Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Justice as fairness: Why we need to revisit the work of John Rawls

  • 27 October 2022
‘Liberal democracy around the world is battered,’ Stan Grant lamented earlier this year in an ABC News opinion piece. ‘It is exhausted. It appears out of ideas.’ The genesis of Grant’s despair was Anthony Albanese’s win in the Australian Federal election, which, he argued, was a vote for change while simultaneously ‘another dying gasp of an old order’.

Similarly, in Eureka Street, Andrew Hamilton writes ‘to say that democracy is under threat is now a truism.’ Hamilton also counsels us that the ‘freedom and equality of democratic institutions depend on fraternity’ and that ‘ultimately democracy depends on integrity and on mutual trust.’

The consensus globally amongst many seems to be that as a political system, liberal democracies are increasingly threadbare, insufficiently creating just outcomes for vulnerable people. We need a rejuvenation of stable and fair democracies in which integrity and trust are evident. To that end, I suggest we revisit the liberal egalitarianism of 20th century American philosopher John Rawls.

For a two-minute primer on John Rawls, watch Stephen Fry narrate Rawls’ famous ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment here, on how it establishes what is and is not fair, and so how to create a society in which the large majority agree on what constitutes  a just and fair society. Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment reveals one reason societies don’t become fairer: those who benefit from injustice are spared from imagining life had they been randomly born into different circumstances.

Stan Grant despairs that liberalism does not speak to the marginalised. And yet he summarily dismisses the most important liberalism of our age that was designed to speak to the marginalised — the liberal egalitarianism of John Rawls.

Grant writes that ‘Rawlsian liberalism, with its “veil of ignorance, neutrality and weightlessness”, cannot bear the weight being put upon it by groups who feel abandoned or left behind’. It is a bold assertion. One way of testing Grant’s claim is to see whether Rawls’s ‘justice as fairness’ would, in practice, leave no one behind.

Rawls argued that we can come to agree about and support a liberal egalitarianism in the form of ‘justice as fairness’ within his Political Liberalism as a way to achieve well-ordered democratic societies. Rawls’s theory of justice evolved over 50 years in the sequence of books A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, The Law of Peoples and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. (The last book was completed just before he died in