2.3.1 Principles of Justice

Philosophers might propose acceptable principles of justice, based on reason, but these are unlikely to satisfy everyone in a complex society.

People feel better if they think that they live in a ‘just’ society.  Philosophers such as John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, have tried to propound “principles of justice”:

“…the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.  They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of the association.  These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established.  This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness.” (Section 3, p. 10)

There are at least three reasons why such an approach would not guarantee agreement on governance in a real society:

●  Any process of reasoning begins from a starting point: a set of facts, assumptions, perspectives, and logical premises.  As noted above, though, people are very diverse (2.2) – as illustrated by the example of collectivists and individualists, who might both describe themselves as “free and rational persons”.  There are also societies which prioritise family and tribal loyalty, or duty to God, to name two further alternative starting points.  These different foundations lead to different philosophies, which may be internally self-consistent and which are defended by their adherents as being valid.  There will never be a single set of universally accepted “principles of justice”.

●  In a real society, people will make different interpretations of the circumstances in which governance responses are required.  For example, the measures taken in Britain to prepare for the Second World War profoundly affected many people’s lives, but there was disagreement about whether the preparations were necessary: some people, including Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, thought that appeasement would avoid a war.

●  Real people don’t always use principled reasoning when making their choices about how they want to be governed.  Other factors, such as the personalities of leadership candidates or a desire for change, may be more potent than the different political philosophies on offer in a democratic election for example.  It should not be assumed that reason is the best way of determining what would be best for people who have emotions and who are influenced by their history.

For these reasons, it is highly unlikely that trying to reach agreement on acceptable principles of justice would be a practical way of satisfying people in real situations.  Although Rawls updated his work in a later book, Political Liberalism, to reflect some of the problems inherent in reaching an agreement in a pluralist society, he was still seeking a universal and timeless solution based on “reason”:

“our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational.  This is the liberal principle of legitimacy.” [p. 217]

Daniel Bell’s Communitarianism entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy outlined some challenges to Rawls.  These include Michael Walzer, whose book Spheres of Justice is quoted as arguing that “effective social criticism must derive from and resonate with the habits and traditions of actual people living in specific times and places”.  The same entry references several other writers and their works as being critical of Rawls’s approach.

Rawls failed to give sufficient recognition to people’s inherent diversity.  In this book, in agreement with chapter 4 of Amartya Sen’s book The Idea of Justice, it is assumed that perfection is not attainable in the short term, if ever, but that this need not prevent people’s lives from being improved by societies using “public reasoning” to make “social choices”.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/231.htm.