Written by Mehmet Sadik Bektas


One of the American philosophers, John Rawls presents an understanding of justice through a liberal viewpoint. Principally, his practical method of truth and thesis, the veil of ignorance, allows fairness to become one of the central principles of justice. Ethically, the philosopher’s argument raises serious questions of moral judgments. The article focuses on the importance of meritocracy as a system which focuses on the equality of society. Therefore, the work aims to emphasize the significance of meritocracy as a principle of justice.

Key Words: Utilitarianism, Justice, Veil of Ignorance, Meritocracy, Fairness.


The American philosopher John Rawls is best known for his contribution to the philosophy of justice, specifically in “A Theory of Justice”. In this work, Rawls explores the interconnectivity of justice and fairness, two concepts that will here be considered separately due to their pragmatic usage.

Another crux examined in this article is Rawls’ understanding of utilitarianism and justice as two phenomena which refer to each other, with the philosopher finding utilitarianism to be simply another pillar of justice. With this in mind, the writer of the essay shall give thought to the philosophy of utilitarianism as a significant source and proof as to why the concept of justice cannot have a utilitarian character, instead suggesting meritocracy as an alternative to the pillar of truth or justice. In doing so, he defends meritocracy as a kind of justice rather than fairness and explains that the characteristics of justice and utilitarianism exist in conflict with each other. At the most, the description of Rawls’ most central thesis, “the veil of ignorance” is introduced and doubts about such a theory explained. First of all, the study focuses on the compatibility of utilitarianism, and its principles, with justice. The essential characteristics of utilitarianism (pleasure, happiness, and pain) are interpreted not only morally and ethically, but culturally in such a way that a relativist understanding comes to debate. The target of this work is not to address the entire philosophy of ethics and morality, but to comment on the concepts of pleasure and fairness, and suggest why these two concepts cannot be universally appreciated as justice, but meritocracy as a new system. For this reason, the thesis defends meritocracy as more pragmatic and as a universal alternative to pleasure and fairness

Justice as fairness and the Principle of Utilitarianism

Happiness, pleasure, and pain have often been significant topics of utilitarian thoughts. In other words, utilitarianism claims that the moral righteousness of an action depends on its joy and pleasure. British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, leading thinkers in the field of rational thought, sought to maximize the level of happiness in society through their theories. Furthermore, one of the highest critical features of this theory lies in its opposition to the philosophy of ethical egoism, which claims that it is sufficient for an action to be morally right insofar as it maximizes one’s self-interest (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019). Contrary to this definition, utilitarianism postulates that actions ought to support the happiness of society as a whole.

It is also crucial to remember that utilitarianism brings a pragmatic perspective to the right action and wrong behavior. It is interpreted according to the conclusion of whether an attitude is useful in terms of human happiness. In this respect, the understanding of utilitarianism paves the way to consequentialism, the view that the morality of any particular act properties depends solely on its consequences (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019).

As reported by Mill, acts should be classified morally right or wrong if the consequences are of such significance that a person would wish to see the agent compelled, not merely persuaded and exhorted, to act in a preferred manner (Britannica, 2019). Thus, an action that causes the greatest pleasure for the majority of people might be called the right one. To sum up, utilitarians consider society as rightly ordered, and therefore just. From this point of view, utilitarians work according to fundamental tenets. Its first goal is to maximize utility within the society, secondly, it is a consequentialist theory, thirdly, it emphasizes equality and fourthly, it rests upon rationality.

The maximisation of happiness composes an essential feature of rational thought, which famously is at the center of the philosophy of hedonism, the teaching which argued that the pursuit of pleasure and essential goods are the primary goals of human life. As in the philosophy of hedonism, Bentham and Mill unified happiness and pleasure and considered that the actuality of such sensation existed. Bentham claimed that the interpretation of words such as ought right and wrong belongs to its usefulness. In other words, for him, the governance of human beings was led by two instinctive values: pleasure and pain.

