The first section of the first chapter discusses the "role" of justice and opens with the striking remark comparing justice and truth as forms of virtue (forms presumably of "intellectual" virtue on Aristotle's conception). Truth is the "first virtue" of systems of thought according to Rawls and, by analogy, justice the "first virtue" of social institutions. This comparison is set up in terms of the claim about the priority of these "virtues" above all others since, as Rawls puts it, a theory even if elegant and economical has to be revised if untrue (here an implied account not merely of science but of philosophy appears to be given).
Similar to truth in this respect is justice in the sense that questions of efficiency and cohesion have to take second place to justice. This claim is supported by an assertion that, however, appears to arise from a larger, implicitly Kantian moral theory when Rawls writes: "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override". This point is clearly a kind of pre-emptive strike against utilitarianism, a theory considered in more detail in the fifth section of the first chapter. However, the nature of the strike is that it involves an assumption about the status of particular persons that implies something like Kant's formula of humanity being invoked for its justification, something that certainly is not given at this early a stage of A Theory of Justice. In support of the claim, however, Rawls does advance the consideration that the "inviolability" mentioned in this sentence is one that relates to the possession of freedom since it would be the loss of this that could not be compensated for by a greater good of others. This point is then emphasized further as it is suggested that in a just society "the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled". This point already seems to indicate one of the key principles of justice although Rawls has not, as yet, even advanced the key methodological principles that it is the main burden of these opening sections of chapter 1 to give. The point about the liberties of equal citizenship is introduced as an illustration of the claim concerning justice as the "first virtue" of social institutions as is clear when Rawls states that justice is "uncompromising" given its standing as such a first virtue but giving such an illustration in advance of the description of liberty as one of the principles of justice is certainly curious.
Having begun this first section of the first chapter in such a strong fashion Rawls next begins to draw back since the propositions just given are now indicated as expressing "our intuitive conviction" of the primacy of justice and confessed to express this conviction "too strongly" but what Rawls aims to do, he states, is to interpret and assess such claims by means of working out his theory of justice. In order to do this he next turns to the methodological consideration of principles of justice and their relationship to a unique "choice". The principles of justice are described as designed to deal with the conflict between the "cooperation" required for society to work on the one hand with the conflicts of interest that are evident also within societies. The latter leads to argument given that each prefers a distribution that would be personally most advantageous. The principles of social justice are thus the means by which rights and duties in "the basic institutions of society" can be assigned.
Having begun with a description of the point of principles of social justice Rawls next describes the nature of a "well ordered" society as consisting in having the design that it does due to the general wish to advance the good of its members according to a "public conception of justice". This first appeal to publicity is then specified given that the principles of justice are ones that "everyone accepts and knows that the others accept" so that the basic social institutions are held both to satisfy and to be known to satisfy these principles. Such a public sense of justice enables security to apply to social association, a point that ties together the notions of publicity and stability.
After introducing this notion of a "well ordered" society Rawls again moves back from it to an account of "existing" societies as being "seldom" well ordered since, within them, it is a matter of course that principles of justice are in dispute. In such societies thus there is not a generally agreed and accepted public conception of justice and, due to this, existing societies are unstable. In the disputes that split such societies there are present divergent conceptions of justice but Rawls immediately raises the critical question of what is held in common between the disputants suggesting that uncovering this enables the "concept of justice" to be distinguished from the "conceptions" of it. On doing so Rawls points to the general agreement that there should be no "arbitrary" distinctions made between persons when assigning rights and duties as well as the point that there should be a "proper balance" between competing claims to social advantages. If these points are generally agreed, however, between disputing conceptions of justice, it is the case that this agreement depends precisely on the point that the notions of arbitrariness and proper balance themselves require to be interpreted.
A final point is raised in this introductory section which concerns other prerequisites for viable societies which are "coordination, efficiency and stability" (although, as we have noted, the last named has already played a role in the account of publicity in "well ordered" societies). "Coordination" is involved in ensuring that activities of distinct parties are compatible with each other and efficiency is the way of ensuring that such compatibility is brought about in the best manner. Stability indicates the need for regularity in enforcement of rules and these factors are all connected to justice.
