Criterion of Justice

The Basic Idea

Imagine you lived in a society that maximized your happiness. That’s the idea behind utilitarianism, a family of ethical theories that were developed to maximize utility, defined in terms of our well-being.1 Something that is advantageous brings utility to us. Sounds pretty great, right?

However, an important question under utilitarianism is how we distribute resources among society in a way that truly maximizes everyone’s utility.2  Known as distributive justice, this issue is a tricky one to tackle under utilitarianism.

Could the solution be to develop a moral theory alternative to utilitarianism, outlining how society should be structured so that the greatest amount of freedom is given to people, only limited by the concept that any one member’s freedom cannot infringe upon the freedoms of another?3 Could that be an acceptable criterion of justice? According to philosopher John Rawls, the answer is yes.

The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.

– John Rawls, moral and political philosopher, and author of A Theory of Justice

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From the late 1850s until the mid-20th century, most philosophers who studied democratic principles did so from the basis of utilitarian considerations.4 They argued that democratic governments are more likely than other systems to produce a greater amount of happiness for a large number of people.

However, these classical justifications were criticized on the basis that they did not offer any principles of justice, beyond the basic idea that everyone’s happiness counts equally.5 Utilitarianism could then be used to justify less desirable forms of government, where the majority population achieves greater happiness by neglecting the rights of a minority population.

American philosopher John Rawls wanted to develop an alternative to utilitarianism that prioritized fairness and equality while addressing the issue of distributive justice (the fair distribution of privileges, duties, and resources).3 A Theory of Justice was published in 1971 to do just that. Rawls believed that people are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic, meaning they neither act purely for the well-being of others nor do they act in a completely self-centered way. While people set goals for themselves, they prefer to reach them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms. Thus, justice could be achieved by providing people with behavioral principles.

To achieve this, Rawls revived the notion of a social contract, which was used in political philosophy to describe real or hypothetical agreements between people in positions of power and their citizens, defining the rights and duties of each party.4 He imagined a world where rational people ignore all social and economic factors about themselves and others, such as one’s race, religion, sex, education, intelligence, and even one’s conception of a “good life.”3 Without this information, these people could decide on the general principles that should govern social institutions. This was the idea behind Rawls’ original position, where principles of justice are decided behind a veil of ignorance.5 Behind this veil, people do not have any information about anyone’s abilities or social positioning, including their own.

Thus, the original position would discourage people from choosing principles that favor one group at the expense of others, because nobody would know which group they belong to and whether they would be neglecting their own rights.4 Instead, Rawls believed people would develop a maximin strategy to maximize the potential benefits for those who are most socially disadvantaged, in case they became members of this group.5 The term maximin comes from the fact that the strategy seeks to maximize the welfare of those at the minimum level of society.

As a result, Rawls came up with two principles, or criteria, of justice:3

  1. Everyone should have an equal right to the maximum possible degree of liberty, known as the greatest equal liberty principle; 
  2. Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that:

In terms of the greatest equal liberty principle, basic freedoms included political ones (i.e. the right to vote and to hold public office), freedom of thought, the right to hold personal property, and freedom of the person (i.e. freedom from psychological oppression or physical assault by others).3 As for the difference principle, Rawls points out that unequal distribution of resources (which can be thought of as inequalities) is acceptable in the context of improving the well-being of those who are worst off.

It’s important to note that Rawls highlighted the necessary order for these criteria to occur.3 That is, the greatest equal liberty principle takes priority before any other principles can be met, followed by the equal opportunity principles and finally the difference principle. This emphasizes how people’s equal rights in the first principle, for example, cannot be sacrificed for greater social or economic advantages.


John Rawls

An American political and ethical philosopher, John Rawls earned his bachelor and doctorate degrees from Prince University, where he studied moral philosophy.6 He is best known for his defense of egalitarian liberalism in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice.It is also because of this work that Rawls is considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century.A Theory of Justice has been translated into 27 different languages and has had 250,000 copies sold.7 Rawls has been cited as an authority in more than 60 court cases in the United States and received the 1999 National Humanities Medal, presented by President Bill Clinton for helping “a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”8 


