Equal access and social justice: information as a primary good

Jeroen van den Hoven


The ideas of John Rawls on the principles of social justice have dominated normative political theory, moral philosophy and applied ethics since the publication of his monumental A Theory of Justice in 1971. His seminal work, and the literature to which it has given rise, has branched to cover virtually all issues relevant to design of a just and fair society with freedom and equal opportunities for all. It has been applied to health care, education, social security, tax law, and a still increasing number of other sectors.

However, an overwhelming majority of moral philosophers working along Rawlsian lines of inquiry seem to have missed the point that by designing artefacts, such as information systems and information infrastructures, technology is a force in shaping human possiblities or determining human destiny on an equal footing with educational programs and tax systems. It also seems to have escaped their attention that Information Technology has become a paramount feature of the objects of their studies in healthcare, education, science, business, government, and politics. Information Technology has become part and parcel of the tools which society uses to regulate and steer itself and its component parts.

The aim of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice was to lay down the principles of justice to guid the design of the basic instituitions of society. He arrived at the following principles:

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

The ‘inequalities’, and the least advantaged mentioned in the second principle are to be individuated in terms of so-called ‘primary goods’, or the basic things people require, ‘all purpose’ goods.

I will argue that information or access to data relevant to one’s legitimate purposes in life qualify as Rawlsian primary goods and that the principles of justice Rawls arrived at, apply to the distribution of access to information. Furthermore I will suggest two principles of justice for systems development, data-base design and reflection on the shape of information infra-structures.