• Lauren Mooney

Individual Autonomy in Rawls’ Theory of Justice

Author: Levi Moneyhun, PPL Fourth Year


The vast majority of modern mainstream political discourse accepts the individual as the

most important unit of reference. As such, political theories tend to be framed as maximizing or protecting individual liberty, welfare, dignity, autonomy, or another important value. What most theories seem to have in common is respect for individuals qua individuals. While the means of expressing this respect differ, a relatively common thread exists in the insistence that individuals must be treated as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end. In this paper, I will consider how the notion of respect for individuals and the related notion of individual autonomy are addressed in Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Although Rawls claims to base his theory on strong respect for the individual, I will demonstrate that his theory is incompatible with this supposed premise, especially with regard to autonomy.


To begin, we must address the means-ends distinction and the theoretical importance of

the individual. It is not immediately clear that, as a matter of pre-theoretical fact, a proper theory of justice or morality must treat human beings as ends in themselves rather than means to an end. While generally accepted, this is a position which requires some justification and includes some underlying assumptions. Firstly, it assumes that human individuals exist in a more morally meaningful sense than do any of the ends to which their existence could serve as a means (e.g, societal welfare). Secondly, it assumes that humans are not simply means to an end, but rather that they possess a certain degree of autonomy which gives their actions and life experience importance independent of those things which follow from their actions and life experience. Clearly, it would be pointless to avoid treating individuals as means to an end if that was all they were. For individuals to be anything more requires that their actions and experiences not be determined wholly by external factors; instead, they must be determined at least in part by the autonomous decisions of individuals. As such, respect for individuals under an ends-not-means standard must include respect for individual autonomy. The remainder of this paper will be addressed to examining Rawls’ treatment of individual autonomy in the formulation of his hypothetical social contract and in the principles derived therefrom.


Rawls’ usage of the original position as a device in his hypothetical contractarian theory

indicates a strong belief of the moral importance of individual autonomy. Social contract theory roots itself in the notion that people are bound only to those laws which they imposed upon themselves, with the social contract being the means of this self-imposition. The legitimacy of self-imposed law rests upon the importance of autonomy, because what makes self-imposed law unique is that, unlike law imposed by others, it preserves autonomy. Law imposed by others restricts autonomy, while law imposed by oneself does not. Similarly, the idea of the social contract—that social and legal systems are best justified by the (hypothetical) choices of individuals—rests on a belief in the moral value of autonomous individual choice. The social contract is inextricably linked to individual autonomy. However, Rawls’ specific formulation of the social contract via a hypothetical original position is at odds with individual autonomy. The original position is intended as an analogue to the state of nature in traditional social contract theory. Rather than being an actual historical condition, it is purely hypothetical, conceived as a situation in which members of society exist on a free and equal basis. In the original position, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, . . . his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.” Further, “the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.”1


Under such conditions, people cannot be considered individuals in any meaningful sense. Rawls’ original position makes people not only equal but identical, either depriving them of all traits of importance or eliminating most of these and assuming some typical value those that remain. The first approach appears to render decisions made in the original position meaningless, as it seems preposterous to suggest that the moral importance of individually made decisions somehow remains even after everything else is gone. Under the second approach, the individuals in the original position appear capable of making decisions with moral importance, however the resulting decisions will be biased by whatever traits were assumed in place of people’s actual traits. Even if the people in the original position can be said to possess autonomy, they certainly cannot possess individual autonomy, as the structure of the original position (and therefore also the principles resultant from this hypothetical state) “does not take seriously the distinction between persons”—the exact criticism Rawls levied against utilitarianism.


Rawls attempts to answer the objection that his theory fails to value autonomy by

distinguishing between autonomy and heteronomy. For one to act heteronomously, Rawls

claims, is to act upon principles chosen “because of his social position or natural endowments, or in view of the particular kind of society in which he lives or the specific things that he happens to want.”3 In short, it is to act according to principles informed by one’s identity and desires. Autonomy, by contrast, is acting according to principles chosen in one’s capacity as a free and equal person, separate from one’s actual identity and desires.


Heteronomy, as described here, seems much closer to a typical conception of autonomy (or at least the conception at issue in this paper) than does Rawls’ conception of autonomy. While this is not inherently problematic, it should arouse suspicion. Rawls’ theory is conceived in part to address utilitarianism’s failure to give sufficient weight to the importance of the individual, particularly the distinction between individuals, and Rawls rebuts critiques of his principles of justice as anti-individualist by noting that they are derived via a fundamentally individualist mechanism. However, by examining the

structure of Rawls’ original position, we see he may respect the individual only nominally. He

sacrifices important aspects of individuality in order to arrive at his preferred principles of

justices, then defends these principles as being grounded in individuality. However, the supposed “individuality” in which these principles are grounded is a strange form of individuality, which abstracts away most, if not all, of the characteristics which distinguish individuals from each other. Individuals are important in political theory largely because they differ in meaningful ways. It does not appear that individual rights would be nearly as important or as prone to abrogation in a society without meaningful differences between people. While Rawls avoids admitting that his original position would necessitate assuming effectively identical hypothetical persons, he does not provide sufficient argument or evidence to the contrary. By abstracting away differences between individuals, Rawls fails to truly respect the individual. It follows logically that if the mechanism by which Rawls derives his principles of justice fails to adequately respect the individual then so too would the resultant principles, but I will nevertheless examine these principles independently of their derivation. Rawls’ first principle of justice addresses liberty, asserting that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.”This principle expresses clear respect for both individuality and equality.

