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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1921 — 2002)



John Rawls was born in Baltimore, U.S.A. and educated at Princeton University, gaining his PhD. in 1950. After teaching at Princeton, Cornell, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he was appointed a professor of philosophy at Harvard in 1962, where he remained until he retired in 1991.



[1] [A Theory of Justice] Arguing that utilitarianism is a threat to the rights of the individual and does not adequately address the problem of inequality, Rawls says that people should be treated as ends in themselves and not as means [a]. He seeks to understand justice in terms of fair distribution of goods in accordance with the free rational choice of individuals motivated by mutual disinterest; and on account of this autonomy he considers the principles of justice as categorical imperatives [Sec. 40] [b]. His view of justice is also closely connected with his definition of a person's good as "the successful execution of a rational plan of life" (lesser goods being parts thereof) [66]. This plan of life relates to a variety of ends, including the satisfaction of human desires and needs, friendship, self-realization, and so on; he is not advocating a crude hedonism. The individual's conception of the good and his sense of justice constitute his 'moral personality'. A moral person is a subject with ends he has chosen, and his fundamental preference is for conditions that enable him to frame a mode of life that expresses his nature as a free and equal human being as fully as circumstances permit [85].

Rawls argues that it is precisely such moral persons who are entitled to equal justice — and indeed this fact can be used to interpret the concept of natural rights, the rights that justice as fairness protects [77] [c].

To determine what is just he says we must first distance ourselves — behind what he calls the 'veil of ignorance' [24] — from the advantages we possess in society as it actually is and from our own particular conceptions of the good, so as to ascertain what primary goods are essential for a minimal, tolerable existence. What would we as free and rational persons then choose in this hypothetical situation? In his later work he replaces the hypothetical contract by an actual social contract 'determined collectively' in the context of a pluralistic society. Rawls here places great emphasis on the social nature of mankind [d]. This is because it is through "social union founded upon the needs and potentialities of its members that each person can participate in the total sum of the realized natural assets of the others" [79]. This leads us, he says, to the notion of the community of humankind, the members of which enjoy one another's excellences and individuality elicited by free institutions, They also recognize each other's good as an element in the complete activity the whole scheme they consent to and which gives pleasure to them all. [79]

He sets out his argument as a series of principles which he thinks people would agree on regardless of their individual personal and economic circumstances [see 11-13, 39, 45]. These principles are 'lexically ordered', by which he means that a particular principle does not come into play until those previous to it are either fully met or are shown not to apply. There are two key principles: (1) The first provides that each person's liberties should be maximized — consistent with the provision of equal liberty for every other person. Liberty is thus an essential aspect of Rawls' theory of justice.

(2) According to the second principle social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (a) they benefit everyone, the primary concern being to bring about the greatest benefit for the worst off; and (b) offices and positions are open to all — there should be equality of opportunity. It follows that for him no advantage can be morally acceptable if it does not benefit those members of society who are the most disadvantaged. This is called the difference principle. Rawls assumes his two principles to fall under the heading of 'egalitarianism' [e] (although he notes that there are many forms of equality, and egalitarianism admits of degrees) [80].

What if the democratically elected governments fails to implement the contracted principles of justice? According to Rawls, civil disobedience which results from an intention to get the law or government policies changed is permissible — but subject to a number of conditions [f]. Acts of disobedience, he says, must be public and non-violent, and there must be a willingness on the part of the objectors to accept the legal and penal consequences. Disobedience must also be based on the political principles underlying the constitution and not on personal or party interests. Civil disobedience for Rawls thus falls between legal protest on the one side and conscientious resistance on the other (which is usually based on moral or religious convictions).



Rawls' moral and political philosophy has had a considerable impact on 'liberal' intellectual life in America. As a result of his 'thought experiment' to identify the fundamental principles which would guarantee a minimal tolerable social existence for all citizens, he argues for a fair distribution of goods as constituting justice, the maximization of individual liberty compatible with the freedom of others, equality of opportunity, and qualified legitimacy of civil disobedience. His thesis, however, has proved to be highly controversial.

(1) It has been objected that it is not possible to hide completely behind the 'veil of ignorance'; we cannot start from an 'empty' position. The concept is formalistic. It would seem to follow that we do not have a 'rational' choice in Rawls' sense; or, if we do, other procedures, for example, risk-taking, might be equally rational.

(2) Rawls regards property as grounding his theory of rights. Some critics argue that the right to property is antecedent to a Rawlsian society by virtue of tacit agreements, contracts, and the like; and redistribution would in fact constitute an injustice. Moreover, happiness, or freedom, rather than redistribution of property 'goods' could be taken as the proper foundation for justice.

(3) Rawls seems to subordinate liberty to justice. Some critics are not happy with the perceived consequence that citizens might be compelled to act in accordance with the principles, notwithstanding their acceptance of the social contract.



Rawls: A Theory of Justice (1971; revd edn 1991) Harvard; Political Liberalism (1991; revd edn 1996). See further: Collected Papers, ed. S. Freeman.


Discussions in:

B. Barry, The Liberal Theory of Justice.

R. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Collections of essays

N. Daniels, (ed.), Reading Rawls.

S. Freeman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rawls.






Note: Rawls's account of man's social nature also owes something to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) — cf. also Mill [4a b].


[1a; cf. 1c e] Individual rights and equality — inadequacy of utilitarianism; people as ends not means










[1b] Justice in terms of fair distribution of goods grounded in free rational choice; principles as categorical imperatives









[3a-d f]



[3g 3h]


[8g 9d 10c]


[1c; cf. 1a e] Good as successful execution of one's rational plan of life — variety of ends; the 'moral personality', equality, and natural rights






[18c d]

[3c 3e]

[1a b]




[1d] 'Veil of ignorance' (hypothetical contract) needed to determine justice; [later] actual social contract; social nature of mankind










[1f 1h]

[1c 6f]


[3e 4c]



[1e; cf. 1a c] Key principles: maximization of equal liberty and the difference principle; egalitariansim








[1f] Civil disobedience — but acceptance of penal consequences