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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 Harvardmarker. His magnum opus A Theory of Justice (1971) is now regarded as "one of the primary texts in political philosophy." His work in political philosophy, dubbed Rawlsianism, 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." 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.

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's thought "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself."

Early life

John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Marylandmarker. He was the second of five sons to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump. Rawls attended school in Baltimore for a short time before transferring to Kent School, an Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticutmarker. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls attended Princeton Universitymarker, and was elected to the 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. In 1943, he 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 Guineamarker, the Philippinesmarker, and Japanmarker; 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 Universitymarker graduate, in 1949.


After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950, Rawls taught there until 1952, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford Universitymarker (Christ Churchmarker), 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 Universitymarker. In 1962, he became a full professor of philosophy at Cornell, and soon achieved a tenured position at MITmarker. In 1962 he moved to Harvard Universitymarker, where he taught for almost forty years, and where he trained some of the contemporary figures in moral and political philosophy, including Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Thomas Pogge.

Later life

Rawls suffered the first of several strokes in 1995, which severely impeded his ability to continue working. Nevertheless, he was still able to complete a work entitled The Law of Peoples, which contains the most complete statement of his views on international justice, before his death in November 2002.

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, 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 States and United Kingdom.


A Theory of Justice

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to reconcile liberty 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.

Rawls appeals to the social contract. What principles of justice would we agree to if we desired to cooperate with others, but would also prefer more of the benefits, and less of the burdens, associated with cooperation? Justice as fairness is thus offered to people who are neither saintly altruists nor greedy egoists. Human beings are, as Rawls puts it, 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 together if we can, in accord with mutually acceptable regulative principles. But given how different our needs and aspirations often are, how can we find principles that are acceptable to each of us? Rawls gives us a model of a fair situation for making this choice (his argument from the original position and the famous veil of ignorance), and he argues that two principles of justice would be especially attractive.

We would, Rawls argues, affirm a principle of equal basic liberties, thus protecting the familiar liberal freedoms of conscience, association, expression, and the like (included here is a right to hold and use personal property, but Rawls defends that right in terms of our moral capacities and self-respect, not by appeal to a natural right of self-ownership, thus distinguishing his account from the classical liberalism of John Locke, and the libertarian stance of Robert Nozick). But we would also want to ensure that, whatever our station in society, liberties represent meaningful options for us. 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 is a non-starter: achieving this 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 we would be moved to affirm a second principle requiring fair equality of opportunity, paired with 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 (courts, markets, the constitution, etc), 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, thus giving 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". In this respect, he understood justice as fairness as a contribution to "ideal theory," working "out principles that characterize a well-ordered society under favorable circumstances" 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 Political Liberalism, 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 leveled at A Theory of Justice — the criticism that the principles of justice were simply an alternative systematic conception of justice that was superior to utilitarianism or any other comprehensive theory. This meant that justice as fairness turned out to be simply another reasonable comprehensive doctrine that was incompatible with other reasonable doctrines. It failed to distinguish between a comprehensive moral theory which addressed the problem of justice and that of a political conception of justice that was independent of any comprehensive theory.

The political conception of justice that Rawls introduces in Political Liberalism is the view of justice that people with conflicting, but reasonable, metaphysical and/or religious views would agree 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 of his own. 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., "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 to become the following (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.'

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 the latter, 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 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. States that do so are referred to as "outlaw states," "societies burdened by unfavourable conditions" and "benevolent absolutisms", and 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 were self-sufficient, unlike citizens, 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 statesmen, a political leader who looks to the next generation, promotes international harmony, even in the face of significant domestic pressure to do otherwise. Rawls also claimed, controversially, that violations of human rights can legitimate 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. 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. 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'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. 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.
  • "Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason.” 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 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.


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

See also


  1. Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, "Rawls, John," Cambridge University Press, pp. 774-775.
  2. The National Medal Of The Arts And The National Humanities Medal
  3. Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, "John Rawls: On My Religion", Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 2009
  4. They Work For You search: "John Rawls"
  5. "Justice as Fairness: a Restatment", p. 114
  6. Theory, p. 397
  7. Theory, p. 216

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