John Rawls' Theory of Justice Summary (2022)

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A Theory of Justice (1971), by John Rawls, is ”one of the most influential works in moral and political philosophy written in the twentieth century,” according to Samuel Freeman in the Collected Papers of John Rawls (1999). A Theory of Justice is Rawls’s attempt to formulate a philosophy of justice and a theoretical program for establishing political structures designed to preserve social justice and individual liberty. Rawls writes in reaction to the then predominant theory of utilitarianism, which posits that justice is defined by that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Rawls proposes a theoretical person who, shrouded in a veil of ignorance, must design a just society without foreknowledge of his or her own status in that society. Rawls asserts that from this objective vantage point, which he calls the original position, the individual will choose a system of justice that adequately provides for those positioned on the lowest rungs of society. The individual will do so because he or she may end up in such a disadvantaged position and will want to be adequately provided for. Rawls draws from earlier theories of political philosophy that posit a social contract by which individuals implicitly agree to the terms on which they are governed in any society. Rawls concludes that such a social contract, formulated from the perspective of the original position, will guarantee a just society without sacrificing the happiness or liberty of any one individual.

Rawls addresses issues of liberty, social equality, democracy, and the conflict of interests between the individual and society.

A Theory of Justice Summary: Justice as Fairness

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls begins with the statement that, ”Justice is the first virtue of social institution,” meaning that a good society is one structured according to principals of justice. Rawls asserts that existing theories of justice, developed in the field of philosophy, are not adequate: ”My guiding aim is to work out A Theory of Justice that is a viable alternative to these doctrines which have long dominated our philosophical tradition.” He calls his theory-aimed at formulating a conception of the basic structure of society in accordance with social justice-justice as fairness.

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Rawls sets forth to determine the essential principles of justice on which a good society may be based. He explains the importance of principles of justice for two key purposes: first, to ”provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society”; and secondly, to ”define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens” of society. He observes that, by his definition, well-ordered societies are rare due to the fact that ”what is just and unjust is usually in dispute.” He further notes that a well-ordered and perfectly just society must be formulated in a way that addresses the problems of ”efficiency, coordination, and stability.”

Critique of Utilitarianism

A brief synopsis from Wikipedia:

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality. Central to this effort is an account of the circumstances of justice (inspired by David Hume), and a fair choice situation (closer in spirit to Immanuel Kant) for parties facing such circumstances. Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. These parties face moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic: they have ends which they seek to advance, but desire to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms. Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation (the original position with its veil of ignorance) within which parties would hypothetically choose mutually acceptable principles of justice. Under such constraints, Rawls believes that parties would find his favored principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over varied alternatives, including utilitarian and libertarian accounts.

In 1974, Rawls’ colleague at Harvard, Robert Nozick, published a defense of libertarian justice, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.[3] Because it is, in part, a reaction to A Theory of Justice, the two books are now often read together. Another Harvard colleague, Michael Walzer, wrote a defence of communitarian political philosophy, Spheres of Justice,[4] as a result of a seminar he co-taught with Nozick. In a related line of criticism, Michael Sandel (also a Harvard colleague) wrote Liberalism and the Limits of Justice,[5] which took Rawls to task for asking us to think about justice while divorcing ourselves from the very values and aspirations that define us. Sandel’s line of argument in part draws on critiques of Rawls advanced by both Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre who argue for the importance that moral ontologies have on ethical arguments.[6]

Robert Paul Wolff wrote Understanding Rawls: A Critique and Reconstruction of A Theory of Justice[7] immediately following the publication of A Theory of Justice, which criticized Rawls from a roughly Marxist perspective. Wolff argues in this work that Rawls’ theory is an apology for the status quo insofar as it constructs justice from existing practice and forecloses the possibility that there may be problems of injustice embedded in capitalist social relations, private property or the market economy.

Feminist critics of Rawls, such as Susan Moller Okin,[8] largely focused on the extent to which Rawls’ theory could account for (if at all) injustices and hierarchies embedded in familial relations. Rawls argued that justice ought only to apply to the “basic structure of society”. Feminists, rallying around the theme of ‘the personal is political’, took Rawls to task for failing to account for injustices found in patriarchal social relations and the gendered division of labor, especially in the household.

