John Rawls

John Rawls
John Rawls
Full name John Rawls
Born February 21, 1921(1921-02-21)
Baltimore, Maryland
Died November 24, 2002(2002-11-24) (aged 81)
Lexington, Massachusetts
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Analytic philosophy
Main interests Political philosophy
Liberalism · Justice · Politics · Social contract theory
Notable ideas Justice as Fairness
Original position
Reflective equilibrium
Overlapping consensus
Public reason
Liberal neutrality
Veil of ignorance

John Bordley Rawls (February 21, 1921 - November 24, 2002) was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University.

His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), was hailed at the time of its publication as "the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II,"[1] and is now regarded as "one of the primary texts in political philosophy."[2] His work in political philosophy, dubbed Rawlsianism,[3] takes as its starting point the argument that "most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position."[2] Rawls employs a number of thought experiments-including the famous veil of ignorance-to determine what constitutes a fair agreement in which "everyone is impartially situated as equals," in order to determine principles of social justice.[2] He is one of the major thinkers in the tradition of liberal political philosophy.[citation needed] English philosopher Jonathan Wolff argues that "while there might be a dispute about the second most important political philosopher of the 20th century, there could be no dispute about the most important: John Rawls. His student Samuel Freeman says that Rawls’s work will be recognized 'for centuries to come.'"[1]

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of how Rawls' work "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself."[4]



Early life

John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland to William Lee Rawls, "one of the most prominent attorneys in Baltimore,"[1] and Anna Abell Stump Rawls,[5] the second of five sons. Tragedy struck Rawls at a young age. "Two of his brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. . . . In 1928, the 7-year-old Rawls contracted diphtheria. His brother Bobby, younger by 20 months, visited him in his room and was fatally infected. The next winter, Rawls contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died."[1] Rawls biographer Thomas Pogge calls the loss of the brothers the "most important events in Jack’s childhood.”[1]

Rawls attended school in Baltimore for a short time before transferring to Kent School, an Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls attended Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude and was accepted into The Ivy Club. During his last two years at Princeton he "became deeply concerned with theology and its doctrines". He considered attending a seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood.[6]

In 1943, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and immediately enlisted in the Army.[5] During World War II, Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific, where he toured New Guinea, the Philippines, and occupied Japan;[5] There, he witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After this experience, Rawls turned down an offer to become an officer and left the army as a private in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in moral philosophy.

Rawls married Margaret Fox, a Brown University graduate, in 1949.[5]


After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950, Rawls taught there until 1952, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford University (Christ Church), where he was influenced by the liberal political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin and the legal theorist H.L.A. Hart. After returning to the United States, he served first as an assistant and then associate professor at Cornell University. In 1962, he became a full professor of philosophy at Cornell, and soon achieved a tenured position at MIT. That same year, he moved to Harvard University, where he taught for almost forty years, and where he trained some of the leading contemporary figures in moral and political philosophy, including Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Adrian Piper, Christine Korsgaard, Susan Neiman, Claudia Card, Thomas Pogge, Barbara Herman, Joshua Cohen and Paul Weithman .

Later life

Rawls seldom gave interviews and, having a "bat-like horror of the limelight",[7] did not become a public intellectual despite his fame. He instead remained committed mainly to his academic and family life.[7]

In 1995 he suffered the first of several strokes, severely impeding his ability to continue to work. He was nevertheless able to complete a book entitled The Law of Peoples, the most complete statement of his views on international justice, and shortly before his death in November 2002 published Justice As Fairness: A Restatement, a response to criticisms of A Theory of Justice.

Contribution to political and moral philosophy

Rawls is noted for his contributions to liberal political philosophy. Among the ideas from Rawls' work that have received wide attention are:

There is general agreement in academia that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 was important to a revival, during the 1960s and 1970s, in the academic study of political philosophy. His work has crossed disciplinary lines, receiving serious attention from economists, legal scholars, political scientists, sociologists, healthcare resource allocators, and theologians. Rawls has the unique distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada[8] and referred to by practicing politicians in the United States and United Kingdom.[9]

Philosophical thought

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to reconcile freedom and equality in a principled way, offering an account of "justice as fairness". Central to this effort is his famous approach to the seemingly intractable problem of distributive justice.

