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Rights of Inequality: Rawlsian Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Status of the Family
  • Justin Schwartz

Is the family subject to principles of justice? In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls includes the (monogamous) family along with the market and the government as among the "basic institutions of society" to which principles of justice apply. Justice, he famously insists, is primary in politics as truth is in science: the only excuse for tolerating injustice is that no lesser injustice is possible. The point of the present paper is that Rawls doesn't actually mean this. When it comes to the family, and in particular its impact on fair equal opportunity (the first part of the the Difference Principle, Rawls' second principle of justice), he abandons the priority of justice. I also argue that he is right to do so.

The central argument is simple. As Rawls admits, what family one is raised by into profoundly affects one's life chances: a child raised by a family has far greater life chances on every dimension that one raised in a poorer family that may lack books, education, and time to give the child attention. But the prevailing family arrangements in the industrialized west, assigning children to be raised by their biological parents, is guaranteed to perpetuate this injustice. While Rawls says an injust institution in the basic structure of society, in which he includes the family, must be "reformed or abolished," he refrains from calling for the reform or abolition of the family. We must simply work around it to compensate for the injustices he admits it involves. And this despite the fact that alternative arrangements involving communal childrearing (Plato) or assigning children to those best qualified to raise them (Rousseau) are common in the philosophical literature. Moreover, the practice of having children raised by their biological parents is a relatively recently one, at least in the West, where, before the late 18th century, fostering-out or apprenticeship arrangements were normal and expected for both rich and poor for centuries.

Much of the paper is devoted to fine-grained textual analysis of Rawls' attempts to avoid the devastating implications of this argument for his theory of justice -- much of which are stated only in the original edition of A Theory of Justice and simply deleted, without substitution by anything better, in the second edition. In the end, Rawls has no way out. He cannot keep the priority of justice, fair equality of opportunity, and the monogamous family in which children are raised by their biological parents. As he admits, these are mutually inconsistent.

In the final part of the paper I argue that Rawls _should_ give up on the priority of justice. While childrearing by the biological parents is a historical anomaly, in the real modern world it would politically unfeasible to institute Platonic, Rousseauean, or similar legislation that purportedly assigned children to those best able to raise for them regardless of biological relationship. Since Rawls is committed to principles of political stability and feasibility, as he should be, and since ought implies can, such proposals are off the table. I concur with Rawls that we must work around this injustice, even those there are more just arrangements available in principle. But the cost of this -- less high than Rawls suggests -- is abandoning the principle of the priority of justice. Justice is one of a number of considerations that we must or may balance in deciding on the best attainable social relations. It is not a trump. However, this comes a great cost for Rawls: he must also abandon the lexical ordering of principles of justice or, in general, right or good principles of social order, in favor of the messy intuitiuonist balancing that his theory is designed to avoid.

One feature of the paper that is worth independent attention is a discussion of Marx's rejection of justice in Critique of the Gotha Program, which I explicate, and urge, without adopting it, that it has a great deal more force than is widely understood.

  • Family,
  • John Rawls,
  • Original Position,
  • Justice as Fairness,
  • Two Principles of Justice,
  • Fair Equality of Opportunity,
  • Priority of Justice,
  • Plato,
  • Rousseau,
  • Human Nature,
  • Abolition of Familty,
  • Alternative Childrearing Arrangements,
  • Communitarianism,
  • Liberalism,
  • Marxist Critique of Justice,
  • Pragmatism
Publication Date
Citation Information
Justin Schwartz. "Rights of Inequality: Rawlsian Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Status of the Family," LEGAL THEORY 7 (2001): 83-117. Available at: