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The Role of Justice

Justice is the first virtue of social
institutions, as truth is of systems of
thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or
revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how effi-
cient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the
welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice
denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good
shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few
are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. There-
fore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled,

the rights secured by justice are not
subject to political bargaining or to
the calculus of social interests. The only thing that permits us to acqui-
esce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an
injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater
injustice. Being first virtues of hum
an activities, truth and justice are
These propositions seem to express our intuitive conviction of the
primacy of justice. No doubt they are
expressed too strongly. In any event
I wish to inquire whether these contentions or others similar to them are
sound, and if so how they can be accounted for. To this end it is necessary
to work out a theory of justice in the light of which these assertions can
be interpreted and assessed. I shall begin by considering the role of the
principles of justice. Let us assume, to fix ideas, that a society is a more
or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one
another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the
most part act in accordance with them. Suppose further that these rules
specify a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those
taking part in it. Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for
mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an
identity of interests. There is an iden
tity of interests since social coopera-
tion makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were
to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since
persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by
their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they
each prefer a larger to a lesser share. A set of principles is required for
choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this
division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper
distributive shares. These principles
are the principles of social justice:
they provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions
of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and
burdens of social cooperation.
Now let us say that a society is well-ordered when it is not only
designed to advance the good of its members but when it is also effec-
tively regulated by a public conception of justice. That is, it is a society in
which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same
principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy
and are generally known to satisfy these principles. In this case while
men may put forth excessive demands on one another, they nevertheless
acknowledge a common point of view from which their claims may be
adjudicated. If men’s inclination to self-interest makes their vigilance

against one another necessary, their public sense of justice makes their
secure association together possible. Among individuals with disparate
aims and purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of
civic friendship; the general desire for justice limits the pursuit of other
ends. One may think of a public conception of justice as constituting the
fundamental charter of a well-ordered human association.
Existing societies are of course seldom well-ordered in this sense, for
what is just and unjust is usually in dispute. Men disagree about which
principles should define the basic terms of their association. Yet we may
still say, despite this disagreement, that they each have a conception of
justice. That is, they understand the need for, and they are prepared to
affirm, a characteristic set of prin
ciples for assigning basic rights and
duties and for determining what they take to be the proper distribution of
the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Thus it seems natural to
think of the concept of justice as distinct from the various conceptions of
justice and as being specified by the role which these different sets of
principles, these different conceptions, have in common.
Those who hold
different conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that institutions are
just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the
assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper
balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life. Men
can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an
arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, which are included in the
concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret according to the
principles of justice that he accepts
. These principles single out which
similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining
rights and duties and they specify which division of advantages is appro-
priate. Clearly this distinction between the concept and the various con-
ceptions of justice settles no important questions. It simply helps to
identify the role of the principles of social justice.
Some measure of agreement in conceptions of justice is, however, not
the only prerequisite for a viable human community. There are other
fundamental social problems, in par
ticular those of coordination, effici-
ency, and stability. Thus the plans of individuals need to be fitted together
so that their activities are compatible with one another and they can all be
carried through without anyone’s legitimate expectations being severely
disappointed. Moreover, the execution of these plans should lead to the

achievement of social ends in ways that are efficient and consistent with
justice. And finally, the scheme of social cooperation must be stable: it
must be more or less regularly complied with and its basic rules willingly
acted upon; and when infractions occur, stabilizing forces should exist
that prevent further violations and tend to restore the arrangement. Now it
is evident that these three problems are connected with that of justice.
In the absence of a certain measure of agreement on what is just and
unjust, it is clearly more difficult for individuals to coordinate their plans
efficiently in order to insure that mutually beneficial arrangements are
maintained. Distrust and resentment corrode the ties of civility, and suspi-
cion and hostility tempt men to act in ways they would otherwise avoid.
So while the distinctive role of conceptions of justice is to specify basic
rights and duties and to determine the appropriate distributive shares, the
way in which a conception does this is bound to affect the problems of
efficiency, coordination, and stability. We cannot, in general, assess a
conception of justice by its distributive role alone, however useful this
role may be in identifying the concept of justice. We must take into
account its wider connections; for even though justice has a certain prior-
ity, being the most important virtue of institutions, it is still true that,
other things equal, one conception of justice is preferable to another when
its broader consequences are more desirable.

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