The second section of the first chapter concerns the "subject" rather than the "role" of justice. If the latter has enabled the point of fundamental principles to become clear, the former requires the site of justice to be specified. Rawls does this by distinguishing the point of his theory as to give an account of "social" justice which means an account of how major institutions distribute rights, duties and the division of advantages. Interestingly, included amongst these "major" institutions are not just political constitutions and the principal economic arrangements but also the social arrangements, down to such matters as the "monogamous family". The general name Rawls gives to this conglomerate of major institutions is the "basic structure" and he takes it to be the "primary subject" of justice.
The rationale given at this stage for the focus on the "basic structure" is only an intuitive one to the effect that the institutions of society favour certain starting places in life and thus give rise to deep inequalities though it is instantly noticeable that just as the justification of the claim about justice being the "first virtue" of social institutions led to an anticipation of one of the principles of justice so the account of the "basic structure" leads to an anticipation of the other principle of justice. The focus on the "basic structure" ensures that Rawls leaves aside considerations of justice in voluntary associations and it leads to the major methodological abstraction of considering a particular society in isolation from others, as thus a "closed system".
The second abstraction involved leads back to the earlier invocation of a "well-ordered" society since it is the principles that would regulate such a society that Rawls is principally concerned with. This ensures that A Theory of Justice is, in its fundamental principles, a form of strict compliance theory or ideal theory. Partial compliance theory or non-ideal theory is dealt with in the discussions of punishment, war, civil disobedience, resistance and revolution but these topics are not the centre of the theory that follows.
The conception of social justice as built upon the notion of the "basic structure" is "in the first instance a standard whereby the distributive aspects" of society are to be assessed. It is not a complete conception as questions of efficiency, for example, are not included within the orbit of the theory given despite the importance they have in social life.
The third section of the first chapter looks at the "main idea" of the theory of justice and this is that it is intended as a conception which generalizes and makes more abstract the notion of the social contract. The manner in which this is done is by means of the notion of justice as fairness. Justice as fairness involves the notion of all arriving at the principles of justice by means of a hypothetical situation of equal liberty. This original position of equality is meant to be analogous to the state of nature in the older theory of the social contract. However there is an interesting difference which is not the one Rawls stresses of the older theory appearing to refer to an actual occasion (since it is arguable that this was never intended). It is rather that the state of nature generally indicates constraints that are pictured in terms of coordination of action between persons leading to the need for sovereigns to emerge to resolve the problem. By contrast, Rawls' account is meant instead to arrive at constraints on reasoning that will show the need for two specific principles and the rejection of rival contenders. Whilst the older conceptions do aim at justifying conceptions, it could be argued that they do this indirectly by means of discussion of constraints on action whereas Rawls' procedure, by contrast could be said to discuss constraints on action indirectly by focusing instead on constraints on reasoning. (Though the example of Kant here would be much more complicated than this contrast might suggest.)
Included in the hypothetical situation Rawls envisages is the "veil of ignorance" concerning one's place within society and that it is not possible even to have a view of one's conception of justice in this situation. So the principles of justice are presented as the product of a "fair agreement" and this is what is meant by describing the "main idea" of Rawlsian contractarianism as "justice as fairness".
For given the circumstances of the original position, the symmetry of everyone's relations to each other, this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair.
Features of the situation envisaged include a view of the persons in it as rational and mutually disinterested with the latter meaning that persons are not taken to have any particular interest in the affairs of others. The rationality of the participants is also interpreted in a narrow sense that conforms with rational choice theory. However this ensures that no one has a reason to opt for any principles that will produce enduring loss for themselves and, given that they do not know where they are in the society, will thus have an incentive to adopt principles of the greatest generality.
Rawls' two principles are next mentioned for the first time though the account of this third section is not one that justifies them. The principles are the ones familiar from Rawls' earlier work of equality in assignment of basic rights and duties and that inequalities in social and economic senses are justified only if they are met with compensating benefits for all.
The fourth section of the first chapter concerns the original position and justification. Rawls here explicitly connects the theory of justice with the theory of rational choice and discusses the "choice problem". In describing this problem he agues from widely accepted but weak premises to specific conclusions. This includes the point that no one should be given advantage (or its reverse) by natural fortune and that principles should not be tailored to one's own case and this is taken to justify the need for the veil of ignorance. Rawls indicates again the point that this provides "constraints on arguments". A further such constraint is the assumption of equality between the parties in the original position, a moral assumption. Finally Rawls arrives at the notion of "reflective equilibrium" which involves a kind of zig-zag movement between the initial situation and considered convictions of justice, sometimes modifying one, sometimes the other.