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The Subject of Justice

Many different kinds of things are said to be just and unjust: not only
laws, institutions, and social systems, but also particular actions of many
kinds, including decisions, judgments,
and imputations. We also call the
attitudes and dispositions of persons, and persons themselves, just and
unjust. Our topic, however, is that of social justice. For us the primary
subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way
in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and
duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.
By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the prin-
cipal economic and social arrangements. Thus the legal protection of
freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, competitive markets, pri-
vate property in the means of production, and the monogamous family
are examples of major social institutions. Taken together as one scheme,
the major institutions define men’s rights and duties and influence their
life prospects, what they can expect to be and how well they can hope to

do. The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects
are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is
that this structure contains various
social positions and that men born into
different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part,
by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances.
In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over
others. These are especially deep inequalities. Not only are they perva-
sive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly
be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert. It is these
inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to
which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply.
These principles, then, regulate the
choice of a political constitution and
the main elements of the economic and social system. The justice of a
social scheme depends essentially on how fundamental rights and duties
are assigned and on the economic opportunities and social conditions in
the various sectors of society.
The scope of our inquiry is limited in two ways. First of all, I am
concerned with a special case of the problem of justice. I shall not con-
sider the justice of institutions and social practices generally, nor except
in passing the justice of the law of nations and of relations between
states (§58). Therefore, if one supposes
that the concept of justice applies
whenever there is an allotment of something rationally regarded as advan-
tageous or disadvantageous, then we are interested in only one instance of
its application. There is no reason to suppose ahead of time that the
principles satisfactory for the basic structure hold for all cases. These
principles may not work for the rules and practices of private associations
or for those of less comprehensive social groups. They may be irrelevant
for the various informal conventions and customs of everyday life; they
may not elucidate the justice, or perhaps better, the fairness of voluntary
cooperative arrangements or procedures for making contractual agree-
ments. The conditions for the law of nations may require different princi-
ples arrived at in a somewhat different way. I shall be satisfied if it is
possible to formulate a reasonable conception of justice for the basic
structure of society conceived for the time being as a closed system
isolated from other societies. The significance of this special case is
obvious and needs no explanation. It is natural to conjecture that once we
have a sound theory for this case, the remaining problems of justice will
prove more tractable in the light of it. With suitable modifications such a
theory should provide the key for some of these other questions.
The other limitation on our discussion is that for the most part I

examine the principles of justice th
at would regulate a well-ordered soci-
ety. Everyone is presumed to act justly and to do his part in upholding just
institutions. Though justice may be, as Hume remarked, the cautious,
jealous virtue, we can still ask what a perfectly just society would be
like.
2
Thus I consider primarily what I call strict compliance as opposed
to partial compliance theory (§§25, 39). The latter studies the principles
that govern how we are to deal with injustice. It comprises such topics as
the theory of punishment, the doctrine of just war, and the justification of
the various ways of opposing unjust regimes, ranging from civil disobedi-
ence and conscientious objection to militant resistance and revolution.
Also included here are questions of compensatory justice and of weigh-
ing one form of institutional injustice against another. Obviously the
problems of partial compliance theory are the pressing and urgent mat-
ters. These are the things that we are faced with in everyday life. The
reason for beginning with ideal theory is that it provides, I believe, the
only basis for the systematic grasp of these more pressing problems. The
discussion of civil disobedience, for example, depends upon it (§§55–59).
At least, I shall assume that a deeper understanding can be gained in no
other way, and that the nature and aims of a perfectly just society is the
fundamental part of the theory of justice.

Now admittedly the concept of the basic structure is somewhat vague.
It is not always clear which institutions or features thereof should be
included. But it would be premature to worry about this matter here. I
shall proceed by discussing principles which do apply to what is certainly
a part of the basic structure as intuitively understood; I shall then try to
extend the application of these principles so that they cover what would
appear to be the main elements of
this structure. Perhaps these princi-
ples will turn out to be perfectly general, although this is unlikely. It is
sufficient that they apply to the most important cases of social justice.
The point to keep in mind is that a conception of justice for the basic
structure is worth having for its ow
n sake. It should not be dismissed
because its principles are not everywhere satisfactory.
A conception of social justice, then, is to be regarded as providing in
the first instance a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic
structure of society are to be assessed. This standard, however, is not to be
confused with the principles defining the other virtues, for the basic
structure, and social arrangements generally, may be efficient or ineffi-
2.
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,
sec. III, pt. I, par. 3, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge,
2nd edition (Oxford, 1902), p. 184.
8
Justice as Fairness
cient, liberal or illiberal, and many other things, as well as just or unjust.
A complete conception defining principles for all the virtues of the basic
structure, together with their resp
ective weights when they conflict, is
more than a conception of justice; it is a social ideal. The principles of
justice are but a part, although perhaps the most important part, of such a
conception. A social ideal in turn is connected with a conception of
society, a vision of the way in which the aims and purposes of social
cooperation are to be understood. The various conceptions of justice are
the outgrowth of different notions of society against the background of
opposing views of the natural necessities and opportunities of human life.
Fully to understand a conception of justice we must make explicit the
conception of social cooperation from which it derives. But in doing this
we should not lose sight of the special
role of the principles of justice or
of the primary subject to which they apply.
In these preliminary remarks I have distinguished the concept of jus-
tice as meaning a proper balance between competing claims from a con-
ception of justice as a set of related principles for identifying the relevant
considerations which determine this balance. I have also characterized
justice as but one part of a social ideal, although the theory I shall propose
no doubt extends its everyday sense. This theory is not offered as a
description of ordinary meanings but as an account of certain distributive
principles for the basic structure of
society. I assume that any reason-
ably complete ethical theory must in
clude principles for this fundamental
problem and that these principles, whatever they are, constitute its doc-
trine of justice. The concept of justice I take to be defined, then, by the
role of its principles in assigning rights and duties and in defining the
appropriate division of social advant
ages. A conception of justice is an
interpretation of this role.

Now this approach may not seem to tally with tradition. I believe,
though, that it does. The more specific se
nse that Aristotle gives to justice,
and from which the most familiar formulations derive, is that of refrain-
ing from
pleonexia,
that is, from gaining some advantage for oneself by
seizing what belongs to another, his
property, his reward, his office, and
the like, or by denying a person that which is due to him, the fulfillment
of a promise, the repayment of a debt, the showing of proper respect, and
so on.
3
It is evident that this definition is framed to apply to actions, and

persons are thought to be just insofar as they have, as one of the perma-
nent elements of their character, a stea
dy and effective desire to act justly.
Aristotle’s definition clearly presupposes, however, an account of what
properly belongs to a person and of what is due to him. Now such
entitlements are, I believe, very often derived from social institutions and
the legitimate expectations to which they give rise. There is no reason to
think that Aristotle would disagree with this, and certainly he has a
conception of social justice to account for these claims. The definition I
adopt is designed to apply directly to the most important case, the justice
of the basic structure. There is no conflict with the traditional notion.

 

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