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Rawls Theory of Justice and Moral Deservingness

Visual by Shreya Sharma

Article by Ashwini Kachhap

“Not only our conception of ourselves, and our aims and ambitions, but also our realized abilities and talents, reflect our personal history, opportunities and social position, and the influence of good and ill fortune…..none of which we morally deserve.” Justice as a political and philosophical concept is closely associated with the question of what one deserves. In simple usage to give what one deserves is considered just and contrary, unjust. It revolves around the question of distribution of various goods and services and as to who gets what and why. Distribution of benefits and burdens arising out of cooperative endeavor are based on some determined rules and regulation. Since resource are scarce in nature, distribution often depends on the factor of need, merit and desert. The notion of Desert is a normative concept and therefore in the matters of Distributive Justice, to determine one’s deservingness becomes quite complicated due to existing social and economic structure. Thus, many theorists of Justice like John Rawls refute the basis of pre-institutional desert in the matters of distributive justice since what one deserves and why, cannot be easily established solely on the basis of moral deservingness. This is because of reasonable pluralism as people have different conception of good. Therefore, Rawls advocate for institutional desert claims which are legitimate and just within the fair background structure based on the ideas of justice along with that of equality of opportunity, and the distribution made in compliance to it would be also be a just outcome. The following paragraphs talks about desert basis which includes merit, personal talents and abilities and their moral feasibility in assessing claims of benefits and burden in the lareger socio-economic and political structures. The paper then talks about Rawls Theory of Justice and moral deservingness and the conditions around which the social justice can be ensured.

Desert basis and claims

Often, deserts demands claim are based upon the characteristics of the individual but Rawls argues that any distribution based upon desert basis which includes merits, talents, realized abilities, personal talents or even effort for that matter are arbitrary from the moral point of view and thus are to be considered unjust.

For a matter of simplification, desert can be divided into two forms. One which can be called the pre-institutional desert and second, the institutional desert. The former advocated by Joel Fienberg according to which, the pre-institutional desert are those deserts that are natural and are not tied to institutional rules. This notion of pre-institutional desert observes that people do have claims that exist pre institutionally and thus the job of the social institution would be just when it grants individual to what they pre-institutionally deserve. The effort-based desert comes closer to this kind of argument. For instance, a person mixing his labour with the land would undoubtedly deserve the fruits of its productivity but Rawls in his theory of justice advocates the shortcoming of assessing claims according to pre-institutional desert. This is because the benefits and burdens that individual derive as per their pre-institutional desert on the basis of virtues like effort, talents and abilities depend much more on the natural and social contingencies, which are highly unequal and thus unjust. The claims made on these bases are unjust because one did nothing to acquire them. So, the claims made upon something for which they are not responsible for are unjust.

To be clear there is nothing just or unjust with the idea of pre-institutional desert. It’s the structure that determines the deservingness of certain talents, abilities and social position. For instance, the contemporary capitalist structure favors those with the entrepreneur skills. Now these skills are not possessed by every individual in the society so the ones lacking it and excelling in other skills face certain disadvantages due to lack of fair equality of opportunity, which is unjust. The structure thus gives rise to stark inequality of wealth. Secondly, these skills are also influenced by their social position and family background to which no one claims credits for. Consider for instance, in an aristocratic or caste societies where the opportunities are open only for a certain section of the people. The distribution of primary goods would be based on the social position and social class and to argue that due to their social superiority or abilities and skills they deserve more advantageous position than the rest of the members in the society would be a grave injustice as the rest of them have been kept away from accessing the opportunities and hence realizing their true self-worth.

To rectify this, and to ensure fair equality of opportunities, the principles of meritocracy can be placed as the basic structure, where the access to opportunities would be equally available to all. But even in this type of society, injustice due to inequality would prevail. This is so because even here the ones with greater natural endowment of talents and abilities for which they can claim no credit would be able to succeed more than the rest of the members in the society. The bone of contention still being the lack of background rules of Justice that would ensure fair and equal initial starting point for all. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society (Rawls 1971). Thus, distribution according to talents and abilities depends a lot more on the social circumstances and family background for which no one can claim credit for as one did nothing to acquire them. Thus, claims based on the pre-institutional desert are undeserved. Rawls claims that any basis of desert for which we can morally claim comes close to contentious effort. But this can also be refuted on the grounds that effort too depends on the opportunities and social position.

Conditions for assessing claims of benefits and burden

The conception of these rules of the basic structure can be done in a hypothetical situation of original position under the veil of ignorance so that the principles ruling the background institutions cater to the welfare of all in the society. In the hypothetical situation of original position under the veil of ignorance no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. (Rawls, Justice as Fairness 1971) They do not have the knowledge of their conception good and even their psychological propensities Usually, the procedural theory of justice is seen as individualistic in nature that the individual is solely responsible for the decisions and actions in society and hence justice corresponds to giving them whatever they deserve from their actions only if they are followed by certain principles. Justice as Fairness, according to John Rawls, recognizes the fact that even after meticulously following the rules, unjust conditions of inequality might still prevail. These inequalities may rise due to natural as well as social circumstances and hence justice as fairness must allow only those inequalities that would provide greatest benefits to the least advantaged. Thus, the two principles Justice, according to Rawls must guarantee equal basic liberty compatible with similar liberty of others and the social and economic inequality to be arranged in such a manner which benefits the least advantage and are attached to the position and offices open to all. These background conditions would make the initial position of the individuals equal who being a rational agent would tend to agree on the principles that would eventually benefit the least advantaged in the society assuming that they could land in the least advantageous position. Thus, these principles would govern the social cooperation among the individual and would be fair as these are made in the original position of equality and ensures that no one is in the advantaged position due to their natural circumstances and social positions. Once this basic structure is realized, distribution of Primary goods in the society of mutual cooperation would be done according to what background institutions permits.