The consequentialist characteristics of the theory carve out a weakness in such a philosophy. In particular, if utilitarianism goes together with the principle of justice as an expression of fairness, it is possible to realize that utilitarianism might bring injustice rather than justice.For example, the fact that the happiness of an individual is less important than the satisfaction of society as a whole is almost irrefutable, meaning that ‘fairness’ is focussed on the delight of the community. However, the concept of happiness itself causes criticism of utilitarianism. In other words, while joy is often imagined as an individual’s response, utilitarianism refers to the plural. Happiness grows into a determining topic, especially the interpretation of its definition. For instance, Aristoteles outlines it as dependant on the person him/herself. For him, the fundamental goal of one’s life is one’s quest for happiness. Similar clarification plays an essential role in Plato’s philosophy. The Symposium and the Phaedrus are two dialogues that focus on the individual soul and pay little attention to communal life at all. Instead, they concentrate on self-preservation, self-improvement, and self-completion.

Plato maintains a virtue-based eudemonistic conception of ethics. That is to say, happiness or well-being (eudemonia) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct, and the virtues (arête: ‘excellence’) are the requisite skills and dispositions needed to attain it. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019). After all, as long as happiness is described as part of the individual’s existence, the philosophy of utilitarianism stands opposed to the notion of happiness on the account that utilitarianism is based on the pleasure of society. However, this concept of happiness does not commonly bring pleasure or acceptability since the cultural and moral values of society prevent certain behaviors although such behaviors may provide a high sense of happiness. Since the most influential cultural phenomenon in a society is its religion, and this involves and incorporates fundamental ethical and moral obligations different from that of the society, the functionality of a utilitarian view in such a society cannot be reconciled with an individual’s beliefs, which may be different from what is most useful to society. Therefore, religious ethics, utilitarianism and the concept of justice are essential factors that interfere with each other. The reason for such an argument lies behind the deontological ethics that corporates with religion. In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different from the states of affairs those choices have (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019). They emphasise the morality of an action, which depends on its rightness or wrongness under some social and cultural constructs, rather than based on the consequences of the work. Therefore, it is a mistake to consider deontological ethics as utilitarian. It can be said that the deontological phenomenon is a solid antithesis against the concept of justice. Alternatively, deontological ethics evidently affects the concept of justice, leaving it under its aegis — for example, the concept of freedom. The deontological impact has a significant effect on the concept of freedom. The fact that a raid is not only physically but also unharmed by morality and ethics constitutes the basis of the concept of freedom.

After examining some criticism of utilitarianism, it is now time to look at John Rawls’s principles of justice in a utilitarian framework. In his book, entitled A theory of Justice as Fairness, the philosopher sees utilitarian principles, intuitionism, and perfectionism as concepts that go together with justice. In essence, he uses a very individualistic approach to the intention of utilitarianism writing:

“[…] now why should not a society act on precisely the same principle applied to the group and therefore regard that which is rational for one man as to the right for an association of men? Just as the well-being of a person is constructed from the series of satisfactions that are experienced at different moments in the course of his life, so in very much the same way the well-being of society is to be constructed from the fulfillment of the systems of desires of the many individuals who belong to it” (Rawls, 1971, 21).

While putting forward a claim, it is necessary to interpret what certain ethical and moral norms mean for societies. If, as the author said, the satisfaction, which is not described by the author, of the society is shaped according to the individuals, then an active system like religious norms and values would have to be individualist and ineffective. Social norms are by definition rules created by societies, not by individuals. Perhaps another critical point of Rawls might be this. He believes that the concept of justice is also a universal feature because he does not adequately describe what society and individuals are. The concept of social roles and norms comes at the beginning of the determinants of justice. Rawls’s theory of justice originates from a liberal understanding. In liberal societies, justice consists of a secular ground, while religious societies are shaped according to some religious features. As an example, if a religion is dominant in a particular society, then a particular religion is related to the concept of justice and utilitarian philosophy. If we think from this perspective, a religious ethic may only satisfy the utilitarian philosophy if it pleases the highest number of individuals. Therefore, the mistake appears when the claim comes forward that what is logical for the individual is also right for individuals.