Justice as Fairness


Rawls utilizes the social contract device, asking what principles of justice would individuals agree to when designing society. Justice as fairness offers an account of human nature beyond the traditions of saintly altruists or greedy egoists: human beings are to Rawls both rational and reasonable. Because we are rational we have ends we want to achieve, but we are reasonable insofar as we are happy to achieve these ends cooperatively if possible by adhering to mutually acceptable regulatory principles. Individuals hold, however, quite different needs and aspirations of individuals: the individual conception of the good.

Original Position

Rawls proposes a thought-experiment to overcome this, his famous argument from the original position which includes the veil of ignorance. Rawls proposes a set of Principles of Justice to be established through a thought-experiment, a kind of modern replacement for the philosophical state of nature. Basically, Rawls lets us imagine a situation where people are unaware of their own characteristics which may make given principles advantageous or disadvantageous to themselves:

" one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like." (Rawls, A Theory of Justice)

Through this veil of ignorance, people may then agree upon principles of justice independently of personal interests, meaning impartially and rationally. Those collectively decided principles should thus be socially fair.

Principles of Justice

The first of these principles is the Liberty Principle, establishing equal basic liberties for all citizens. 'Basic' liberty entails the (familiar in the liberal tradition) freedoms of conscience, association, and expression as well as democratic rights; Rawls also includes a personal property right, but this is defended in terms of moral capacities and self-respect,[10] rather than an appeal to a natural right of self-ownership: this distinguishes Rawls' account from the classical liberalism of John Locke and the libertarianism of Robert Nozick).

Rawls argues that a second principle of equality would be agreed upon, to guarantee liberties that represent meaningful options for all in society and ensure distributive justice. For example, formal guarantees of political voice and freedom of assembly are of little real worth to the desperately poor and marginalized in society. Demanding that everyone have exactly the same effective opportunities in life would almost certainly offend the very liberties that are supposedly being equalized. Nonetheless, we would want to ensure at least the "fair worth" of our liberties: wherever one ends up in society, one wants life to be worth living, with enough effective freedom to pursue personal goals. Thus participants would be moved to affirm a two-part second principle comprising Fair Equality of Opportunity and the famous (and controversial) difference principle. This second principle ensures that those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged.

Rawls held that these principles of justice apply to the "basic structure" of fundamental social institutions (such as the judiciary, the economic structure, the political constitution), a qualification that has been the source of some controversy and constructive debate (see, for instance, the important work of Gerald Cohen).

Rawls further argued that these principles were to be 'lexically ordered' to award priority to basic liberties over the more equality-oriented demands of the second principle. This has also been a topic of much debate among moral and political philosophers.

Finally, Rawls took his approach as applying in the first instance to what he called a "well-ordered society ... designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice".[11] In this respect, he understood justice as fairness as a contribution to "ideal theory", the determination of "principles that characterize a well-ordered society under favorable circumstances".[12] Much recent work in political philosophy has asked what justice as fairness might dictate (or indeed, whether it is very useful at all) for problems of "partial compliance" under "nonideal theory."

Political Liberalism

Rawls' later work focused on the question of stability: could a society ordered by the two principles of justice endure? His answer to this question is contained in a collection of lectures titled Political Liberalism. In these lectures, Rawls introduced the idea of an overlapping consensus — or agreement on justice as fairness between citizens who hold different religious and philosophical views (or conceptions of the good). Political Liberalism also introduced the idea of public reason — the common reason of all citizens.