Ensuring Socila Justice

For a social justice to take place in a society of mutual cooperation, it is necessary tackle the issues of inequality. The difference principle thus plays an important role of redressing the natural as well as social inequality and providing the same initial position of equality of opportunity. So even if the differences in abilities and talents is leading to inequality, justice as fairness would ensure that the differences in talents are taken as common good or endowment to be used in education and training of the least advantaged. For instance, if a rich businesses man is making supernormal profits, a share of it would be used for equipping the least advantaged members of the society with the necessary training and education so that they can realize their respective self-worth and are able to make claims in accordance with the background institutions. This mechanism ensures that no one is left behind in a system of mutual cooperation as well as distributes benefits and burdens according to their deserved position in the society.

The difference Principle states that any divergence from equality should be resorted to only when it benefits the least advantaged in the society. as no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society. The basic structure is arranged so that when everyone follows the publicly recognized rules of cooperation, and honors the claims the rules specify, the particular distributions of goods that result are acceptable as just (or at least as not unjust) whatever these distributions turn out to be (Rawls, Justice as Fairness a restatement 2001). The rules included in the basic structure would ensure that it remain fair over time. Rawls gives much importance for the idea of equality of opportunity to be an essential condition for the subject of distributive Justice. For him the societal structure consists of Mutual cooperation of the individuals. The just background institution would work on the rules of the basic structure i.e., equal basic liberty and the difference principle. The individual in this mutual cooperation work and contribute for the social welfare. This can only happen when the structure and the background institutions encourage and inculcate the idea of Justice amongst them.

For any structure to sustain itself, certain ideology has to be accomplished. Not only our conception of ourselves, and our aims and ambitions, but also our realized abilities and talents, reflect our personal history, opportunities and social position, and the influence of good and ill fortune (Rawls, Justice as Fairness a restatement 2001). It is not difficult to predict that individual who are better endowed would not want their benefits to get regarded as common good which could be used for the societal welfare. For instance, in the structure of contemporary capitalist system one aims for greater profit. The rules of the basic structure would also mold the conception of individual their aims and ambitions to encourage the idea of justice. The basic structure as a social and economic regime is not only an arrangement that satisfies given desires and aspirations but also an arrangement that arouses further given desires and aspirations in the future. (Rawls, Justice as Fairness a restatement 2001). This encouragement of the idea of justice becomes necessary for mutual cooperation for the welfare of all. This can only be achieved when institutions educate individuals and encourage in them the idea of political justice This basic structure considers native endowments as common resource that would aim to manage the difference in abilities in a way that the more advantageous position in the society would work for the general contribution.

Concluding, for Rawls, the idea of desert, is not completely detached from the idea of morality as his idea of moral deservingness is closely associated with the idea of fair equality of opportunity. His conception of moral deservingness or institutional desert is attached to the idea of legitimate claims made which follows the outcome of the just basic structure. Justice as fairness holds that the idea of desert as entitlement is fully adequate for a political conception of justice; and this is a moral idea (though not the idea of a moral desert defined by a comprehensive doctrine) because the political conception to which it belongs is itself a moral conception. (Rawls, Justice as Fairness a restatement 2001).



Rawls, John. (2001). Principles of Justice. In Justice as Fairness a Restatement, Harvard University Press, pp.39-77.

Moriarty, Jeffery (2002) Desert and Distributive Justice in a theory of Justice, Journal of social Philosophy, Vol 33, Issue 1, pp-131-135.

Cutler, Matthew John. (2009) A compatibilist theory of justice and desert (2009). Master's Theses and Capstones. 118.

Scheffler, Samuel (2000). Justice and Desert in Liberal Theory, 88 Cal. L. Rev. 965, pp-968-972, Available at:

Rawls, John (1971). The principles of Justice. In A Theory of Justice, the Belknap press of

Harvard university press Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp-47-86.

Bhargava, R & Acharya A (2008). Justice. In Political Theory an Introduction. Pearson Education in South Asia, pp- 74-80.

Steinberger, Peter J. (1982) Desert and Justice in Rawls. The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Southern Political Science Association. The Journal of Politics Vol. 44, No. 4 pp. 983-995.

Ashwini Kachhap is currently pursuing Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has completed her graduation from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and believes that Philosophy forms the core of every subject. The very idea of assigning meaning to different issues is elemental to human society as ideas constitute the central position in any conflict. With several years of learning, it has dawned upon her that the cultivation of critical thinking upon young minds is the need of the hour. Her research works would be the quest for knowing and questioning the immediate and things beyond.

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