Introduction to Rawls on justice and Rawls on utilitarianism

According to Rawls, the principles of justice are principles that determine a fair resolution of conflicts of interest among persons in a society. “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” (p. 4). Different interpretations or conceptions of justice fill out this core concept; a theory of justice seeks a best conception. Justice takes priority over other normative claims—as Rawls states, justice is the “first virtue of social institutions.” The principles of justice are principles to regulate what Rawls calls the “basic structure of society,” that is, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (p. 6). Why focus on the basic structure? “The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive idea 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 pervasive, 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” (p. 7).
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