The assumptions of the original position, and in particular, the use of maximin reasoning, have also been criticized (most notably by Kenneth Arrow[9] and John Harsanyi),[10] with the implication either that Rawls designed the original position to derive the two principles, or that an original position more faithful to its initial purpose would not lead to his favored principles. In reply Rawls has emphasized the role of the original position as a “device of representation” for making sense of the idea of a fair choice situation for free and equal citizens.[11] Rawls has also emphasized the relatively modest role that maximin plays in his argument: it is “a useful heuristic rule of thumb” given the curious features of choice behind the veil of ignorance.[12]

Some egalitarian critics have raised concerns over Rawls’ emphasis on primary social goods. For instance, Amartya Sen has argued that we should attend not only to the distribution of primary goods, but also how effectively people are able to use those goods to pursue their ends.[13] In a related vein, Norman Daniels has wondered why healthcare shouldn’t be treated as a primary good,[14] and some of his subsequent work has addressed this question, arguing for a right to health care within a broadly Rawlsian framework.[15]

Philosopher Allan Bloom, a student of Leo Strauss, criticized Rawls for failing to account for the existence of natural right in his theory of justice, and wrote that Rawls absolutizes social union as the ultimate goal which would conventionalize everything into artifice.[16]

Recent criticisms of Rawls’ theory have come from the philosopher G.A. Cohen. Cohen’s series of influential papers culminated first in his book, If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?[17] and then in his later work, Rescuing Justice and Equality. Cohen’s criticisms are leveled against Rawls’ avowal of inequality under the difference principle, against his application of the principle only to social institutions, and against Rawlsian fetishism with primary goods (again, the metric which Rawls chooses as his currency of equality).

(Video) Introduction to Rawls: A Theory of Justice

Philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, a former student of Rawls’, critiques and attempts to revitalize A Theory of Justice in his 2009 book The Idea of Justice. He defends the basic notion of justice as fairness but attacks the notion that the two principles of justice emerging from the Original position are necessary. Sen claims that there are multiple possible outcomes of the reflective equilibrium behind the veil of ignorance.

A Theory of Justice (1971), by John Rawls, is ”one of the most influential works in moral and political philosophy written in the twentieth century,” according to Samuel Freeman in the Collected Papers of John Rawls (1999).

A Theory of Justice is Rawls’s attempt to formulate a philosophy of justice and a theoretical program for establishing political structures designed to preserve social justice and individual liberty. Rawls writes in reaction to the then predominant theory of utilitarianism, which posits that justice is defined by that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Rawls proposes a theoretical person who, shrouded in a veil of ignorance, must design a just society without foreknowledge of his or her own status in that society. Rawls asserts that from this objective vantage point, which he calls the original position, the individual will choose a system of justice that adequately provides for those positioned on the lowest rungs of society. The individual will do so because he or she may end up in such a disadvantaged position and will want to be adequately provided for. Rawls draws from earlier theories of political philosophy that posit a social contract by which individuals implicitly agree to the terms on which they are governed in any society. Rawls concludes that such a social contract, formulated from the perspective of the original position, will guarantee a just society without sacrificing the happiness or liberty of any one individual.

Rawls addresses issues of liberty, social equality, democracy, and the conflict of interests between the individual and society.

A Theory of Justice Summary

Justice as Fairness

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls begins with the statement that, ”Justice is the first virtue of social institution,” meaning that a good society is one structured according to principals of justice. Rawls asserts that existing theories of justice, developed in the field of philosophy, are not adequate: ”My guiding aim is to work out A Theory of Justice that is a viable alternative to these doctrines which have long dominated our philosophical tradition.” He calls his theory-aimed at formulating a conception of the basic structure of society in accordance with social justice-justice as fairness.

Rawls sets forth to determine the essential principles of justice on which a good society may be based. He explains the importance of principles of justice for two key purposes: first, to ”provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society”; and secondly, to ”define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens” of society. He observes that, by his definition, well-ordered societies are rare due to the fact that ”what is just and unjust is usually in dispute.” He further notes that a well-ordered and perfectly just society must be formulated in a way that addresses the problems of ”efficiency, coordination, and stability.”

Critique of Utilitarianism

Throughout the twentieth century, the dominant philosophical theory of justice in Western philosophy was utilitarianism. Utilitarianism was first developed in the nineteenth century by ”the great utilitarians,” whom Rawls lists as David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism essentially posits that a just society is one based on achieving the greatest good, or happiness, for the greatest number of people. However, many theorists have found this principle ultimately unsatisfactory because it implies that the… » Complete A Theory of Justice Summary

I fondly recall arguing about Rawls’ theories in John Singer’s Values and Institutions class at Colgate, so it was interesting to finally try reading it. It turns out, the revolution that Rawls created was based on a simple but totally specious change in the assumptions about human nature, and upon this rotten foundation he built up a shaky edifice to justify Liberal yearnings. The book is reminiscent of a treatise by a Medieval scientist, working out the elaborate orbital patterns that planets would require if the Universe actually were geocentric.

