Chapter 2: Ethical Systems

2.10 Rawls’ Theory of Justice

John Rawls (1921-2002) was a contemporary philosopher who studied theories surrounding justice. His theories are not focused on helping individuals cope with ethical dilemmas; rather they address general concepts that consider how the criminal justice system ought to behave and function in a liberal democracy. It is for this reason that it important that all law enforcement personnel be aware of Rawls’ theories of justice or at least have a general understanding of the major concepts that he puts forth.

Rawls’ theory is oriented toward liberalism and forms the basis for what law enforcement, and the criminal justice system, should strive for in a pluralistic and liberal society. Borrowing from some concepts of social contract theory, Rawls envisions a society in which the principles of justice are founded in a social contract. However, Rawls identifies problems with the social contract that do not allow fairness and equality to exist among members of society and therefore proposes a social contract which is negotiated behind a “veil of ignorance.” Here the negotiating participants have no idea what their race, gender, education, health, sexual orientation, and other characteristics are so that the social contract is fair. Ultimately, Rawls argues that the primary concern of justice is fairness, and within this paradigm Rawls identifies two principles:

  1. “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (Rawls, 2006, p.63). Rawls goes further by allowing each person to engage in activities, as long as he or she does not infringe on the rights of others.
  2. “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage (b) attached to positions and offices open to all…” (Rawls, 2006, p.63). Likewise, everyone should share in the wealth of society and everyone should receive benefits from the distribution of wealth. Rawls does not argue that everyone should be paid the same, but rather that everyone should have benefit from a fair income and have access to those jobs that pay more.

These principles should be adhered to, according to Rawls, to ensure that disadvantages are neutralized and everyone receives the same benefits of justice.

Rawls further addresses ethics in the individual, though this is not the central tenet of his theory, and is somewhat of a general statement of how moral people should behave (Banks, 2013).


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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