John Rawls

The American philosopher John Rawls (born 1921) was one of the most important political philosophers in the late 20th century. His A Theory of Justice developed principles of justice for a liberal society and challenged utilitarian political philosophy.

John Rawls, son of William Lee Rawls and Anna Abel Stump, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 21, 1921. He graduated from the Kent School in 1939, completed a BA at Princeton University in 1943, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950. He was also a Fulbright Fellow at Oxford University (1952-1953). Rawls married Margaret Warfield Fox in 1949, and they had four children.

His academic career ranged from being an instructor at Princeton University (1950-1952) to serving as assistant and associate professor at Cornell University, where he became full professor in 1962. Beginning in 1979 he was James Bryant Conant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. His achievements included serving as president of the American Association of Political and Legal Philosophers (1970-1972) as well as of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (1974). He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The author of numerous articles, Rawls was best known for his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971).

In A Theory of Justice Rawls returned to basic problems of political philosophy. He claimed to be working with the social contract tradition begun by such thinkers as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Rawls held that justice is the first virtue of social institutions and that the good of the whole society cannot override the inviolability that each person has founded on justice. Given this, his position is a challenge to utilitarianism, which holds that the good of the community can override the claims to justice by the individual.

Rawls was concerned only with social justice in A Theory of Justice. As a contractarian, he claimed that the principles of justice which form the basic structure of society are ones won through agreement. In his words, they are "the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association." These principles, Rawls argued, are to regulate further agreements and associations. This way of understanding the principles of justice he calls "justice as fairness." Given this, Rawls developed an argument for justice as fairness and a "principle of equality" crucial to his contractarianism.

Rawls rejected traditional contractarian arguments about a primitive state of nature which generates the need for human political association. He developed an argument for what he called the "original position" noting that in "justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in traditional theory of the social contract." The original position is not then an actual historical state of affairs and even less a primitative social structure. Rather, it is a hypothetical notion characterized in order to lead to a certain idea of justice. Since it is not a primitive condition or historical reality, the original position can be entered conceptually any time in order to explore the principles of justice.

Rawls depicted the original position as one in which persons are ignorant of social status, differences in ability, fortunes, and even intelligence. Behind this "veil of ignorance," as he calls it, the principles of justice are chosen. Thus "justice as fairness" generates from that hypothetical situation wherein persons are asked to make decisions about what is just ignorant of the impact of these decisions and the possible benefits or cost to them. In such a situation of radical equality, the principles of justice as fairness are chosen. These principles, Rawls argued, are motivated by a "thin theory of good" since all are ignorant of specific character traits, abilities, or needs that would prompt one to argue for certain goods. Behind the "veil" that would be chosen as good are rational life plans and the conditions for self respect. The principles of justice regulate the distribution of these and other primary goods.

In the original position two principles of justice emerge. As Rawls noted, the first "requires equality in assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic injustices … are just only if they result in compensating benefits for every one, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society." Having secured these principles, Rawls then explored institutions. His concern here was with distributive justice within the social good of liberty and the demands for justice as fairness. Given the demand for equality, the goods of society, and especially liberty, had to be distributed fairly. Finally, he explored the good for the political order entailed in justice as fairness. The crucial social good is self respect, and Rawls argued that justice as fairness furthers the equal distribution of the conditions necessary for this good.

In 1993 Rawls published Political Liberalism, based in part on lectures and work published since 1971 but much more than a collection of essays. The book refines and corrects some shortcomings of A Theory of Justice, but beyond that it gives a new focus to the central concerns of the earlier work. Political Liberalism does not depart from the principles put forth in the earlier work, but recasts them in a specifically political context. The question Rawls seeks to answer in this book is not the general one of how social justice can be established, but rather how a free, just and stable political order can be maintained in the present historical and social situation marked by pluralism of religious, philosophical and moral doctrines.

Not only is Rawls' work a seminal one in its own right, but A Theory of Justice also sparked a revival in political philosophy. Political Liberalism in turn generated additional discussion and debate. Given this, the contribution of his thought is difficult to assess. There is little doubt, however, that A Theory of Justice is one of the most important works in philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century. It is also a work that reached beyond the confines of the academy to help influence the reality about which it speaks: the world of our political order.


Further Reading on John Rawls

For helpful works on Rawls, see N. Daniels, Reading Rawls (Oxford, 1975); R.P. Wolff, Understanding Rawls (1977); and John Rawls' Theory of Social Justice, edited by H.G. Blocker and E.H. Smith (1980).