Rawls, John (1921–2002)

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John Rawls is widely regarded as one of the most significant political philosophers of the twentieth century. Educated at Princeton University, he taught at Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the faculty of Harvard University in 1962. Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971) revitalized political theory as an academic discipline and rejuvenated interest in the substantive social issues that had long been neglected by academic philosophers. Rawls continued to refine and defend his theory in a series of articles and lectures, the most important of which he revised and collected in his 1993 work Political Liberalism. In 1999 The Law of Peoples extended his theory to questions of international relations, and in the next two years, despite declining health, he published Lectures of the History of Moral Philosophy (2000) and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001).

Justice as Fairness

The primary objective of Rawls's political theory is to articulate and defend a conception of justice for a modern democratic regime. The theory begins with the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. The principles of justice for such a society characterize its fair terms of cooperation by specifying its citizens' basic rights and duties and by regulating the distribution of its economic benefits. To formulate his particular conception of justice, Rawls invokes the familiar theory of the social contract, according to which the legitimate rules for a society are arrived at by the autonomous agreement of its members. Rawls's version of the contract theory is distinctive, however, in its insistence on the essential fairness of the point of view from which the agreement itself is conceived. This enables Rawls to appeal to the justificatory force of pure procedural justice, the idea that the fundamental fairness of a procedure can ensure the justice of its outcome provided that there is no independent criterion for the justice of that result. Fairness thus characterizes both the terms of the contractual agreement and the conditions in which that agreement is made. Rawls appropriately names the resulting theory justice as fairness.

Rawls's contractarian or constructivist theory represents this fundamental ideal of fairness by situating the contracting parties in a hypothetical original position. The most important feature of this theoretical model is the veil of ignorance, which denies to the parties any knowledge of their actual natural endowments, their social position, or even their conception of what makes for a good life. As a consequence, the parties cannot determine how proposed principles would affect their interests personally. The veil of ignorance thereby reflects our conviction that it would be patently unreasonable to allow principles that favored any individuals or groups merely in virtue of their possession of morally arbitrary attributes such as their race or sex, or because they happened to affirm a particular religious or philosophical doctrine.

The Principles of Justice

Though deprived of knowledge of their particular ends, attachments, and aspirations, the parties in the original position are still rationally motivated to further their conception of the good, whatever it is. They also have higher-order interests in developing and exercising the two moral powers that they share as free and equal beings: (1) the capacity to understand and act from a sense of justice and (2) the capacity to form, revise, and rationally pursue a conception of the good. The parties will therefore seek for themselves the best possible package of primary goods, those all-purpose, socially regulable opportunities and resources needed to advance those interests. Rawls's enumeration of these primary goods includes basic rights and liberties, the powers and prerogatives of offices and positions, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect. Assuming that a society has reached a minimal level of economic development, Rawls argues that the following two principles for allocating the primary goods would be selected:

a. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.

b. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. (Rawls 1993, p. 291)

Since the first principle is given absolute priority over the second, Rawls argues that the basic liberties guaranteed by it, such as freedom of religion or the right to run for political office, cannot be sacrificed for any amount of personal or collective economic benefit. Such liberties can be limited only to protect the central range of application of other conflicting liberties, as when the right to a fair trial necessitates some restrictions on the freedom of the press. Specific rights are included in the protection of the first principle if agents in the original position would rationally require them. For example, freedom of religion would be insisted on by the parties, for they could not risk the possibility that their religion, should they have one, would be a minority faith subject to repression by a dogmatic majority.

The second principle deals with economic and social primary goods such as income and wealth. Its second condition, the so-called difference principle, stipulates that any departures from equality of resources can be justified only if the resulting inequality benefits the least advantaged members of society. Thus, positions that require the development of talents and the expenditure of extraordinary effort might deserve greater economic rewards, but only if the increased productivity generated by such a differential would improve the condition of the least well off. Rawls argues that this requirement would be the reasonable and rational choice of individuals who, because of the fairness conditions imposed in the original position, did not know their natural and social endowments and therefore could not determine their actual position in the social order.

The first part (of the second principle) stipulates that even the limited inequalities that would satisfy the difference principle are permissible only if the positions that give rise to them are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. This strong requirement goes beyond mere prohibition of discrimination based on arbitrary features such as gender or race. It demands that all individuals of like natural ability and similar motivation should have the same opportunities throughout their entire lives, a requirement that obviously necessitates equal access to education, health care, and other social resources.


