Unit 4 Study Guide: John Rawls' Theory of Justice

4a: Explain Hobbes' description of the state of nature and its implications for human nature.

  • Why did Thomas Hobbes suggest that all human beings have equal abilities?
  • Do you think his analysis is convincing or does he ignore some relevant points?
  • Define what Hobbes meant by diffidence.
  • What did Hobbes mean when he suggested this equality leads to a diffidence that each of us has for other human beings?
  • List the three reasons Hobbes gave for why human beings quarrel with each other.

Review this material in the following resources.

  • Do you agree with Hobbes analysis of the state of war?
  • How does war function for Hobbes in relation to political theory and the social contract?
  • List three reasons why Hobbes believed human life in the state of war is undesirable.

Hobbes' concept of the social contract and his entire political philosophy begin with his description of the state of nature. Hobbes famously claimed that human beings are naturally in a state of war. In this natural condition our lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes' concept of diffidence refers to the anxiety people feel when they fear for their security or standing vis à vis another individual.

Review this quote and the paragraphs where Hobbes describes this natural state of war in Chapter 13 of the Leviathan.

  • What did Hobbes mean by a right of nature?
  • How did Hobbes define liberty? Why do you think Hobbes understood liberty in this way? How does this compare with other definitions of liberty we have discussed so far in this course, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John Locke, the French revolutionaries, Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick?
  • What did Hobbes mean by a law of nature, generally speaking?
  • What did every human being have a right to according to Hobbes? What about your neighbor or colleague?
  • What is Hobbes' reasoning for this atypical description of rights?
  • Define Hobbes' First and Fundamental Law of Nature.
  • Define Hobbes' Second Law of Nature (which follows from the first).

Hobbes described two fundamental laws of nature in the first five paragraphs of Chapter 14 of the Leviathan, Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts:

"The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves."

Hobbes continues to list many more laws of nature in Chapter 15 of the Leviathan, The Other Laws of Nature, but he believed they all follow from these first two fundamental laws of nature.

  • Why do we enter into a social contract according to Hobbes (your responses may overlap with some of your answers above).
  • How are human beings different from bees and ants?
  • Hobbes believed we need to institute a central power due to these accounts. He said, "the only way to erect such a common power …" is what?
  • What did Hobbes mean by commonwealth? What did he mean by leviathan? Why did he choose this word for his ruler?
  • How much control did Hobbes believe individuals have to give up to the common central power? How is this similar or dissimilar to various governmental structures today?

While the idea of a social contract goes back to Plato, it is a common political idea in our modern political state. For example, many political theorists, including Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence adopted in 1776, base many of their ideas and arguments on John Locke. They emphasize the need for a social contract, with the idea that government is grounded in the consent of the governed.

When Thomas Hobbes wrote chapter 17 of the Leviathan in 1651, he also argued for a social contract with a king or other type of sovereign power that is grounded by a tacit agreement with all members of society. However, Hobbes' ruler was much more powerful than Jefferson's. The power of Hobbes' sovereign was much less restrained, and had fewer checks on his power, than the governments of more modern political theorists (such as the checks and balances the framers built into the U.S. Constitution).

Review Hobbes' concept of government and the social contract in Chapter 17 of the Leviathan Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Commonwealth.

4b: Compare and contrast Hobbes' and Locke's description of the state of nature and Rawls' original position and veil of ignorance concepts.

  • Define John Rawls' original position of equality?
  • What did Rawls mean by justice as fairness?
  • Define the veil of ignorance according to Rawls and explain how it relates to his idea of the original position of equality?
  • What term in Rawls' discussion corresponds to the idea of the state of nature according to Hobbes and some other political theorists?

John Rawls (1921–2002) was a prominent contemporary American moral and political philosopher. He published A Theory of Justice, one of his most influential books, in 1971.

Review these excerpts from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.

  • Name the two principles of justice according to Rawls.
  • How do these principles relate to his concept of the "veil of ignorance" and the "original position of equality"?

Review this material in pages 7–14 of these excerpts from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.

  • Compare the concept of the state of nature, according to Locke and Hobbes.
  • Compare the social contract, according to Locke and Hobbes.
  • Compare the violation of the social contract, according to Locke and Hobbes.

While Locke and Hobbes are both social contract theorists, their overall political philosophies are not at all similar.

Review this brief synopsis which compares and schematizes their different opinions, Locke versus Hobbes. Note the different points of view Locke and Hobbes had in the sections, "the state of nature," "the social contract," and "violation of the social contract." Also notice the different conceptions of justice listed under the role of the state.

  • Can you explain the difference between these two attitudes toward justice?
  • How does this lead to a different conception of the role of the government in their political theories?

4c: Describe the concepts of fairness and justice as understood in social and political theory.

  • Explain what John Rawls meant when he described justice as fairness.
  • How does Rawls' definition compare with other descriptions of justice we have considered in this course?
  • Can justice be unfair? What does it mean to describe justice this way?
  • Describe some situations where you might apply fairness to justice.
  • Does fairness mean the same rules for everybody? Or should we consider the disadvantages some people have?
  • How does the idea of a starting point contribute to the idea of justice as fairness?
  • Would Hobbes think that Rawls' idea of fairness is relevant to the social contract? Why or why not?

John Rawls argued that utilitarianism was incompatible with the democratic values of freedom and equal rights, and created a theory of justice based on the idea of a social contract. He presented his concept of justice as fairness, the basis for a liberal and egalitarian society, in his book, A Theory of Justice.