According to the author, society has a naturally ordered system of justice. The most important factor of this depends on the satisfaction and happiness of the individuals in society. Rawls points out that “[…] there is, indeed, a way of thinking of society which makes it easy to suppose that the most rational conception of justice is pragmatic” (Rawls, 1971, 20-21). With this sentence, the most critical three criteria (rationality, pragmatism, and justice) according to the author culminate in the same concept. This point, however, is another place where this essay shall disagree with Rawls’ philosophy.

The claim that justice is logical, fair and practical is a claim that might lead to an in-depth, inextricable discussion. In the first instance, Rawls doesn’t consider what the most rational concept of justice is, or whether rationality should interfere with justice or any pragmatic acts should be called justice. Such questions might reveal that rationalism, pragmatism, and justice are concepts that are in contrast with one another. For example, sentencing an innocent person to death might decrease the conflict of society. Although it is a rational and pragmatic decision (just in case of not finding the guilty one), it cannot be considered as a fair choice.

The theory of justice should be criticized by pragmatic philosophy. However, before doing so, the definition of pragmatism ought to be given. One of the most important philosophers of the philosophy of pragmatism was the American philosopher William James. James’ pragmatism is an attitude to the philosophy which holds that the truth and applicability of an action or statement depends its consequences. James wanted to apply a practical method to the problem of the epistemological truth. He examined the meaning of “truth” according to its function in daily life. After a brief description of pragmatism, we need to look at how this concept can be related to justice. The first problem of pragmatism depends on the conflict over its categorisation, as it is not always clear who should decide whether an action is pragmatic, utilitarian, or ethical.This is particularly problematic when philosophers such as Rawls decide what constitutes a ‘rational act’ for a significant number of people.

The next problem that justice opposites pragmatism is pragmatism’s proportionality. It is difficult to decide for something to be right, or claim that justice is the main source for  moral perfection. However, another significant problem with pragmatism and utilitarianism is hidden in its injustice with its dictatorial feature: power. If utilitarians and pragmatists decide the best course of action for a high number of people, then it needs power to enforce it. This often results in a dictatorship or the tyranny of the elite. Either way, great suffering appears to be imposed, and serious crimes can be committed. When we bring Rawls’ concept of justice and these obvious criticisms, we can explain some injustice acts of modern society. Democratic and liberal societies are the societies that the parties which hold the majority decide the best for the community. When democracy is taken into consideration as a systematic state of pragmatism and utilitarianism it can be concluded unjust.

Moreover, principles of utilitarianism make some parts of the community happy, while others may suffer. Even individuals who enjoy the same happiness that is subject to the same system may not approve of the behaviors and decisions that are called “happy”. A Christian and atheist person might want democracy to be the head of state. However, both will come into conflict if this state legalized homosexuality. As mentioned earlier, utilitarianism’s biggest obstacle is deontological ethics. As understood from the paragraphs above, Rawls’ justice as fairness thesis and its utilitarian viewpoint may at times carry along mistakes and injustice.

The Epistemology of Fairness and the Understanding of Justice

The most critical issue to be addressed in this section arises from the fact that the definition of fairness, not to mention justice, is a fluid one. Specifically, if fairness is acknowledged as rational, then such a comparable view seems inextricable. For Rawls justice as well as fairness can be understood as an equal nuance. If the reader deals with it ethically, he/she can see that the concept of justice does not have the same correlation with fairness as claimed by the theorist. The reason why the viewer needs to consider truth as ethically different lies behind societies’ understanding of ethics and morality, which structures its aspect by the geography they live in, the culture they belong to and the religion they believe in. All of such factors play an essential role in what determines ethics or justice and what considers to be fairness.

Firstly, if Rawls’ justice and utilitarianism is ethically or relatively taken into consideration, it loses its universal validity since the philosopher believed that justice and utilitarian attributes are similar principles. The expression of such claim as the following; “[…] I aim to work out a theory of justice that represents an alternative to utilitarian thought generally and so to all of these different versions of it” (Rawls, 1971, 20) makes it apparently clear that the concept of justice creates the impression of moral and ethical responsibility for the author. However, the concept of justice is a social construction and its acceptability as a universal value whether ethically or morally results in conflicts.

