Tony Spiers on 2 November 1999

The speaker outlined the issue of social justice as expounded by John Rawls in his seminal work A Theory of Justice.

Rawls was Emeritus Professor of Law at Harvard University when he wrote this, his most famous work, in 1971. It builds upon and expands his teachings over the previous 12 years upon the subject.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls expounds the idea of a social contract. This concept had been described in various ways by Locke, Rousseau and Kant. The fundamental idea they shared was that since people have natural rights to govern themselves and no one has a natural right to rule over others, everyone must consent to a political order if that order is to be just and legitimate.

Rawls reinterpreted the idea of the social contract as a hypothetical one, made under conditions which guarantee that the principles of justice chosen are fair; he sought to explain how governments could be just even if those agreeing were poor or exploited, or were simply born into a state and had never consented to it explicitly This is achieved by requiring the "veil of ignorance" to apply so that those choosing the principles do so impartially and without regard to their own interests or prejudices. They choose solely on the basis that they have a rational life plan and respect for others.

Upon that basis, he says, they would choose the two specific principles he set out: the first principle establishes equal liberties for all, subject only to maintaining them for others. The second principle or `difference principle' establishes fair equality of opportunity, and restricts social and economic inequalities in the basic structure of society to those benefiting the least advantaged members of society. By these means the social contract, as Rawls expresses it, best represent the most appropriate basis for a democratic society.

He likens his theory to the great French cry of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!

Liberty = the first of his principles

Equality = the idea of equality in his first principle, together with equality of fair opportunity in his second principle, and

Fraternity = the difference principle.

Tony Spiers