John Rawls

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophers
Twentieth century philosophy
Name: John Rawls
Birth: February 21, 1921
Death: November 24, 2002
School/tradition: Analytic
Main interests
Political philosophy, Liberalism, Justice
Notable ideas
Justice as Fairness, The original position, Reflective equilibrium, Overlapping consensus, Public reason.
Influences Influenced
Immanuel Kant, Abraham Lincoln Thomas Nagel, Thomas Pogge, Thomas Scanlon, Christine Korsgaard

John Rawls (February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002) was an American political philosopher, a long-time professor at Harvard University, and the author of several books, including A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. Rawls' most important and influential idea was the principle of "justice as fairness" as the basis for political liberalism. He refuted the predominant Utilitarian concepts of the time and took a much more idealistic approach to politics. Rawls' efforts, much of it inspired by the work of Immanuel Kant, led to a revival of the social contract theory, which had long been neglected by political philosophers. Rawls' theories of social justice and liberalism have become widely accepted among modern scholars, and he has become one of the key figures in shaping modern political thought.

Life and work

John Bordley Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the second of five sons born to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump. Rawls attended school in Baltimore only for a short time, before transferring to a renowned Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut called Kent. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls went on to Princeton University, where he became interested in philosophy and was elected to join the membership of The Ivy Club.

In 1943, Rawls completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and joined the Army. During World War II, Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific, where he toured New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan and witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After this experience, Rawls turned down the offer of becoming 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 then married Margaret Fox, a Brown University graduate, in 1949.

After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950, Rawls decided to teach there until 1952, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship to Christ Church at the University of Oxford. While there, he was influenced by the liberal political theorist and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, and, more strongly, the legal theorist H.L.A. Hart. Rawls then returned to the United States, serving first as an assistant and then associate professor at Cornell University. In 1962, he became a full-time professor of philosophy at Cornell and soon achieved a tenured position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1964, he moved to Harvard University where he taught for almost forty years and inspired new generations of moral and political philosophers. It was during his time at Harvard that Rawls formulated and then reworked his most important ideas in political philosophy. His first and most influential book, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971.

In 1995, Rawls suffered the first of several strokes which severely impeded his ability to continue working. Despite his declining health, he continued to write. In 1998, he finished The Law of Peoples, which contains the most complete statement of his views on international justice. In the following year, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited was published, and in 2001, he completed his final book, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, in which he revised and summarized his most well-known theories. In 2002, Rawls died of heart failure at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Rawls's work crossed disciplinary lines, receiving serious attention from economists, legal scholars, political scientists, sociologists, 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 referred to by practicing politicians in the United Kingdom.

Rawlsian political philosophy

Rawls made a revolutionary break from the Utilitarianism which had dominated liberal political philosophy throughout the twentieth century. He saw Utilitarianism as ultimately incompatible with the democratic values of freedom and equal rights, and he created a theory of justice based on the idea of a social contract. Rawls's main concern was how to create a well-ordered society in which free and equal people could live in mutual agreement on basic principles of justice. He sought to define a set of principles which could be publicly accepted and carried out through a society's laws and institutions. Rawls believed that the Utilitarian model, while it may seem more realistic and stable, did not meet these criteria.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls presents the concept of “justice as fairness” as the basis for a liberal and egalitarian society. The first principle of “justice as fairness” is that all persons in a society are granted equal rights and basic human liberties. The second principle places certain restrictions on social and economic inequalities: First, that everyone in the society is given equal opportunity to attain any position; and second, that any inequalities grant the “greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.”

Rawls defends his arguments using a social contract-type thought experiment which he calls the "original position." In this hypothetical situation, free, equal, rational, and unbiased individuals are given the opportunity to create the best possible society for themselves and everyone else. Rawls asserts that people living in the original position, when given the choice to live in any type of society, will naturally choose to live under the conditions of justice as fairness.

Another important idea that arose from A Theory of Justice was the concept of "reflective equilibrium." Although he believed that people in the original position would choose to create a just society, Rawls also saw it necessary to step back from his thought experiment and examine the results based on commonly held beliefs about justice. If the results contradict these common assumptions, there may be a need to modify the results or modify the commonly held beliefs themselves. Through such a process of modification, Rawls believed that one could eventually arrive at a "reflective equilibrium" in which all parties would be satisfied.

