Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Its Principles

The Theory of Justice is a representation of the idea that society’s basic structure features differences that proudly impact communities. Individuals have different starting points given their varied social and economic conditions, which often lead to inequality. Therefore, it is vital to establish a fair starting point, hence the need for equality. Rawls (1999) defines a hypothetical original position that assumes individuals are rational and focused on the maximization of self-interests (p. 131). These people have elemental objectives, a right to equal respect, and a desire to promote good ideals when crafting the principles that govern civilizations. The first principle is based on the premise that every individual must have access to all the cardinal liberties provided to others. While the prioritization of all liberties is theoretically plausible, practical implications limit the applicability of the concept in some social contexts.

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The First Principle

Rawls highlights the need to maintain liberty by stating that individuals must secure and set it as the primary principle because economic gain does not justify its loss. He stresses that making this choice is vital in view of the fact that it impacts future generations’ lives. The author posits that self-respect is critical because its absence prompts individuals to doubt their value, which increases susceptibility to cynicism (Rawls, 1999, p. 478). It also determines an individual’s social standing, given that all societies are characterized by some form of inequality that negatively affects poorly ranked people. The author’s argument that political equality can ensure that social and economic inequalities are kept within reasonable limits proves that the provision of principal liberties to every citizen is a possibility (Rawls, 1999, p. 477). He notes that individuals in such a society would never accept the erosion of their freedoms because it would damage their self-esteem.

The self-respect argument the author proposes strongly supports the prioritization of primary liberties. These include the freedom of assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of speech, the right to own property, and freedom from arrest (Sari, 2020, p. 212). However, he fails to explain why limited restrictions on personal liberties, if applied equally to all members of society, would impact self-respect. This is an important omission that negatively influences the theory’s credibility and applicability.

To further support his argument, Rawls proposes the equal liberty of conscience defense. He posits that free individuals have specific basic interests that must be secured through the prioritization of liberty (Rawls, 1999, p. 475). He highlights the relevance of these ideas by illustrating their importance in religion. Religious conviction is a strong basis upon which to insist that specific liberties are protected. The author attempts to derive lexical priority for equal liberty by pinpointing the importance of subscribing to specific religious, philosophical, and moral beliefs. However, it is essential to note that even though individuals may value their faith in specific ideals, they are capable of making small sacrifices of equal liberty in situations where the advancement of other highly valued interests is necessary. For instance, a person with strong feelings and ideas against transgender people will suppress their bitter views to maintain a job in an organization that supports these individuals. In this scenario, suppressing the freedom of speech is necessary for continued financial gain.

While the above scenario highlights how certain rights may be curtailed to facilitate the achievement of more important priorities, Rawls argues that all liberties must be prioritized and protected. To support his claim, the author draws attention to the important role parties in the original position hold. These groups are assumed to be well versed in human psychology and general knowledge (D’Amodio, 2020, p. 7). Therefore, they must stop themselves from committing to political ideals whose outcomes may injure future generations. In particular, ideas that threaten fundamental liberties must be avoided at all costs. This holds true for religious practices because specific denominations believe that their faith is divinely mandated and that abandoning their practices may lead to divine punishment. Therefore, the maintenance of their ways is a top priority, lest the implementation of prohibitive legislation forces them to abandon tradition and face supernatural castigation.

While the above argument holds true for religious principles, its application to moral and philosophical thought is unclear. Situations in which people refused to abide by laws that impinged on their moral and philosophical beliefs are few. Nevertheless, individuals persecuted because of their religious beliefs are prevalent in historical texts. The equal liberty of conscience defense supports the prioritization of specific rights such as religion and the protection of personal integrity. For instance, laws mandating live-organ harvesting to save lives or enslaving talented individuals through taxation to keep society’s impoverished communities would lead to turmoil. However, it offers little support for the prioritization of the freedom of speech, moral freedom, and philosophical liberty. For example, a number of societies have implemented laws prohibiting libel, race hatred, and obscenity. These laws seemingly impede an individual’s rights to the freedom of speech, but they have not led to intolerable living conditions. If anything, they have facilitated the protection of other fundamental liberties.

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The hierarchy argument distinguishes high-order interests from fundamental liberties. Rawls (1999) notes that securing the latter is vital because it facilitates the advancement of other desires (p. 475). This defense helps support the prioritization of liberty in a variety of social scenarios. However, it raises a few interesting questions regarding the theory. For instance, the exact nature of high-order interests and the justification given for the proposed order of desires is unexplained. The author provides no specific solutions to the mentioned problems. Therefore, the theory is forced to depend on Kantian philosophy to answer these concerns. Principles such as autonomy help individuals determine right from wrong and, in effect, the order of liberties.

Equality and Liberty

Rawls mentions that realizing the values of equality and liberty in society is a challenging prospect. He believes that rationalizing the two ideas would help solve a number of conflicts experienced across the globe due to the variety of options provided (Dutta, 2017, p. 40). Critics of the theory believe its redistributive nature prioritizes equality over liberty. This is an unfair assessment because Rawls aims to balance the preservation of fundamental rights and the distribution of these ideals to all members of society, regardless of their position. The equal liberty conscience defense in particular aims to maintain people’s salient interests through the prioritization of freedoms.


The first principle outlines how each individual must be given access to the rights other members of society are accorded. The author proposes a self-respect argument that ties an individual’s value to their susceptibility to cynicism. In addition, he suggests the equal liberty of conscience defense, which posits that individuals have specific desires that must be secured through the prioritization of freedoms. While the points raised to support the belief that all liberties must take precedence seem valid, social contexts that demand limitations in freedom of speech or moral beliefs minimize these ideas’ applicability.


D’Amodio, A. (2020). Toward a human-centered economy and politics: The theory of justice as fairness from Rawls to Sen. Philosophies, 5(4), 44. Web.

Dutta, S. (2017). Rawls’ theory of justice: An analysis. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 22(4), 40–43. Web.

Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Harvard University Press.

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Sari, C. M. A. (2020). Rawls’s theory of justice and its relevance in analyzing injustice on ethnic phenomenon. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies, 7(3), 210–219. Web.

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