The Two Principles of Justice

by Aimee Mesiona
ADDU Graduate Student


The two principles of justice are the two fundamental philosophies that would constitute justice as fairness. According to Rawls, these are the two basic principles of a fair conception of justice that we would come up with as result of employing the veil of ignorance in the original position. These two principles should be the core rules that regulate how the basic institutional arrangements and agreements of society will distribute what he calls social primary goods, most essential of which are people’s rights, liberties, powers, opportunities, income and wealth.


The first principle, pertaining to the liberties of citizens, is the foundational rule which ideally must never be violated, not even in favor upholding the second principle. Rawls states that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty to others”. This means that all citizens should have equal rights. A given set of liberties and rights, such as freedom of speech, constitutional right to assembly, right to vote, right to run for office, habeas corpus and all other rights, must be distributed similarly among each and every member of society. The rights stated in the Philippine constitution are the same for each human being—man or woman, young or old, Christian or Muslim, rich or poor, Lumad or Tagalog—because he or she is inherently valuable; these rights are inviolable. In most cases, these rights and liberties of every single person should be considered absolute; however, this should not be so in a case where the exercising of one citizen’s rights results in the curtailing of another citizen’s rights.

The second principle concerns both the distribution of income and wealth as well as the accessibility of positions of authority and offices of command. It states, first, that although wealth or income level may not be the same for each person, the distribution of these must be such that only those inequalities that truly benefit everyone are permitted. As a very simple analogy, we can take the case of a construction engineer and a laborer. In any given project, realistically they cannot have the same salary because they contribute different things. However, the payroll and benefits distribution should be designed in such a way that the needs of each are completely met to the best of the business’ financial capabilities. This is just, because in reality, different people have different needs.

For example, the engineer may need more monetary compensation as incentive for being in charge of implementing and coordinating three different projects, all of which he is solely accountable for. His responsibility also includes ensuring the welfare of his laborers. In contrast, the laborer may not be given the same salary as the engineer, but because he works in more dangerous conditions, the company should give him priority in important benefits such as insurance coverage for accidents and hospitalization, which could also cover his dependents. He must be given just and prompt payment for his work in the construction site, in accordance with fair labor/wage policies. This example illustrates that there are inequalities which are permissible because, first, their existence is for the utmost benefit of all, and, second, because the existence of these inequalities is actually preferred by both parties. Thus, effectively, the wealth that every party gets is not equal in the sense that they comprise exactly the same objects, but instead what they get are “packages” that do not infringe on the labor rights of each other and are equally valuable in meeting their separate and unique needs. All parties are justly compensated.

With regards to positions of power, the second principle also states that positions of power in society must be accessible to all, that everyone must have a fair equality of opportunity. Offices of authority in society must not be limited to those who can afford to access them. Every member must be given the opportunity to obtain the skills and talents needed to qualify for such positions of authority, so that he or she can be assessed in the same manner as every other aspirant. Let us take, for instance, the position of Supreme Court Justice. If the government does not do anything, only those who have the money to go to good schools will eventually qualify for this post. Creating fair equality of opportunity in this situation entails establishing and supporting a competent public elementary and secondary school system, a very good state university, and a well-run state-funded law school, so that graduates can take the state bar exam, become lawyers, be given the opportunity to work in the government’s judicial system and do all other things that will eventually allow them to reach the said position. Opportunities should not be for sale to the highest bidder. They should be made available to all so that anyone, poor or privileged, can see in his/her future the possibility of becoming a person of authority. This may apply to other positions of power, such as a business tycoon, positions in the armed forces, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences in Ateneo, President of the Philippines, or Mayor of Davao.

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