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(Video) POLITICAL THEORY - John Rawls

In order to accomplish his revolution, Rawls posited a counterintuitive and antihistorical starting point for the discussion of political theory. The great political philosophers, Hobbes, Locke, etc., had used the “state of nature” as the starting point for their theories. In this state of nature, men were assumed to be completely self-centered and dedicated only to their own interests, with the result that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and only the strongest survived. But gradually men tired of this blood sport and entered into a social contract wherein they surrendered some personal sovereignty to a central governing entity, which, in whatever form, would enforce a set of impartial laws in order to protect men from one another. This is a pretty minimalist position, the social contract and the government that it creates serve only to provide a certain level of physical security, leaving men free to pursue their own fortunes and taking no interest in the degree to which they succeed. But it conforms with our intuitive understanding of human nature, our observations of our fellow man and, most importantly, it has proven a workable basis for understanding politics for some 300 years.

The essential change that Rawls made was to replace the State of Nature with his “Original Position”, wherein, when it came time for primordial man to enter into a social contract, because he would be ignorant of his own capacities (the “veil of ignorance”), he would pursue a low risk strategy and choose a social contract based on egalitarianism; he would seek the most equal distribution of wealth and power possible, just in case it turned out that he was the least fit of the species.

If Rawls is right, if men acted on the assumption that they would be one of the ones left behind once the race of life begins, then the rest of his theory might be worth examining. But, of course, this assumption runs counter to everything we understand about ourselves and our fellow human beings. It is a fuzzy headed liberal’s view of the appropriate strategy for life’s losers–make political decisions on the basis of the likelihood that you are a loser and need help. But look around a casino or a Lottery Ticket line and you will see that the losers think that they too are winners. Look at polls about taxation levels and you find that the lower class does not want the upper class taxed too heavily, because they assume that they, or their children, are headed for that bracket eventually. It turns out that people act very much as the great philosophers expected them to; they act out of naked self interest and the belief that they are capable and deserve whatever they can achieve. The justice that men seek is in fact little more than an impartial application of a set of laws that are fair to all, not an equal distribution of goods and power, which would necessarily impinge on the freedom of all.

Rawls’ great error is to try to base his theory on a generalized yearning for “happiness”. Rawls was seeking a positive definition of Man’s aspiration in the “original position”, but the inevitable result, because we will all define happiness differently, is to create a foundational quagmire for his theories. After all, you may define happiness as having a lot of stuff, but I may define it as spiritual enlightenment. The classic understanding, basing the social contract on the avoidance of death, is obviously universal, we are all agreed that our own deaths are to be avoided, and, therefore, more sound. .

Finding the basic supposition that props up Rawls’ whole theory to be fundamentally incorrect, it behooves us little to examine the superstructure he seeks to construct upon this error. Suffice it to say, no system of government has ever achieved a more equal distribution of wealth and power than has the American Constitutional Republic and it is based on the classic understanding of human nature found in Hobbes and Locke. ‘Nuff said.

(Reviewed:)

John Rawls is perhaps the most significant intellectual in philosophical ethics to have written in the past hundred years. It is nearly impossible to address ethics in contemporary philosophy without saying something about John Rawls. Central to his theory of justice are the concepts of fairness and equality from behind what he terms a “veil of ignorance”.

(Video) John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (See link below for more video lectures in Ethics)

Rawls’s veil of ignorance is a component of the way people can construct society. He refers to an “original position” in which a person is attempting to determine a fair arrangement for society without any preconceived notions or prejudices.