Although A Theory of Justice was originally published as a work of academic philosophy, its influence has extended into the theoretical fields of economics, sociology, law, and politics.7 Beyond that, Rawls’ work has also become a tool for social movement and change.6 In 1989, Chinese students and workers gathered in Tiananmen Square and demanded greater political openness. Some of these protestors even held up copies of A Theory of Justice to news cameras and government oppressors as they fought for reform.10 Rawls has also been quoted by Indian authors in their warning against the neglect of the most disadvantaged members of society, as well as on the dangers of religious sectarianism.6

Let’s revisit the relevance of A Theory of Justice in politics. For those who support Rawls’ principles of justice, his framework can be used to assess different political systems.7 Soviet style communism, for example, would be considered unjust on the basis that it is incompatible with most basic liberties and it doesn’t provide everyone with equal opportunities to hold powerful offices and positions.6 

Another unjust system would be laissez-faire capitalism, which holds that increased economic success is possible from decreased government intervention.9 Laissez-faire capitalism tends to produce unjust distributions of wealth, such that increased income is concentrated in the hands of a few people.6 Additionally, it deprives other citizens of the necessary means to compete fairly for powerful offices and positions.

Now, you might be wondering, what exactly would qualify as a just political system? According to Rawls, a just society requires the structure of a property owning democracy, where ownership of the means of production is widely distributed among citizens.6 Additionally, property-owning democracies would ensure that those who are the worst off socially and financially would have enough resources to become financially independent, which would subsequently improve social standing.

Assessing Rawls’ influence on just societies from a more hands-on perspective, he has indeed been influential on American political systems. Rawls criticized the welfare state for undermining the self-respect of capable and productive American citizens: is it really up to the government to decide that basic citizen survival requires interference?10 Although the concept may have been developed with good intentions, its execution was marginalizing. As a result, Rawls influenced President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reform of the American welfare system. Additionally, Rawls’ greatest equal liberty principle helped shape President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which aimed to provide more affordable health coverage, also known as Obamacare.9


Though influential, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice faced scrutiny in the decade following its publication.5 Moral philosophers around the world focused on two main questions:

  1. Were Rawls’ principles of justice soundly derived from his thought experiment and the original position?
  2. Did the principles stand as an acceptable theory of justice?

In terms of the first question, the general consensus was a resounding “no.” 5 Rawls did not include any psychological assumptions about humans being risk averse, thus leading to a maximin strategy. If people were risk averse, meaning that they prefer certainty over uncertainty and thus default to safer options, then the maximin strategy would indeed make sense.

In fact, Rawls disclaimed any assumptions regarding risk aversion.5 Knowing this, skeptics pointed out that Rawls could not eliminate the possibility that people would choose to maximize average utility – rather than overall utility – in the original position. This would optimize their chances of having a high level of welfare, rather than ensuring nobody (including themselves) would be especially disadvantaged. While doing this would require people to accept the possibility that they could end up with low levels of welfare, the lack of consideration for risk aversion means that people could consider this to be a risk worth taking.

As for the second question, philosophers had mixed responses.5 Even if the principles were not soundly derived from Rawls’ original thought experiment, they could be attractive enough to stand on their own. However, criticisms also arose in response to the practicality of the maximin strategy. Following Rawls’ work, societies could be required to give up very great benefits that would apply to the majority of a population, on the basis that those who were worst-off would experience some sort of loss, no matter how trivial. These critics did not think that it was realistic to hold such expectations of a society, as greater overall well-being could later improve the well-being of those with lower levels of welfare.

Case Study

Gender and racial differences in justice

A Theory of Justice is widely seen as the most important attempt to tackle distributive justice, expressing a set of distributional outcomes that rational humans would agree with.11 Research suggests that the legitimacy of a state or society greatly depends on perceived procedural and distributive justice, so it is important for researchers to understand people’s views on distributive justice. However, results have been conflicting, and some of these mixed responses have been due to identity differences.

As a result, a team of researchers set out to explore gender differences in distributive justice behavior, in the American Journal of Political Science, further extending their analysis to race.11 They specifically researched these factors in terms of four allocation principles: equality, efficiency, need, and merit.