In Political Liberalism Rawls addressed the most common criticism levelled at A Theory of Justice — the criticism that the principles of justice were simply an alternative systematic conception of justice that was not superior to utilitarianism or any other comprehensive theory. Critics viewed "justice as fairness" as simply another reasonable, comprehensive doctrine that was incompatible with other reasonable doctrines. In their view it failed to distinguish between a comprehensive moral theory which addressed the problem of justice and a political conception of justice that was independent of any comprehensive theory.

In Political Liberalism Rawls introduces the political conception of justice that people with conflicting, but reasonable, metaphysical and/or religious views would accept to regulate the basic structure of society. What distinguishes Rawls' account from previous conceptions of liberalism is that it seeks to arrive at a consensus without appealing to any one metaphysical source - hence the idea of "political liberalism," contrary to John Locke or John Stuart Mill, who promote a more robust cultural and metaphysical liberal philosophy. Rawls' account is an attempt to secure the possibility of a liberal consensus regardless of the "deep" religious or metaphysical values that the parties endorse (so long as these remain open to compromise, i.e., are "reasonable"). The ideal result is therefore conceived as an "overlapping consensus" because different and often conflicting accounts of morality, nature, etc. are intended to "overlap" with each other on the question of governance.

Rawls also modified the principles of justice as follows (with the first principle having priority over the second, and the first half of the second having priority over the latter half):

  1. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

These principles are subtly modified from the principles in Theory. The first principle now reads "equal claim" instead of "equal right," and he also replaces the phrase "system of basic liberties" with "a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties." More notably though, he switches the two parts of the second principle, so that the difference principle becomes the latter of the three.

Political Liberalism also presents Rawls's account of political constructivism, the metaethical procedure whereby political theorists construct principles by reassembling materials from the public political culture.[13]

The Law of Peoples

Although there were passing comments on international affairs in A Theory of Justice, it wasn't until late in his career that Rawls formulated a comprehensive theory of international politics with the publication of The Law of Peoples. He claimed there that "well-ordered" peoples could be either "liberal" or "decent." Rawls argued that the legitimacy of a liberal international order is contingent on tolerating decent peoples, which differ from liberal peoples, among other ways, in that they might have state religions and deny adherents of minority faiths the right to hold positions of power within the state, and might organize political participation via consultation hierarchies rather than elections. However, no well-ordered peoples may violate human rights or behave in an externally aggressive manner. Peoples that fail to meet the criteria of "liberal" or "decent" peoples are referred to as "outlaw states," "societies burdened by unfavourable conditions" or "benevolent absolutisms" depending on their particular failings. Such peoples do not have the right to mutual respect and toleration possessed by liberal and decent peoples.

Rawls' views on global distributive justice as they were expressed in this work surprised many of his fellow egalitarian liberals. Charles Beitz, for instance, had previously written a study that argued for the application of Rawls' Difference Principles globally. Rawls denied that his principles should be so applied, partly on the grounds that states, unlike citizens, were self-sufficient in the cooperative enterprises that constitute domestic societies. Although Rawls recognized that aid should be given to governments who are unable to protect human rights for economic reasons, he claimed that the purpose for this aid is not to achieve an eventual state of global equality, but rather only to ensure that these societies could maintain liberal or decent political institutions. He argued, among other things, that continuing to give aid indefinitely would see nations with industrious populations subsidize those with idle populations and would create a moral hazard problem where governments could spend irresponsibly in the knowledge that they will be bailed out by those nations who had spent responsibly.

Rawls' discussion of "non-ideal" theory, on the other hand, included a condemnation of bombing civilians and of the American bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War II, as well as discussions of immigration and nuclear proliferation. Rawls also detailed here the ideal of the statesman, a political leader who looks to the next generation and promotes international harmony, even in the face of significant domestic pressure to do otherwise. Rawls also claimed, controversially, that violations of human rights can legitimize military intervention in the violating states, though he also expressed the hope that such societies could be induced to reform peacefully by the good example of liberal and decent peoples.