Secondly, as in the philosophy of utilitarianism, for which happiness, pleasure, and suffering are considered as the fundamental values of human beings, it mistakenly refers such approaches to the concept of justice, since justice from time to time causes unhappiness and suffering. As long as the image of fairness is not justified using these two terms in a similar symbolization leads to confusion.

Thirdly, an in-depth look at the concept of fairness explains that such a word from time to time is opposed to the view of justice. For instance fairness is seen as the quality of treating people equally or in a way that is reasonable. (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, 2019). Fairness thus requires being more moral and humanistic. With this in mind, it inserts itself as an essential feature of humanism, whereas justice is frequently excludes from humanism. Moreover, the elimination of inequality forms a particular concept of fairness. While fairness and equality commonly refer to each other, justice and equality are two critical concepts that frequently diverge from one another. By contrast, decreasing or increasing the happiness of a human being constitutes a significant part of justice.

What is more, in  A Theory of Justice the writer starts with a contentious phrase. He puts it, “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought” (Rawls, 1971, 3). To put in another way, the first principle of social institutions is justice, since truth is the primary aim of logic. To clarify this statement, one ought to consider the function of a social institution and why they should be fair, and whether truth is the critical basis of logical thought. Starting from social institutions, the definition, which has not been accurately given by the philosopher, leads to obscurity. To describe the phrase, contemporary sociologists and political scientists consider it to refer to complex social forms that manifest themselves as family, government, universities, hospitals, and schools. For instance according to Samuel P. Huntington social institutions are stable valued recurring patterns of behavior. ( Huntington, 1968, p.9) As long as social institutions are considered as such, the concept of justice within such associations becomes indefinite. In schools, it would be more acceptable to see the truth in such an organization determined by merit, not fairness. To be fair in such an institution means to provide equal opportunity for each student, which is psychologically and pragmatically a mistake. To apply fairness in such institutions, in fact, is paving a way to injustice. Forcing a child whose grammar is poor to participate in the same grammar class as other students may be an example of fairness and equality, but it results in debate about justice. To give another illustration, justice in places of worship from time to time leads to wrong or illogical criteria. Therefore, the necessary point to state is how the meaning of justice as understood by such a cooperation before the concept of fair is given to the social institutions. Consequently, not every institution necessarily considers its first virtue as justice and rationality as emphasized by Rawls.

The Impossibility of The Veil of Ignorance and Justice as Social Contract

Notably, the veil of ignorance, or in other words, an original position as the most crucial term used by the essayist in the concept of justice, attracts attention. In briefly defining the veil of ignorance one may say that it is an imaginative tool for considering what is just and unjust. According to this theory, in the case of a society, skin color, religion, ethnicity, and social status of individuals are insignificant.

As all these things are considered, the psychological possibility of such a theory leaves doubts. To be not aware of the features of individuals such as skin color or religious belief makes justice vague. Importantly, justice rests on the concept of equality, which brings attention and caution. Although one may emphasize the balance or equal treatment as a criterion of a veil of ignorance, the core understanding of such concepts differ. To illustrate, it may be fair, not just, to consider a disabled person healthy. In contrast to Rawls, the veil of ignorance is, in fact, guiding injustice while adequate knowledge of members of the society helps justice to be fair.

With this in mind, in the work of Rawls, he distinguishes justice as that “which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant” (Rawls, 1971 10). According to Rawls, justice is examined in terms of a social agreement. The social agreement is the consensus that a person’s moral or political obligations are determined by a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live (Friend, 2019). As this definition shows, the political, social, moral, and cultural values of a member of a society lie on the basic principles of the social contract. In other words, the veil of ignorance, on the contrary, should be aware of the characteristics of the society that form as a result of justice, and which shares the central principle of a social contract.

