The Limits of Background Justice

SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY AND POLICY 30.1-2 (2013): 352-372

Abstract: The argument from background justice is that conformity to Lockean principles of justice in agreements and transactions does not preclude the development of inequalities that undermine the freedom and fairness of those very transactions, and that, therefore, special principles are needed to regulate society’s “basic structure.” Rawls offers this argument as his “first kind of reason” for taking the basic structure to be the primary subject of justice. Here I explore the background justice argument and its implications for questions about the scope of distributive justice. As it turns out, the background justice argument can offer no independent support for conclusions about the scope of distributive justice. For the special principles that it justifies inherit their scope from conclusions that must be established or assumed in advance. These prior conclusions are precisely what is at issue in debates about global justice.