Justice Theory

John Rawls’s Justice Theory, first introduced in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), presents a moral and political framework focused on equitable distribution of social benefits and burdens (Rawls, 1971). Central to Rawls's theory are the notions of "moral ", "free", and "equal" members in a society, who are rational and possess a sense of justice, forming the ideal constituents of a fair society (Freeman, 2019; Rawls, 2001). His conceptualization of the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance" offers a unique perspective on fairness, influencing various fields, including advertising.

Rawls's theory is anchored in the concept of the "original position", a hypothetical scenario where individuals, shrouded in a "veil of ignorance" regarding their social status, decide on principles of justice. This "veil" ensures that decisions are unbiased and equitable, free from the distortion of existing societal hierarchies (Freeman, 2019; Rawls, 1971). More precisely, it means that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances. Under the hypothetical "original position", Rawls formulated two principles:

  • First principle: Principle of Equal Liberty
  • Second principle: Principle of Fair Equality & Difference Principle

The first principle ensures equal basic liberties for all, while the second, known as the Difference Principle, allows social and economic inequalities only if they benefit the least advantaged members of society. Inequalities, in this view, should be structured to improve the conditions of the most disadvantaged, thus fostering a society based on fairness and equality (Rawls, 1971; Sandel, 2009).

We can use Rawls' theoretical perspective of justice to evaluate the fairness and ethics of advertising. Here are three examples to help you understand.

The first is to assess the marketing to children. Children lack the necessary cognitive and developmental abilities to decipher the persuasive intent behind marketing promotions and also lack the required defenses to resist the onslaught of marketers, making them uniquely vulnerable (Oates et al., 2002). In a Rawlsian perspective, marketing strategies that exploit children's vulnerabilities or promote materialistic ideals violate Rawls's principle of favoring the least advantaged. Children, in this context, are seen as the least advantaged, warranting protection from manipulative marketing practices, thus it suggests implementing stricter advertising regulations that prevent the exploitation of children’s vulnerabilities (Reddy et al., 2020; Rawls, 2001).

The second is to assess the ethical implications of using psychometrics in commercial advertising. Morten Bay (2018) applies Rawls' theory to the realm of social media, he emphasizes the significance of transparent user consent in psychometric data utilization, aligning with Rawls' views on justice and fairness. While micro-targeted advertising based on detailed user profiles is permissible, it must not exploit or unfairly manipulate users. This application of Rawlsian theory underscores the balance between ethical responsibility and commercial interests in digital advertising, stressing the need for user autonomy and informed consent in the era of social media.

The third is to assess the ethical implications of data mining in marketing. Robinson (2015) emphasizes the importance of anonymity as a component of privacy in marketing practices. He argues that consumers' autonomy is impacted by data mining, and hence, their anonymity should be respected. This is especially crucial for society's least advantaged members, who do not have Internet access or proper media literacy and therefore lack the resources to protect their online privacy. As we can see, while data mining provides significant commercial benefits, it raises ethical concerns about consumer privacy and the potential for social sorting and discrimination. The application of Rawlsian ethics in this context highlights the need for a balanced approach in marketing practices, where consumer rights and societal well-being are given due consideration alongside commercial objectives (Robinson, 2015).

However, Rawls's theory, while influential, is not without its critiques. Some argue that the theory's emphasis on distributive justice overlooks the complexity of human relationships and the need for a more comprehensive approach to social justice (Freeman, 2019). Moreover, in the context of advertising and marketing, the application of Rawlsian principles might be challenging due to the inherently persuasive and commercial nature of these fields.

In conclusion, John Rawls's Justice Theory provides a powerful framework for analyzing ethical considerations in marketing and advertising. By advocating for fairness and the protection of the least advantaged, Rawls's principles encourage a more ethical and socially responsible approach to advertising practices. However, the application of these principles in complex real-world scenarios requires careful consideration and a balance between ideal justice and practical constraints.


Bay, M. (2018). Social media ethics: A Rawlsian approach to hypertargeting and psychometrics in political and commercial campaigns. ACM Transactions on Social Computing, 1(4), 1-14.

Freeman, S. (2019). Original position. In Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/original-position/

Oates, C., Blades, M., & Gunter, B. (2002). Children and television advertising: When do they understand persuasive intent?. Journal of Consumer Behaviour: An International Research Review, 1(3), 238-245.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice (Revised Ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J. (2001). Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (E. Kelly, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reddy, T. R., Reddy, D. E. L., & Reddy, T. N. (2020). Ethics of marketing to children: A rawlsian perspective. Journal of Economics and Business, 3(4).

Robinson, S. C. (2015). The good, the bad, and the ugly: Applying Rawlsian ethics in data mining marketing. Journal of Media Ethics, 30(1), 19-30.

Sandel, M. J. (2009). Justice: What's the right thing to do?. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.