Rawls suggested that those in the original position would prioritize equality of basic political and social rights, with equality defined in absolute terms (i.e. two people each have $20, regardless of their initial socioeconomic status).11 Efficiency refers to the fact that people prefer a greater amount of overall goods for the same amount of input, which can be thought of as productivity. According to Rawls, rational people will tolerate inequality only to the extent that increased efficiency benefits everyone, especially the least well-off. This can be seen in the equal opportunity principle. The difference principle highlights a concern for need, and merit plays a role in Rawls’ work by way of exclusion: people don’t deserve to have advantages on the bases of their pre-existing wealth, connections, or the “natural lottery” (i.e. intelligence and beauty).

The researchers tested how identity differences influence the use of allocation principles of judgements of income distribution.11 Participants read a short description of a hypothetical society and were asked to imagine that they are impartial, outside observers providing advice. Participants were asked to evaluate the effects of different policies being considered, before being presented with nine different income distributions. Each distribution showed the average income for each economic bracket (divided into four groups) and the poverty line, and were given information about overall average income and the ratio of incomes in the top and bottom quintiles. Participants were assessed on their use of each of the four allocation principles when deciding which economic policy they would suggest.

The researchers found that most people used equality as an allocation principle, with preferences for more equal income distributions at the cost of a considerable decrease in efficiency.11 This means that participants did try to strike a balance between equality and efficiency, but women were more concerned with equality than men, while men were more concerned with efficiency. The researchers found no racial differences regarding equality and efficiency.

However, both gender and race were found to influence the relationship between merit and equality-efficiency preferences.11 While both men’s and women’s preferences were influenced by their assumptions about merit, this only applied to white participants. Even when participants were provided with direct information regarding merit, this information did not influence the equality-efficiency preferences of minority race participants.

Additionally, the researchers specifically designed the poverty lines on the income distribution charts to examine participants’ concerns for need.11 They found that women showed a sensitivity to need in their assessments of economic policies, while men did not. Additionally, white men were still concerned with merit at the highest levels of inequality, even when poverty was a clear issue. There were no racial differences here.

Overall, the researchers’ findings highlight the complexity of distributive justice. What one person considers just may be considered unjust by another, and these differences can result from aspects of one’s identity, such as gender or racial differences. Of course, populations are diverse. The fact that the four allocation principles were found to be interrelated suggests that future research must accommodate for identity differences, emphasizing the need to further explore what different populations consider just. Only when institutions understand that the majority population cannot always be prioritized at the expense of minorities, and understand minority populations’ conceptualizations of justice, will we have the chance for social and political reform.

Related TDL Content

Does loss aversion impact judicial decision-making?

Rawls might not have accounted for psychological assumptions in A Theory of Justice, such as humans being risk averse. However, current behavioral science certainly emphasizes the fact that humans are both risk and loss averse: we are biased toward safer options, since the experience of losing something is more painful than gaining the equivalent amount. Knowing the power of risks and losses, would you expect such biases to impact our decision making? Take a look at this article to find out more, especially in the case of loss aversion.

Dominant Culture

Equality. Justice for all. If you were to summarize Rawls’ principles of justice in a few short words, those would fit the bill. Rawls made a point to highlight how those who are worst off must have the chance to increase their well-being. In other words, the well-being of a society’s majority population or dominant culture cannot be prioritized above and beyond the well-being of its minority population. But is that always the case? This piece of dominant culture can help you consider deeper perspectives on what justice means, and whether it is possible when there is a dominant culture.


  1. Sen, A. (1979). Utilitarianism and welfarism. The Journal of Philosophy76(9), 463-489.
  2. Cook, K. S., & Hegtvedt, K. A. (1983). Distributive justice, equity, and equality. Annual Review of Sociology9(1), 217-241.
  3. Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.
  4. Dahl, R. A. (2021, May 9). Encyclopedia Britannica.
  5. Singer, P. (2021, February 2). Encyclopedia Britannica.
  6. Duignan, B. (2021, February 17). John Rawls. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  7. Korsgaard, C., Sen, A., Thompson, D., & Scanlon, T. (2005, May 19). John Rawls. The Harvard Gazette.
  8. Remarks by the president at presentation of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal. (1999, September 29). The White House.
  9. Laissez-faire. (2021, March 2). Encyclopedia Britannica.
  10. Brill, D. (2016, September 14). More than just a theory.
  11. Michelbach, P. A., Scott, J. T., Matland, R. E., & Bornstein, B. H. (2003). Doing Rawls justice: An experimental study of income distribution norms. American Journal of Political Science, 47(3), 523-539.

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