Deep discussions about the meaning of justice can be engrossing and profoundly humanizing. It is a rich human experience to practice what John Rawls proposed in “A Theory of Justice.” He described how to adopt a “veil of ignorance” to guide considerations of what a just society entails. In brief, if you have no idea what your circumstances are and you must choose among rival rules for distributing social goods, you must think intensely about rules that foster fair outcomes, no matter who or where you are. Without knowing your age, gender, race, degree of disability, sexual orientation, level of literacy, health status, age or condition of dependents you care for, etc., you will aim for rules that would be agreeable to you, even if you are among those called by Christ “the least of these.” You may opt for some manner of safety net, to protect against loss of life from starvation or exposure. You may opt for some basic rights, to bring within reach the possibility of a meaningful life with dignity. You may favor laws that prohibit predatory behavior with assurance that all people receive equal protection. You may wish to incentivize ingenuity, believing that some suffering — perhaps yours or your loved ones’ — can be alleviated by risk takers. Dialogue along these lines can go on forever; indeed, at least since Plato we have been at it somehow. Rawls is only one of many giant minds to consult.

Something you are unlikely to want is equality. You may conclude that it belongs in some contexts, but you will know that sometimes fairness requires inequality. Equal shares of any resource when needs for that resource are very different would bother you. Make it simple: adults need to eat more than children; families need more space than single people. Is it a violation of justice when you just get what you can pay for?

Something else you are unlikely to want is equity. Unlike equality, equity seeks proportionality instead of sameness. People get more or less of something based on how much they need (more or less) or how much they’ve done (more or less). Unequal shares of any resource may seem fair in some contexts, but you will quickly think of situations in which only equality seems fair. Make it simple: that rent is the same, whether I’m white or black; my right to vote is the same, whether I’m male or female. Is it a violation of justice when who you are determines what you get?

Since equity or unequal treatment may be needed, due to different circumstances, and equal treatment may be needed, due to essential human rights, a good and just society will seek both. And this is complex. Recent claims that equity is some sinister slap against justice in America are missing these truths. People expressing scorn for either equity or equality would do well to put themselves behind Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” and think carefully, with all the humility their imagination can contain.

Zingraff, a former professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently retired as associate dean with James Madison University in Harrisonburg.

(1) comment


Thank you for your most thoughtful essay: however, a few observations of an academic theory vice the reality ...

Fairness is not the only dimension of justice; surely it is an important dimension but not the only one.

Rawls’ principles are neither dynamic nor evolutionary, nor do they take into account uncertainty or evaluation of chance. A theory needs to have all these qualities in order to sustain the changing scenarios of the world.

It is difficult to know when these principles are being violated; it is very hard to use them even if we accept them as correct, to differentiate between just and unjust societies.

For another prespective please see

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