The first principle is that everyone in society should be granted equal rights and basic human liberties. The second principle places certain restrictions on social and economic inequalities: 1. everyone should receive equal opportunity to attain any position; and 2. any inequalities should grant the "greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society."

Rawls defended his arguments with a hypothetical, social contract-type thought experiment, which he called the original position, in which free, equal, rational, and unbiased individuals receive the opportunity to create the best possible society for themselves and everyone else. When given the choice, people living in the original position will choose to live in conditions of justice as fairness.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls also introduced the concept of "reflective equilibrium" in which he argued that although people in the original position will choose to create a just society, we often need to step back to examine our commonly-held beliefs and assumptions about justice. In this way, we can achieve a "reflective equilibrium" in which all parties are satisfied.

Review this material in pages 1–7 of these excerpts from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.

4d: Differentiate among distributive, retributive, and restorative justice.

Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

  • Define retributive justice and restorative justice.
  • Explain the purpose of punishment and the relation between punishment and justice.
  • Explain the extent to which reintegrating a wrongdoer into society should be a priority for considerations of justice.
  • Describe how factors, such as racism or police profiling, influence responses to this question.

One way to think about the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice is that retributive justice focuses on the criminal's guilt and isolates them from society. Restorative justice focuses instead on restitution, leading to a reinstatement and harmonious reintegration of the criminal to society.

Notice how the author Monica Pocora indicates that restorative justice includes the following characteristics: responsibility, self-involvement, damage repair, restitution, and early prevention.

Review how restorative justice contrasts with retributive justice in the articles Restorative Justice from Wikipedia; and The Restorative Justice System: An Alternative to the Official Criminal System by Monica Pocora.


Distributive Justice

  • Define distributive justice and a distributive system.
  • Name some examples of ways economic benefits are distributed in modern capitalist societies.
  • Which examples would you say are rational? Are some irrational?
  • Which examples would you say are fair? Are some unfair?
  • Can you name some adaptations that would make the system of distribution more fair? Why or why not?

Review the lectures What Do We Deserve? (after timestamp 24:36) and Arguing Affirmative Action (up to timestamp 25:50) by Michael Sandel.


4e: Apply the concepts of justice to case examples like affirmative action and racial profiling.

Income Inequality

  • Define income inequality.
  • To which era of modern American history is the current level of income inequality frequently compared?
  • What events tend to precipitate the widening of income inequality?
  • What percentage of the wealth in the United States do the top 20 percent of earners own? The bottom 20 percent of earners?
  • Is this study of the widening income gap in the United States relevant to questions of justice, and distributive justice in particular? Why or why not?
  • What role do matters of race, gender, or privilege play in the question of income and distribution? Does this raise issues of justice?

Review U.S. Income Inequality Highest Since the Great Depression by Journalist's Resource.


Affirmative Action

  • Define affirmative action.
  • Who was Cheryl Hopwood and what matter did she bring before the court? How did the court rule? (Hint: see the Grutter vs. Bollinger case)
  • What do you think of Hopwood's case and the court ruling? What do you think about affirmative action? Does it amount to racial discrimination?
  • Does affirmative action help redress a historical system of racial discrimination? What is the best way to move forward in our society today?

Review the rulings Cheryl J. Hopwood vs. State of Texas from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Grutter vs. Bollinger from The Supreme Court of the United States.


Racial Profiling

  • Define racial profiling.
  • How does racial profiling relate to reputation?
  • How are reputations shaped or prefigured by race or by other external factors?
  • How does the theory of racial equality differ from the practice surrounding police activity, criminal activity, and racial profiling?
  • What practical suggestions might you make to find a just solution to the practical situations which police and judges face?

Review racial profiling and reputation in the article Race, Reputation, and the Supreme Court by Fran Lisa Buntman.

  • How do the three U.S. Supreme court decisions, Dred Scott vs. Sandford, Plessy vs. Ferguson, and Brown vs. Board of Education, tell a story about the development of social justice in the United States?
  • Do you believe this progression regarding racial relations in the United States is complete? In what ways is it still incomplete?
  • How do you think these cases relate to Buntman's article regarding racial profiling?

Review the following famous court cases which have shaped U.S. legal guidelines regarding race during the past centuries:

  • In his article on racial profiling, what does the author Richard Chapell mean by moral progress.
  • Do you believe moral progress has occurred? Name some arguments that support it and some arguments that disavow the idea that our society has made moral progress during the past 100 years.
  • What is Chapell referring to when he describes the logic of generalization?
  • How does the logic of generalization apply to Chappell's evaluation of racial profiling?
  • What kinds of generalization would make sense and what kinds would not? What kinds might include a racism or an injustice?

Review this material in the article Racial Profiling by Richard Chapell.


Unit 4 Vocabulary

  • Affirmative action
  • Brown v. Board of Education
  • Central power
  • Cheryl Hopwood
  • Commonwealth
  • Diffidence
  • Distributive justice
  • Distributive system
  • Dred Scott v. Sanford (Dred Scott decision)
  • First and Fundamental Law of Nature
  • Grutter v. Bollinger
  • Income inequality
  • John Rawls
  • Justice as fairness
  • Liberty
  • Leviathan
  • Logic of generalization
  • Moral progress
  • Original position of equality
  • Plessy v. Ferguson
  • Race
  • Racial inequality
  • Racial profiling
  • Racism
  • Reputation
  • Restorative justice
  • Retributive justice
  • Rights of nature
  • Second Law of Nature
  • Social contract
  • Starting point
  • State of nature
  • State of war
  • System of distribution
  • Veil of ignorance
Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2019, 6:59 PM