedural justice and substantive justice?


procedure established by law v/s due process of law type.
Substantive Justice has broader ambit which can include capability building reverse discrimination, etc.
procedural is narrow and limited to if procedure was followed.

Last edited 7 months ago by Hihih
Shantanu Pawar

What is the difference between Rational plan and Rational Goal, and how come it is secondary good?


Bcoz to fulfill these plans one needs to have primary goods like Liberty, Equality, Wealth, Dignity


To achieve a goal there should be a rational plan .it is called as perfectly procedural.for eg in Marxism there is a plan to establish equality among people through revolution…


man is situated self means he is utilitarian?


It means he is altruistic and not atomistic and is centered around society. You could call him utilitarian eventually but not in terms of Bentham where individual satisfaction used to be the yardstick of utility


thanks brother


can we say it is opposite to abstract individualism?


in AV Dicey critic: it should be ‘intent’ not content


in the section titled- “what rawls does?”- 6th last line- “utilitarian tradition based on ideas of hobbes”- its bentham not hobbes


No, it is rightly Hobbes. In western political thought that we study, Hobbes first introduces the tradition of possessive individualism, which is, “whatever man posses is because of his own efforts, hence man cannot be compelled to give back to society”. This is where the utilitarian tradition was born. Bentham gave the most abstract theory on utilitarianism but it was born a lot earlier


Amazing efforts!
I had a Q that in 2020 paper a Q came on comparison of Greek perspective of justice and Rawlsian concept..
can you please suggest why the Greek perspective was asked?


hi,greek conception of justice is traditional one where plato emphasized on man being just in terms of performing his duties to build a just socity whereas rawls conception of justice is modern one where the focus shifts from ‘just man’ to ‘just society’ .People adhere to social norms and institutions if they are just.i guess on this line-traditional vs modern,it might have been asked,you may find more in op gauba

Anmol Singh

Super effort and great Content sir..!!
just a Quick Question

Based on his critique of Rawls Theory of Justice can Amartya Sen be termed as advocate of Substantive Justice?


hi sir ,I think Communitarian critique of rawls theory of justice is not mentioned


very good content sir

Harshdeep singh

sir your content is good but u need to update it as in this part u had not mention about critique of rawls theory of justice plzzz try to add more point as per upsc psir

Harshdeep singh

thanx alot sir its
really really helpful