In the Preface to A Theory of Justice, the late philosopher John Rawls goes beyond what would normally be expected of an author in terms of laying out practical suggestions "to make things easier for the reader," such as noting that his "fundamental intuitive ideas of the theory of justice" are to be found on the first four pages of Chapter I. He also reports that in finishing the final three different versions of manuscript for the book, he passed those versions among "students and colleagues," and that he "benefited beyond estimation from the innumerable suggestions and criticisms" he received.
Rawls even went to the trouble of mentioning the names of colleagues who had contributed ideas, suggestions and criticisms; and he has delved into the specific changes that those individuals added to his final manuscript. This openness on his part would seem to suggest that Rawls was not egotistical or arrogant when it came to the ideas he had worked so hard to fine-tune and convey. Perhaps that is why his narrative seems so fresh, although sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, for the lay person to totally understand what he is conveying.
What is Rawls saying about justice in his deep and somewhat dryly written work?
John Rawls makes clear on page 3 of Chapter I ("Justice as Fairness") that he intends to "work out a theory of justice" that is a "viable alternative to these doctrines which have long dominated our philosophical tradition." He is letting readers know here that he is not satisfied with the way our society approaches the concept of justice, though he doesn't spell out what kind of justice he alludes to at this point.
He then, on the same page, writes: "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought." By putting "virtue" and "social institutions" in the same sentence (by way of comparison), he is apparently alerting the reader that he is about to give his theory on contemporary society, and that should be interesting. And his following sentence seems a kind of justification for his need to redefine justice: "A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue ... "
And, he continues, on page 3, "likewise, laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust." He sounds like the brilliant professor that he was when he writes, "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override." And the follow-up to that, which sums up much of what Rawls says throughout this sometimes confusing book, is that "For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others."
Meanwhile, on pp. 7-8, Rawls asserts that his discussion of justice does not concern itself with "the justice of institutions and social practices generally except in passing the justice of the law of nations and of relations between states." In a well-ordered society, he continues, "Everyone is presumed to act justly and to do his part in upholding just institutions." That, to the student who is only now learning about these concepts, is a very bold presumption -- because any alert citizen knows people and institutions do not act justly.
Rawls' "Main Idea of the Theory of Justice" (pp. 11-17) requires the lay person to carefully dig into the writing, digesting a little at a time rather than attempting to swallow the entire explanation of his theory. Rawls' theories are profound yet sometimes approaching the esoteric to the uninitiated in deeper realms of philosophical thought.
He prefers to think of his justice principles as "fairness," making a wide social sweep in his ideas. This fairness (12) "ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance."
In going to great lengths to explain justice, he adds (13) that he is not saying the concepts of justice and fairness are identical. Rather, he is alluding to the "traditional theory of the social contract," which is that in real, pure, un-corrupted fairness, "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status." Also, no one knows his "fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like."
The principles of justice, in his hypothetical description, are agreed to "in an initial situation that is fair." The parties in this concept of understanding justice are "rational and mutually disinterested" -- and they are not "taking an interest in one another's interests," he writes on page 13. He further sets up his argument by suggesting (14) that those persons in his initial situation would choose two "rather different principles."
The first, "equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties," and the second, that any "social inequalities of wealth and authority" reflect justice "only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone," particularly those "least advantaged members of society."
Robert Nozick's philosophical positions vis-a-vis John Rawls suggest shortcomings in Rawls' theories
On page 183 of Nozick's book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he praises Rawls' book as "a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated into a lovely whole." But the argument that Nozick puts forward in response to Rawls' two principles (presented in the paragraph above) cuts into Rawls' idealism. "The second principle ... holds that the institutional structure is to be designed so the worst-off group under it is at least as well off as the worst-off group (not necessarily the same group) would be under any alternative institutional structure" (190).
Nozick continues (190) his questioning of Rawls' ideas: "Won't application of the minimax principle [e.g., there is always a rational solution to a conflict between two individuals] lead each person in the original position to favor maximizing the position of the worst-off individual?"
Rawls, meantime, had written (p. 15) that "the two principles ... seem to be a fair agreement on the basis of which those better endowed ... could expect the willing cooperation of others when some workable scheme is a necessary condition of the welfare of all."
In response to that, Nozick, on page 194 of his book, rebuts: " ... It is difficult to avoid concluding that the less well endowed gain more than the better endowed do from the scheme of general cooperation." Nozick is saying, if you take a society where some are poor and some wealthy, and spread the wealth around equally -- as Rawls suggests must be done to have "justice" and "fairness" in a society -- you're basically taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
Nozick writes that, after careful reading of Rawls, he, Nozick, has a " ... deep suspicion of imposing, in the name of fairness, constraints upon voluntary social cooperation ... " (195). In other words, a free market could not likely exist if Rawls' view of social justice was carried out to the maximum of its philosophical thrust.
"Imagine," Nozick writes on page 198, "a social pie somehow appearing so that no one has any claim at all on any portion of it ... yet there must be unanimous agreement on how it is to be divided ... "
On page 15 Rawls states that he doesn't expect all readers to be convinced by the answer he offers to the problem of the "choice of principles" -- nor does he expect all to understand "contract terminology." But justice as fairness, Rawls asserts, has two parts; one, an "interpretation of the initial situation and of the problem of choice posed there"; and two, a set of principles "which would be agreed to."