The Necessity of Upholding Liberal Beliefs

Published 22 Dec 2016

The Necessity of Upholding Liberal Beliefs for the Adherence to Liberal Institutions: Analysis of John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice

Adherence to a liberal outlook is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the adherence to liberal institutions (Barry, 1990, p.11). The reason for such a claim is based on the lack of logical relation between liberal ideas and the support for liberal institutions (Barry, 1990, p.2). In order to understand such a claim it is necessary to present the correlation of the aforementioned elements [liberal ideas and liberal institutions]. Three main features characterize liberal institutions: (1) adherence to the harm principle [which states that people are free to act as they wish provided they do not harm others]; (2) freedom of expression; and (3) equal citizenship regardless of social class, race, or gender. Each of the aforementioned traits have corresponding characteristics within the liberal outlook. Equal citizenship coheres with the idea that “no religious dogma can (be) reasonably held with certainty” (Barry, 1990, p. 1). Freedom of expression coheres with the assumption that “no view should be held unless it has withstood critical scrutiny” (Barry, 1990, p.2).

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The conception of the necessity to oppose servile status, on the other hand, coheres with the idea of the necessity to uphold fundamental equality (Barry, 1990, p. 2). Analysis of the aforementioned correlation [between the characteristics of liberal ideas and the main features of liberal institutions] shows that “liberal institutions antedate the prevalence of liberal attitudes” (Barry 6). If such is the case, it follows that liberal attitudes were merely pragmatic outcomes of liberal institutions. In order to prove the necessity [or universality] of the adherence to liberal institutions it is thereby necessary to prove the necessity of the adherence to liberal institutions that is not based upon a liberal outlook. The possibility of such was presented by John Rawls through his version of the principle of neutrality.

According to the principle of neutrality, public policy should “as a matter of justice be neutral between different ideas of the good” (Barry, 1990, p.6). As opposed to the historic basis [and hence pragmatic justification] of the aforementioned relation between liberal institutions and liberal beliefs, the importance of the principle of neutrality lies in its ethical justification of liberalism. Such an ethical justification is evident in John Rawls’ theory of distributive justice as presented and elucidated in his A Theory of Justice. Such a theory states “the distribution or allocation of various resources within a set of inpiduals within society” (Barry, 1990, p 7). Prima facie, the distribution of resources [to be understood as something whose deployment is a means of satisfaction of wants] is conceived as an equal one. Such a conception thereby necessitates a consideration of liberty and equality since the choice between liberty and equality brings forth issues regarding the fundamental notion of justice.

In 1971, Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice with the aim of defending an egalitarian liberal vision of justice by adopting the social contract theory. I will mention two important aspects of Rawls’ theory: (1) the “original position” and (2) the principle of “justice as fairness”. In Rawls’ theory, the original position [like the social contract] is a “thought experiment”. Social contract theorists like Hobbes for instance do not contend that there was actually a corresponding historical fact to the idea of a “social contract”. For the most part, the social contract theory has an explanatory function that being to provide a justification for the formation of the state. In the same vein, Rawls’ original position has an explanatory function to explain that being “what and how will we arrive at the principles of justice” given that there is a “veil of ignorance” (1971, p.19). The veil of ignorance was employed by Rawls to mean that the parties involved are “mutually disinterested” since they do not know who they represent.

The idea is actually simple. For instance, we have decided to think of a principle of social justice that we ought to apply to our society and let us say that we are generally knowledgeable on issues regarding human affairs. In addition to this, let us also say that we are not aware of our positions or whom we represent in society because of the veil of ignorance. The question to be considered is whether we will devise laws that may be called “unjust”. Rawls contends that under such a position inpiduals would opt for the attainment of the greatest amount of equality amongst social groups or inpiduals in general.

In relation to this, one must consider the conception of “justice as fairness”. According to Rawls, we may arrive at two principles of justice through the original position and the veil of ignorance. A just society, as Rawls sees it, ought to assure that each citizen has “an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties in which the scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all” (Rawls, 1971, p.156). This is the Rawls’ First Principle. The Second Principle must address those aspects of the basic structure that affects the distribution of opportunities, offices, income, wealth, and resources. Collectively, these are identified as “social advantages”.

The Second Principle, according to Rawls, has two parts. In the first part of the Second Principle, Rawls contends that the social structures or institutions that mold the aforementioned distribution must satisfy the requirements of a “fair equality of opportunity” (1971, p.61). In the second part of the second principle, Rawls discussed the “Difference Principle.” In his work entitled Political Liberalism, Rawls states, “social and economic inequalities … are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society” (1993, p.6).

Such a conception of the correlation of justice and fairness thereby mirrors Rawls’ liberal orientation. For Rawls personal and civil liberties are social goods and there are occasions when certain inequalities are permissible in society. Such occasions of inequality are permissible during instances wherein the aforementioned conditions enable the least advantage classes to gain social and economic benefits. The point is that we cannot totally be equal and even if it were possible, it would lead to more losses than gains. Absolute equality is never achievable. One must now consider whether the aforementioned conception of justice [wherein priority of rights is given over the good] allows the necessity of the adherence to liberal institutions.

It is important to note that the aforementioned conception is in itself based upon a liberal outlook. Note for example that neutrality [or Rawls’ version of distributive justice mentioned above] necessitates the assumption of a liberal outlook, which opts for value neutrality within society (Skinner, 1998, p.79). If such is the case, it thereby follows that adherence to liberal institutions necessitates the adherence to liberal beliefs. In lieu of this, I would like to end with a remark on justice in a liberal and democratic political setting. Although the aforementioned discussions leads to the initial assumption stated in the paper, it is important to note that the issue of coming up with a satisfactory account or theory of justice is a necessary condition for a society to be considered humane. True, liberal ideologies opened up new ways of looking at things, different ways of looking at things such is the thrust of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.


  • Barry, B. (1990). “How Not to Defend Liberal Institutions”. British Journal of Political Science 20.1: 1-14.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
  • Skinner, Q. (1998). Liberty Before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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