Meritocracy as a Principle of Justice

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term of meritocracy as a government or the holding of power by people selected according to merit. (The Oxford Dictionary, 2019) As a political philosophy, meritocracy holds that certain things such as power and economic goods should be invested in individuals who are specialized in such positions. One of the primary characteristics of meritocracy is its hierarchy which is achieved by one’s effort. The term does not require any gender, race or religion of a person to attain a particular position but instead, it considers the talent, knowledge, initiatives, and achievements of an individual. By understanding such an interpretation, it is possible to claim that meritocracy is individualistic rather than communal. In this respect, meritocracy as an individualistic system does not hold any useful view which is communal, but both meritocracy and justice share similar characteristics, such as that both are consequentialist. So, the reason that the concept of justice is much more suitable to meritocracy are its common characteristics of being consequentialist and individualistic.

Sociologist Michael Young coined the concept of meritocracy in his essay named, The Rise of Meritocracy, first published in 1958. In his fictional fable, Young describes how the British class system would transform from an aristocracy into a meritocracy between 1945 and 2034. Such a transformation was the result of the expansion of higher education and the application of strictly scientific principles to the admission of students to schools,  to the selection of personnel in firms, officials in the civil services, and leaders in politics and business. “Merit defined as IQ+effort determined social status, instead of birth, inheritance, or nepotism” (Bovens and Anchrit, 2017, 4). Owing to its connection with education, meritocracy became an interesting topic for many. Meritocracy is an important starting point for education. While professional societies may be more just, the status of individuals can help the concept of justice to be appreciated.

Moreover, one of the similar characteristics of meritocracy and justice is that they both have universal values. Since utilitarianism emphasizes pleasure and happiness, it is mistaken to claim for these features to be universal. Happiness and pleasure change across different societies; therefore, the philosophy of utilitarianism commonly causes injustice.

Another issue at stake is the relation of inequality to justice, fairness, and meritocracy. Inequality is not only caused by real sources but also, and most commonly, psychological, educational and mental deficiencies of individuals. Therefore, Rawls’ solution for inequality depends not on its fair distribution of sources, but the talent and achievements of the person.

In other words, Rawls’ principles of justice were founded on “equitable treatment” of social cooperation. To put it differently, the idea of equality in every aspect of social institutions is an essential element for Rawls. Here is precisely the point where the meritocratic thought is interrupted with Rawls. While Rawls wants institutional and social equality, meritocracy claims that such equality is achieved through talent.

Social and mental characteristics vary according to an individual’s status. Fairness also fairly obviously promotes equality. It is, in fact, a moral appraiser for Rawls. In other words, Rawls believes it to be a necessary characteristic of the human nature. If, as Rawls argues, social institutions should be equal to all, there should be no difference between a well-educated person and a poorly educated man. While such an institution can be fair, it cannot be said to be a just act.

By merit one means what people should obtain based on their achievements. In doing so, it is necessary to refuse the veil of ignorance. It is not the case, as Rawls says, that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, or that they cannot comprehend their fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like, but rather the public should know his/her place in society. As a matter of fact, by identifying each person’s place in society, we understand justice as merit. For this reason, when one speaks about the truth, one means who deserves what and how.

As a conclusion, while the concept of justice is defined, it is necessary to know who lives in society. To provide equal treatment for all does not frankly refer to justice as fairness. Justice as merit emphasizes how to treat and to be treated according to his/her health, human statue, and intelligence. To know which person is a specialist in a profession, a decision is to be applied to that person is also useful in the fulfillment of justice. It should be kept in mind that equal opportunities may attribute fairness while it fails to embrace the truth.

Mehmet Sadik Bektas is a PhD candidate of social and political philosophy at the Opole University in Institute of Philosophy in Poland. He is currently writing his dissertation on language identity in social and political philosophy.


Mill, John. (2002). Utilitarianism. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; Second Edition, two editions.

Troyer, John. (2003) The Classical Utilitarians. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; 1st edition.

Rawls, John. (1999) A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; 2 editions.

Bovens, Mark. & Wille, Anchrit. (2017) Diploma Democracy. Oxford University Press.

Young, Michael. (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033. Penguin Books Press.

Friend, Cleste. (2004) Social Contract Theory.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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