  • A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. The revised edition of 1999 incorporates changes that Rawls made for translated editions of A Theory of Justice. Some Rawls scholars use the abbreviation TJ to refer to this work.
  • Political Liberalism. The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy, 4. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. The hardback edition published in 1993 is not identical. The paperback adds a valuable new introduction and an essay titled "Reply to Habermas." Some Rawls scholars use the abbreviation PL to refer to this work.
  • The Law of Peoples: with "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited." Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. This slim book includes two works; a further development of his essay entitled "The Law of Peoples" and another entitled "Public Reason Revisited", both published earlier in his career.
  • Collected Papers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. This collection of shorter papers was edited by Samuel Freeman.
  • Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2000. This collection of lectures was edited by Barbara Herman. It has an introduction on modern moral philosophy from 1600–1800 and then lectures on Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel.
  • Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001. This shorter summary of the main arguments of Rawls' political philosophy was edited by Erin Kelly. Many versions of this were circulated in typescript and much of the material was delivered by Rawls in lectures when he taught courses covering his own work at Harvard University.
  • Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007. Collection of lectures on Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Joseph Butler, J.J. Rousseau, David Hume, J.S. Mill, and Karl Marx, edited by Samuel Freeman.


  • "A Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge: Considered with Reference to Judgments on the Moral Worth of Character." Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 1950.
  • "Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics." Philosophical Review (April 1951), 60 (2): 177-197.
  • "Two Concepts of Rules." Philosophical Review (January 1955), 64 (1):3-32.
  • "Justice as Fairness." Journal of Philosophy (October 24, 1957), 54 (22): 653-662.
  • "Justice as Fairness." Philosophical Review (April 1958), 67 (2): 164-194.
  • "The Sense of Justice." Philosophical Review (July 1963), 72 (3): 281-305.
  • "Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice" Nomos VI (1963) (in the notes to the second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek refers to this article to show that Rawls agreed with the Lockean conception that what could be just or unjust was the way competition was carried on, not its results)
  • "Distributive Justice: Some Addenda." Natural Law Forum (1968), 13: 51-71.
  • "Reply to Lyons and Teitelman." Journal of Philosophy (October 5, 1972), 69 (18): 556-557.
  • "Reply to Alexander and Musgrave." Quarterly Journal of Economics (November 1974), 88 (4): 633-655.
  • "Some Reasons for the Maximin Criterion." American Economic Review (May 1974), 64 (2): 141-146.
  • "Fairness to Goodness." Philosophical Review (October 1975), 84 (4): 536-554.
  • "The Independence of Moral Theory." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association (November 1975), 48: 5-22.
  • "A Kantian Conception of Equality." Cambridge Review (February 1975), 96 (2225): 94-99.
  • "The Basic Structure as Subject." American Philosophical Quarterly (April 1977), 14 (2): 159-165.
  • "Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory." Journal of Philosophy (September 1980), 77 (9): 515-572.
  • "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical." Philosophy & Public Affairs (Summer 1985), 14 (3): 223-251.
  • "The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus." Oxford Journal for Legal Studies (Spring 1987), 7 (1): 1-25.
  • "The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good." Philosophy & Public Affairs (Fall 1988), 17 (4): 251-276.
  • "The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus." New York University Law Review (May 1989), 64 (2): 233-255.
  • "Roderick Firth: His Life and Work." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (March 1991), 51 (1): 109-118.
  • "The Law of Peoples." Critical Inquiry (Fall 1993), 20 (1): 36-68.
  • "Political Liberalism: Reply to Habermas." Journal of Philosophy (March 1995), 92 (3):132-180.
  • "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," Chicago Law Review (1997), 64 (3): 765-807. [PRR]

