A Rawls glossary

Basic structure

The way in which the basic institutions of society (political constitution, forms of property, legal system, economy) fit together into a system and assign rights and duties, determine probable outcomes for individuals.

Conception of the good

A person's view about what is valuable in life and in the word. May be religious conviction, career ambition or just a set of preferences.

Difference principle

See 'Principles of justice'.

Lexical ordering

Short for 'lexicographical ordering'. An ordering that completely satisfies a first principle before beginning to apply a second. Example: the ordering of words in a dictionary 'Put all the word beginning with A before any beginning with any other letter, then do the Bs; Within the As, place 'aardvark' before 'abacus'.

Maximin decision rule

A decision rule for situations where the probabilities of particular outcomes obtaining are unknown. In such circumstances, it is most prudent (it is claimed) to choose the option with the least-worst possible outcome (in other words to maximize the minimum). Rawls employs this principle to derive his general conception of justice and in particular, to derive the difference principle, claiming that persons in the original position would employ the rule.

Original position

The hypothetical situation in which rational persons behind a 'veil of ignorance' choose principles of justice to govern the basic stucture of society.

Primary good

A good that is supposed to be useful (or at least not harmful) to anyone, whatever their plan for life or conception of the good. Examples: money, self-respect, freedom of speech.

Principles of justice

'1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.

2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second [the difference principle] they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.' The principles are lexically ordered, with the first coming before the second and the first part of the second coming before the second part of the second.

Reflective equilibrium

A method for reaoning in ethics which attempts to make progress by seeking coherence between one's considered judgements about particular cases and questions, a set of ethical principles and the theoretical apparatus that generates those principles. Attempts to do ethical or political theory without solving the big metaethical questions about the foundation of ethics.

Veil of ignorance

The exclusion of information about one's own conception of the good, social situation and talents and abilities from deliberation in the original position.