In this original position, people are behind what Rawls calls a “Veil of Ignorance” and do not know where they will fall in the social hierarchy in terms of race, class, sex, disability, and other relevant factors. Rawls is a Kantian liberal in that he believes that principles of justice should be universalizable, and so the only way to ensure that people will select fair principles of justice is to be certain that they do not know how the principles they select might affect them as individuals. A person behind the “veil of ignorance” does not know which side of a social contract he or she will be on, does not know his or her race, class, sex, or status in society. A person who does not know what privileges he or she will be born with (or without ) is, in Rawls’ view, more likely to construct a society that does not arbitrarily assign privilege based on characteristics that should have no bearing on what people get. Rawls believes that a society cannot be just without fairness and equality and believes this veil of ignorance both reveals the biases of

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to make a rational study of social ethics by using reason to determine what a just society should look like and how a rational group of people would organize themselves. One majortopic of interest that Rawls presents is the veil of ignorance concept and its role in the creation of original position. Two further concepts of importance to the theory of a just society are the difference principle and the concept of individual liberty in society. Together, these three concepts provide a basis for the discussion and critique of Rawls’ theory and its implications for the pursuance of justice. Current society and can help to prevent biases in establishing future social arrangements.

Rawls’ method to justice as a theory proposes that principles of justice can be determined through the rational thinking of individuals shrouded by a veil of ignorance. In a purely hypothetical situation, the veil of ignorance creates an original position of equality in which persons under the veil have no knowledge of status, position in society, personal wealth or natural abilities. From behind the veil of ignorance, a rational, objective and disinterested group of people would choose a system of justice that ensures an equal distribution of rights and duties.

The term ‘reflective equilibrium’ was coined by John Rawls and popularized in his celebrated A Theory of Justice as a method for arriving at the content of the principles of justice.

Abstract

John Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” (1971) is the single most important philosophical work of the Left since Marx. Rawls’ A Theory of Justice can be understood as two theories addressing two different subjects. The split can also be seen textually. The first half of the book deals almost exclusively with the hypothetical theory of justice founded in the original position. The second half of the book addresses how actual institutions should operate given the findings of the initial theory. There are many instances, such as Rawls’ distinction between fair and formal equal opportunity, where Rawls claims that the purely speculative arguments of his theory can justify his claims concerning actual situations. However, as Sher argues, it is not necessarily the case that Rawls can make the connection. Rawls’ hypothetical theory can operate on its own. Rawls’ theory of just institutions is a stronger argument if he does not try and connect the two theories. The problem of desert is one example of how Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness should be read as two theories.

Rawls offers a theory of a just and well-ordered society which would distribute wealth, income, liberties, opportunities and positions of authority. He considers “justice as fairness” as a political -moral conception of justice. The principles of justice are two according to Ralws and these would justify a given body of social, moral and political ideas since they are congruent to our ferments convictions.

Utilitarianism was first developed in the nineteenth century by ”the great utilitarians”. Utilitarianism essentially posits that a just society is one based on achieving the greatest good, or happiness, for the greatest number of people. However, Rawls rejects Utilitarianism, for it fails to take into consideration, the distinction that exists between individuals. Since it aims at the greatest happiness and tries to maximize greatest welfare, it fails to secure individual rights. Rawls relies on the social contract tradition in its Kantian form to account for principles that would guide individuals’ noumenal selves, secure equal basic liberties to all and account for social values and community.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls begins with the statement that, ”Justice is the first virtue of social institution,” meaning that a good society is one structured according to principals of justice. . Rawls asserts that existing theories of justice, developed in the field of philosophy, are not adequate: ”My guiding aim is to work out A Theory of Justice that is a viable alternative to these doctrines which have long dominated our philosophical tradition.” He calls his theory-aimed at formulating a conception of the basic structure of society in accordance with social justice-justice as fairness. He claims that justice as fairness provides a practical political procedure, which satisfies the demand of modern democracies societies. Pluralism entailed by industrial societies is presumed to be the permanent features of modern democracies, which challenges the priority of philosophy over democracy.

However, Rawls’ theory has received large scale attention by some well-known Academicians. Some of them have disagreed and challenged its basic assumptions. These critical appraisals, but, indicate the importance of his work if one wants to deliberate on problems of contemporary social and political theory. In this thesis will try to excavate the philosophical understanding of the Rawlsian theory of justice and also try to identify the philosophical shift in his position under the light of some of major critiques.

(Video) What is John Rawls' Justice As Fairness? brief summary crash course for you to be smart

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FAQs

What is the main idea of Rawls theory of justice? ›

John Rawls (b. 1921, d. 2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. His theory of justice as fairness describes a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system.

What are Rawls two principles of justice? ›

Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are two principles of justice: The first guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good.

What is John Rawls concept of justice called? ›

Rawls's theory of "justice as fairness" recommends equal basic liberties, equality of opportunity, and facilitating the maximum benefit to the least advantaged members of society in any case where inequalities may occur.