Book chapters

  • "Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice." In Carl J. Friedrich and John W. Chapman, eds., Nomos, VI: Justice, pp. 98–125. Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy. New York: Atherton Press, 1963.
  • "Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play." In Sidney Hook, ed., Law and Philosophy: A Symposium, pp. 3–18. New York: New York University Press, 1964. Proceedings of the 6th Annual New York University Institute of Philosophy.
  • "Distributive Justice." In Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, eds., Philosophy, Politics, and Society. Third Series, pp. 58–82. London: Blackwell; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
  • "The Justification of Civil Disobedience." In Hugo Adam Bedau, ed., Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice, pp. 240–255. New York: Pegasus Books, 1969.
  • "Justice as Reciprocity." In Samuel Gorovitz, ed., Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill: With Critical Essays, pp. 242–268. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
  • "Author's Note." In Thomas Schwartz, ed., Freedom and Authority: An Introduction to Social and Political Philosophy, p. 260. Encino & Belmont, California: Dickenson, 1973.
  • "Distributive Justice." In Edmund S. Phelps, ed., Economic Justice: Selected Readings, pp. 319–362. Penguin Modern Economics Readings. Harmondsworth & Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • "Personal Communication, January 31, 1976." In Thomas Nagel's "The Justification of Equality." Critica (April 1978), 10 (28): 9n4.
  • "The Basic Liberties and Their Priority." In Sterling M. McMurrin, ed., The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, III (1982), pp. 1–87. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • "Social Unity and Primary Goods." In Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond, pp. 159–185. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1982.
  • "Themes in Kant's Moral Philosophy." In Eckhart Forster, ed., Kant's Transcendental Deductions: The Three Critiques and the Opus postumum, pp. 81–113, 253-256. Stanford Series in Philosophy. Studies in Kant and German Idealism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1989.


  • Review of Axel Hägerström's Inquiries into the Nature of Law and Morals (C.D. Broad, tr.). Mind (July 1955), 64 (255):421-422.
  • Review of Stephen Toulmin's An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics (1950). Philosophical Review (October 1951), 60 (4): 572-580.
  • Review of A. Vilhelm Lundstedt's Legal Thinking Revised. Cornell Law Quarterly (1959), 44: 169.
  • Review of Raymond Klibansky, ed., Philosophy in Mid-Century: A Survey. Philosophical Review (January 1961), 70 (1): 131-132.
  • Review of Richard B. Brandt, ed., Social Justice (1962). Philosophical Review (July 1965), 74(3): 406-409.

Awards and honors

  • Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy (1999)
  • National Humanities Medal (1999)
  • Asteroid 16561 Rawls is named in his honor.

See also


Works cited

  • Freeman, S. (2007) Rawls (Routledge, Abingdon)
  • Freeman, Samuel (2009) "Original Position" (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [1])
  • Rawls, J. (1993/1996/2005) Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, New York)
  • Rawls, J. (1971/1999) A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA)
  • Rawls, J. (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Belknap Press, Cambridge MA)
  • Rogers, B. (27.09.02) "Obituary: John Rawls" [2]
  • Wenar, Leif (2008) "John Rawls" (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [3])

Reference list

  1. ^ a b c d e Gordon, David (2008-07-28) Going Off the Rawls, The American Conservative
  2. ^ a b c Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, "Rawls, John," Cambridge University Press, pp. 774-775.
  3. ^ Kordana, Kevin & Tabachnick, David (2006). "On Belling the Cat: Rawls and Corrective Justice". Virginia Law Review 92: 1279. 
  4. ^ "The National Medal Of The Arts And The National Humanities Medal". 1999-09-29. Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  5. ^ a b c d Freeman, 2010:xix
  6. ^ Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, "John Rawls: On My Religion", Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 2009
  7. ^ a b Rogers, 27.09.02
  8. ^ "Fair Opportunity to Participate". The Canadian Political Science Review. June 2009. 
  9. ^ "They Work For You search: "John Rawls"". Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  10. ^ Rawls, 2001:114
  11. ^ Rawls, 1971:397
  12. ^ Rawls, 1971:216
  13. ^ Tampio, Nicholas (2011). "A Defense of Political Constructivism". Contemporary Political Theory. 

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