Political Liberalism

Rawls’s later work focuses on the question of stability: Can a society ordered by the two principles of justice endure? Many critics claimed that Rawls had simply created another reasonable systematic doctrine that some people would accept while others would not. In his 1993 book Political Liberalism, Rawls revises his arguments and attempts to address some problems with A Theory of Justice. He takes into account the variety of philosophical, religious, and ideological differences that exist among people in a liberal society. Rawls still insists that all people, regardless of these differences, will accept a fair and egalitarian political system. Unlike A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism confines the concept of justice to the political realm rather than including it in an all-encompassing moral and religious system. Thus, people of very different beliefs can reach an “overlapping consensus” when it comes to the politics of their society. Political Liberalism also introduces the idea of "public reason"—the common reason of all citizens.

The Law of Peoples

Although Rawls made some comments on international relations in A Theory of Justice, it was not until late in his career that he formulated a comprehensive theory of international politics with the publication of The Law of Peoples. Much to the surprise of many of his liberal allies, Rawls claims that "well-ordered" peoples could be either "liberal" or "decent hierarchical." The tolerance of the latter by the former is needed to ensure that a liberal foreign policy is not "unreasonable" to the rest of the world. Decent hierarchies may have state religions and deny adherents of minority faiths from holding positions of power within the state. They may also organize participation via corporatism rather than elections. However, if they violate human rights they will be categorized amongst "outlaw states," "societies burdened by unfavourable conditions" and "benevolent absolutisms."

Princeton University professor Charles Beitz had previously written a study that applied Rawls's second principle of justice as fairness to international relations, saying that redistribution could be justified by the inequality of natural resources amongst countries. The Law of Peoples refutes this application and claims that states are self-sufficient, unlike the cooperative enterprises that domestic societies are. Although Rawls recognizes that aid should be given to governments who must suspend human rights in times of great trouble, he claims that there must be a cut-off point for such aid. Otherwise, states with industrious populations will subsidize those with idle populations, and some states' governments will spend irresponsibly in the knowledge that they will be helped by those nations who had spent responsibly. Rawls also claims that a country's wealth is not determined by natural resources but by its human capital and political culture.

The Law of Peoples condemns the bombing of civilians and the American firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II. Rawls presents a near-mythical picture of a "statesman" who looks to the next generation, promotes international harmony, and rises above the jingoism of the electorate. He insists that all nation-states must respect human rights or else face the prospect of intervention by the international community. However, he is also optimistic in his belief that non-liberal nation-states will eventually see the benefits of liberalism and come to respect human rights.


  • Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy (1999)
  • National Humanities Medal (1999)



  • A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. ISBN 0674880102 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.”
  • The Law of Peoples: With "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. This slim book includes two works originally published elsewhere, an essay entitled "The Law of Peoples” and another entitled "Public Reason Revisited.”
  • Collected Papers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0674137396 This collection of shorter papers was edited by Samuel Freeman. Two of the papers in this collection, "The Law of Peoples” and "Public Reason Revisited,” are available separately in the Law of Peoples monograph published the same year. One other essay, "Reply to Habermas,” was added to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism. Otherwise, this collection is comprehensive. However, one important unpublished work, Rawls's dissertation, is not included.
  • Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 0674004426 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. ISBN 0674005112 This shorter summary of the main arguments of Rawls's 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. ISBN 0674024923 Collection of lectures on Hobbes, Locke, Butler, Rousseau, Hume, Mill, and 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) (Hayek refers to this article to show that Rawls agrees with his opinion)
  • "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.
  • "Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason.” Journal of Philosophy (March 1995), 92 (3):132-180.

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 A. 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 Hägerstrom'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.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brooks, Thom and Fabian Freyenhagen, eds. The Legacy of John Rawls. New York: Continuum, 2005.
  • Daniels, Norman, ed. Reading Rawls: Critical Studies of A Theory of Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
  • Freeman, Samuel ed. Cambridge Companion to Rawls. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Freeman, Samuel. Justice and the Social Contract: Essays on Rawlsian Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Kukathas, Chandran and Philip Pettit. Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Robinson, Dave and Judy Groves. Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books, 2003.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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