What are Rawls 3 principles of justice? ›

Rawls orders the principles of justice lexically, as follows: 1, 2b, 2a. The greatest equal liberty principle takes priority, followed by the equal opportunity principle and finally the difference principle. The first principle must be satisfied before 2b, and 2b must be satisfied before 2a.

What is an example of Rawls theory of justice? ›

So, for example, Bill Gates can earn whatever money he wants but only on the condition that a part of his income would, in the form of taxes, benefit those who lack the skills that he is blessed with. Rawls further says that those in a better position can never think that they deserve what they have.

What is the main idea of Rawls theory of justice quizlet? ›

By "justice as fairness," Rawls means: the ideas and principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair. According to Rawls, rights are endowed to every human being, regardless of whether or not her or his society supplies them. Rawls believes in the existence of natural rights.

What are the main principle of justice? ›

The most fundamental principle of justice—one that has been widely accepted since it was first defined by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago—is the principle that "equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally." In its contemporary form, this principle is sometimes expressed as follows: "Individuals ...

What is the purpose of Rawls veil of ignorance? ›

The “veil of ignorance” is a moral reasoning device designed to promote impartial decision making by denying decision makers access to potentially biasing information about who will benefit most or least from the available options.

What are the key concepts of John Rawls ethical theory? ›

Rawls argued that all human beings arrive at moral decisions from a process that he referred to as "reflective equilibrium." What Rawls means is that human beings often have principles that seem absolutist but when they are put in contradiction human beings look for a way to reconcile these principles.

How does Rawls justify inequality? ›

Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. (Rawls 1993, pp.

What is the Rawlsian approach? ›

Rawlsian Approaches. The general idea of the present paper is to trace people's opinions on how they would distribute responsibilities in a certain case and to see whether these cohere with the more general moral principles and background theories people endorse.

What is an example of the veil of ignorance? ›

So, for example, the veil of ignorance would lead people to refuse slavery, because even though slavery is very convenient for slave-owners, for slaves, not so much, and since behind the veil of ignorance one would not know whether they would be a slave or a slave-owner, they would refuse slavery.

Why is John Rawls theory of justice better than utilitarianism? ›

The most obvious difference between the two theories seems to be that while utilitarianism justifies principles by asking what is best for the greatest number of people, Rawls's theory does so by asking what a rational citizen would want for him or herself.

What defines a good society according to Rawls? ›

John Rawls's theory of justice is a sound theory which says that a well-ordered society needed a concept of justice as a basic requirement and that such a concept could be developed by rational individuals behind a 'veil of ignorance' about their own position, and that it would involve, primarily, equal right to basic ...

What is the first principle Rawls believes we would select behind the veil of ignorance? ›

For Rawls, what is the consequence of putting choosers in the Original Position behind a Veil of Ignorance? They would all choose the distributive principle which would maximise the prospects of the least well-off.

What is the background of the Rawls theory of justice as fairness? ›

"Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical" is an essay by John Rawls, published in 1985. In it he describes his conception of justice. It comprises two main principles of liberty and equality; the second is subdivided into Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle.

What is justice in simple words? ›

1 : fair treatment Everyone deserves justice. 2 : judge entry 2 sense 1. 3 : the process or result of using laws to fairly judge people accused of crimes. 4 : the quality of being fair or just They were treated with justice.

What are the 4 types of justice? ›

This article points out that there are four different types of justice: distributive (determining who gets what), procedural (determining how fairly people are treated), retributive (based on punishment for wrong-doing) and restorative (which tries to restore relationships to "rightness.") All four of these are ...

What are the 5 principles of justice? ›

The Five Principles of Social Justice
  • Access. Access to resources is a fundamental principle of social justice. ...
  • Equity. It's easy to confuse the terms 'equity' and 'equality,' but those things which are equitable are not always equal. ...
  • Diversity. ...
  • Participation. ...
  • Human Rights.
30 Jul 2020

How can veil of ignorance treat the unfairness in a society? ›

The Veil of Ignorance is a way of working out the basic institutions and structures of a just society . According to Rawls,, working out what justice requires demands that we think as if we are building society from the ground up, in a way that everyone who is reasonable can accept.

Who has given the concept of veil of ignorance? ›

Rawls believed that people behind the veil would be drawn to the principles of individual freedom and equality of opportunity. One would then not be penalised by society due to an accident of birth or circumstance.

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