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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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Let's do Justice to John Rawls' Theory of Justice

– Exploring principles of social justice, individual justice and ethical decision making

Paper prepared February 2007, accepted for presentation At AASW 2007 National Conference, but not presented.


In 1972 John Rawls formulated his theory of justice, defining the processes linking social and individual justice. Despite his work being a landmark, it is scarcely known or taught in social work. This is partly because it is fairly inaccessible reading, but more so because of the dominance of a Marxist discourse in social work. Rawls theory shows how conflict and consensus, and how both the rule of law and civil disobedience can coexist in society, and in doing so constructs some initial principles of justice. By linking these principles to practice principles in social work, a trial list of fourteen principles is constructed, linking social and individual justice. Rawls’ ideas on the process of ethical decision making are then explored, and it is found that his virtue based theory of ethical decision making closely parallels the value base of social work. The work of other social work theorists on ethical decision making is then blended with Rawls’ ideas to synthesise a new twelve step process for ethical decision making. The reality constraints of everyday practice are then examined, with a further six ethical principles defined to cater for the time-limited, real life practice constraints on ethical decision making.


As indicated, the above paper was accepted for presentation at the 2007 AASW National Conference, but was not presented due to other intervening obligations. The work done in drawing my thoughts together on the nexus between social and individual justice and the contribution of John Rawls was however not wasted. When the 2010 review of the AASW Code of Ethics began I communicated these thoughts to my colleagues on the Victorian Branch Ethics Group. John Rawls’ conception of the equal worth of all citizens as the foundational value of western democratic societies was readily also seen as the foundational value of social work and it formed a key aspect of the Victorian submission on the first draft of the new code. This submission, which relies heavily upon John Rawls’ Justice Theory, is reproduced as Paper One in the brief text ‘Reflective Value Based Ethics in Social Work. John Rawls’ contribution to justice theory and ethical decision making theory is also extensively reviewed in Chapter Five of my comprehensive text ‘An Integrated Theory of Practice in Social Work’.

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