John Bordley Rawls
(February 21, 1921 – November
24, 2002) was an American philosopher
and a leading figure in moral
the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at
opus A Theory of
(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
the famous veil of ignorance
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
the latter presented by President
, in recognition of how
Rawls's thought "helped a whole generation of learned Americans
revive their faith in democracy
was born in Baltimore,
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
Connecticut. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls attended
University, and was elected to the The
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
. During World War II, Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific, where he toured
Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan; 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
in 1946. Shortly thereafter,
he returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in moral
married Margaret Fox, a Brown University graduate, in 1949.
earning his Ph.D. from
Princeton in 1950, Rawls taught there until 1952, when he received
a Fulbright Fellowship to
University (Christ Church), where he was influenced by the liberal political
theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin
and the legal theorist H.L.A.
. After returning to the United States, he
served first as an assistant and then associate professor at
University. In 1962, he became a full professor of
philosophy at Cornell, and soon achieved a tenured position at
MIT. In 1962 he moved to Harvard
University, 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
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
. 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
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
, 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
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
. 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
. 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
famous veil of ignorance
), and he
argues that two principles of justice would be especially
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
of John Locke
, and the
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
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
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
. In Political Liberalism
Rawls introduced the idea of an overlapping consensus
agreement on justice as fairness
between citizens who hold
different religious and philosophical views (or conceptions of
). Political Liberalism
also introduced the
idea of public reason
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
These principles are subtly modified from the principles in
. 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.
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
Rawls' views on global distributive justice as they were expressed
in this work surprised many of his fellow egalitarian liberals.
, 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
problem where governments could spend irresponsibly in
the knowledge that they will be bailed out by those nations who had
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.
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
- "Distributive Justice: Some Addenda.” Natural Law Forum (1968),
- "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):
- "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):
- "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
- "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]
- "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,
- "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,
- "Distributive Justice." In Edmund
S. Phelps, ed., Economic
Justice: Selected Readings, pp. 319–362. Penguin Modern
Economics Readings. Harmondsworth & Baltimore: Penguin Books,
- "Personal Communication, January 31, 1976." In Thomas Nagel's
"The Justification of Equality." Critica (April 1978), 10 (28):
- "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;
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,
- "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):
- Schock Prize for Logic and
- National Humanities Medal (1999)
- Asteroid 16561 Rawls is named in his
- Cambridge Dictionary of
Philosophy, "Rawls, John," Cambridge University Press, pp.
- The National Medal Of The Arts And The National
- Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, "John Rawls: On My Religion", Times
Literary Supplement, 18 March 2009
- They Work For You search: "John Rawls"
- "Justice as Fairness: a Restatment", p. 114
- Theory, p. 397
- Theory, p. 216