Rawls’ second principle, addressed to the issue of distributive justice, initially appears consistent with a strong respect for the individual, holding that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged . . . and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.” However, upon closer examination, this principle of distributive justice is incompatible with any substantial respect for the value of individual autonomy.


Robert Nozick, in his 1974 response to Rawls, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, provides an

apt analysis and critique of Rawls’ theory of distributive justice. Firstly, Nozick notes two

separate dividing lines along which one may classify theories of distributive justice: historical vs. ahistorical and patterned vs. unpatterned. In a historical theory, the justice of a set of holdings (or a distribution, as Rawls would prefer to call it) depends on how it came about; under an ahistorical theory, the justice of a set of holdings can be determined solely by looking at a current time-slice. A theory of distributive justice is patterned, Nozick claims, “it if specifies that a distribution is to vary along with some natural dimension, weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic ordering of natural dimensions.”An unpatterned theory is simply one which does not fit this form. Nozick notes that no ahistorical principle can be unpatterned, as the justice of any set of holdings must be determined by either its history, its pattern, or some combination of the two; an unpatterned, ahistorical theory would attempt to determine the justness of a theory on no basis whatsoever. Part (b) of Rawls’ second principle loosely addresses the history of a set of holdings in determining justice. Under this principle, a distribution whose inequality resulted.


Rawls formulates this principle (and the first principle) in several slightly varying iterations throughout A Theory of Justice. He states that the versions presented in section 46, including several added priority rules, are final. I have decided not to address the priority rules on the grounds that they are largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. From the presence of certain positions not equally and fairly attainable would be unjust not

because of the pattern of the distribution, but instead because of how that pattern came about. Part (a) of Rawls’ second principle, however, is patterned and ahistorical. As such, it is much more controversial with respect to the concept of individual autonomy. Intuitively, respect for autonomy would seem to necessitate a historical theory of justice, as only a historical principle gives weight to the decisions of individuals in determining the justice of a distribution. Part (b) simply claims that a just distribution can contain only that inequality which is to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. While this shows clear respect for the moral weight of equality, it pays no respect to the autonomous choices of individuals.

From this cursory analysis, an ahistorical principle seems fundamentally inconsistent

with respect for autonomy. Nozick frames a more thorough objection to patterned principles of distributive justice. However, as all ahistorical principles must be unpatterned, this is

fundamentally the same objection. Via the Wilt Chamberlain example, Nozick attempts to show that no patterned principle of distributive justice is compatible with individual liberty.7 Given this mutual exclusivity, a comprehensive theory of justice must choose to value either liberty or equality.


In basing his theory of distributive justice largely on ahistorical principles, Rawls choose equality over liberty. To respect autonomy certainly would not require Rawls to choose equality over liberty in every circumstance. However, his arguments defending this rejection of liberty in favor equality show clear disregard for the moral value of autonomy and further indicate conflict not only in intention, but also in effect. Rawls objects to the notion that distributive shares should be determined by individual action on the grounds that “the initial endowment of natural assets and the contingencies of their growth and nurture in early life are arbitrary from a moral point of view” and that “the effort a person is willing to make is influenced by his natural abilities." In effect, Rawls claims that life outcomes are not determined by freely willed action in a meaningful sense, but instead by the morally arbitrary distribution of natural assets. This view rejects the idea that individuals possess the capacity for autonomous action and rejects even more resoundingly the notion that individual action has moral importance on the grounds of autonomy. Valuing individual autonomy seems to presuppose faith in free will. In claiming that life outcomes are predetermined by the morally arbitrary distribution of natural assets, Rawls seems to reveal a lack of faith in free will which cannot be reconciled with his professed respect for individual autonomy.


Nozick notes that “denigrating a person’s autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self- respect of autonomous beings; especially critical for a theory that founds so much (including a theory of the good) upon persons’ choices.” While it is entirely possible that, as Rawls seems to admit, individual autonomy is actually of little importance and our fates are mostly or entirely predetermined, the foundations of his theory cannot coexist with these positions. Rawls’ contractarian approach presupposes that individual choice is important. His rejection of utilitarianism insists that distinctions between persons be taken seriously. However, neither the structure of his original position nor the principles of justice derived from it can be reconciled with the fundamental values which he claims underlie his theory of justice.





Works Cited

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.


On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment.

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