A viable political theory, Rawls insists, must be practical. The well-ordered society that it mandates must be feasible and stable given realistic economic, cultural, and psychological assumptions. In A Theory of Justice Rawls argues that a society regulated by justice as fairness would be stable since the laws of moral psychology show that its members would tend to acquire and maintain a common comprehensive moral doctrine that would sustain it. In Political Liberalism, however, he admits that a liberal, nonauthoritarian regime would be characterized by a plurality of reasonable, though incompatible comprehensive religious and moral doctrines. Nonetheless, he believes that the requirement of stability can be met by justice as fairness if it is understood as a political theory. As such, it regulates only the basic structure of society: the background institutions that specify political and civil rights and that determine entitlements to other socially regulated goods. Members of a well-ordered society may therefore hold deeply conflicting comprehensive religious and moral views, yet still endorse a common political conception of justice as the focus of an overlapping consensus. Moreover, Rawls stresses that this consensus can be more than a mere modus vivendi, a practical compromise based on a tenuous balance of power. Rather, it can express a genuine moral commitment that reflects ideas and values implicit in the society's political culture, such as its conception of the citizen as a free and equal person and its willingness to rely on reasonable standards of public reason in the conduct of its political affairs.

The Law of Peoples

Rawls applies his principles of justice to individual, self-contained societies and not to humanity at large. He does not think, for example, that the difference principle should be applied globally. Rather, he argues for a law of peoples, a more limited set of obligations on just societies, first, to obey some traditional canons of international law (such as to wage war only in self-defense and to honor basic human rights) and, second, to aid peoples that lack sufficient resources to support just social institutions. These duties, he argues, would be agreed to in a second original position, populated now by representatives of just or "decent" peoples who are behind a veil of ignorance with respect to the particular societies that they represent.

Reflective Equilibrium

Rawls's methodology has been as influential and as controversial as his substantive views. Declining to ground his views on any deep metaphysical or other philosophical truths, Rawls maintains that political theory should formulate a coherent set of principles that accounts for the considered convictions that we actually hold. The process goes beyond mere summarization of particular considered judgments, however, for it also postulates theoretical models, mediating ideas, and principles at all levels of generality. All judgments and principles are held open to revision in light of other aspects of the theory, until no further changes are needed to develop a compelling and coherent view. The resulting theory is then said to be in reflective equilibrium. It is also objective, Rawls contends, because it would gain the assent of all reasonable individuals on due reflection.

See also Justice; Good, The; Liberty; Moral Psychology; Political Philosophy, History of; Political Philosophy, Nature of; Rights; Social and Political Philosophy; Social Contract.


works by rawls

A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. A somewhat revised 1975 version has been translated into several languages.

Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Contains revised versions of several important papers published between 1974 and 1993. The revised paperback edition of 1996 has an added preface.

The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Collected Papers, edited by Samuel Freeman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Edited by Barbara Herman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, edited by Erin Kelly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

works about rawls

Arneson, Richard J., et al. "Symposium on Rawlsian Theory of Justice: Recent Developments." Ethics 99 (4) (1989): 695710.

Barry, Brian. "The Liberal Theory of Justice: A Critical Examination of the Principal Doctrines." In A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Blocker, H. Gene, and Elizabeth Smith, eds. John Rawls' Theory of Social Justice: An Introduction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980.

Daniels, Norman, ed. Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls' Theory of Justice. New York: Basic Book, 1975.

Freeman, Samuel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rawls. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. An outstanding series of original articles and an exhaustive bibliography.

Kukathas, Chandran, and Philip Pettit. Rawls: A Theory of Justice and Its Critics. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity University Press, 1990.

Martin, Rex. Rawls and Rights. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Pogge, Thomas W. Realizing Rawls. Ithaca, NY: Cornel University Press, 1989.

Richardson, Henry, and Paul Weithman, eds. The Philosophy of Rawls: A Collection of Essays. 5 vols. New York: Garland, 1999.

Sandel, Michael J. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Wellbank, J. H., Denis Snook, and David T. Mason. John Rawls and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982.

Alan Fuchs (1996, 2005)

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Rawls, John (1921–2002)

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