Skip to main content
Select Source:

Rawls, John

Rawls, John 1921-2002


John Rawls was one of the leading political philosophers of the twentieth century. His magisterial work, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971. That book was deeply influenced by philosophers in the social contract tradition, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and especially Immanuel Kant. A Theory of Justice stands with Thomas Hobbess Leviathan and Lockes Second Treatise as a classic statement of the contract view. In Rawlss later work, epitomized in his book Political Liberalism, he rethought and clarified some of his earlier positions and made explicit a highly original philosophical methodology. In his last book, The Law of Peoples, Rawls used the social contract to approach problems of international justice.

John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1921. He received his BA in philosophy from Princeton in January 1943. He entered the army shortly after graduating from college and saw combat in the Pacific theater during World War II. After his discharge from the military, Rawls returned to Princeton, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1949. In that year, he also married Margaret Fox, to whom he remained married until his death. Rawls spent 1950-1952 as an instructor at Princeton and 1952-1953 on a Fulbright Fellowship at Oxford. Upon his return to the United States, Rawls joined the philosophy department at Cornell. He moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960 and to Harvard in 1962. Rawls remained a member of the Harvard faculty until he retired in 1991. He taught and published in retirement until ill health made it impossible for him to continue working. He died on November 24, 2002.

Rawls took the central problem of contemporary political philosophy to be that of framing a conception of justice that would be appropriate for liberal democracies existing under modern conditions. At the heart of a conception of justice, Rawls thought, are norms for distributing the primary goods generated by social cooperation and distributed by societys basic structure. These goods are rights, liberties, income, wealth, opportunity, and the social bases of self-respect. The basic structure is the set of a societys most important economic, legal, and political institutions. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls defended two principles of justice governing the basic structures distribution of these goods: (1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. (2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls defended these principles by arguing that they are the solution to an important choice problem. More specifically, he argued that they would be adopted in a version of the social contract that he called the original position. In the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke, the contract is arrived at in the state of nature. Both Hobbes and Locke imagine this state to be one in which there is no government and in which human beings have God-given authority over themselves, but in which they also know that living under a common human authority would be advantageous. The choice problem confronting parties in the state of nature, according to Hobbes and Locke, is that of determining what form that authority should assume. Hobbes famously argued that parties faced with this problem would choose to delegate their powers to an absolute sovereign, while Locke defended limited sovereignty. In the original position, parties do not choose a form of government. Instead, they choose principles of justice to regulate their society. They choose from a menu of principles by asking which ones would guarantee them the greatest stock of primary goods if basic institutions conformed to them.

In the states of nature described by Hobbes and Locke, parties are free and are roughly equal in power. Despite their equality, they have information about themselves and their situation that they could, in principle, use to their advantage. In Lockes theory, for example, parties could know the extent of their property holdings, since Locke held that property rights are established before agreement on the terms of the social contract is reached. Differences in the parties holdings could give some an advantage over others, and so parties knowledge of differences in their holdings could affect the outcome of the contract.

According to Rawlss description of the original position, parties in it are deprived of all information about themselves and of all but the most general information about society. Given these restrictions on information, Rawls argued that it would be rational for parties in the original position to decide on principles using the maximin rule of rational choice. This rule enjoins choosers to select the option that guarantees the best worst outcome. Applied to the original position, maximin enjoins parties to maximize the stock of primary goods they would enjoy if they were in the worst-off social position. Rawls argued that parties choosing in the original position, using maximin, would adopt his two principles. The first principle guarantees equal liberty. The second clearly imposes a strong restriction on economic inequality and requires that all have equal opportunities to secure positions of advantage. Equality of opportunity, in turn, requires far more than the absence of legal barriers to such positions. Rawls believed that social and economic class of origin should not affect life prospects. Fair equality of opportunity therefore requires systems of education and training sufficient to ensure that developed talents are widely dispersed. Equal liberty has long been a part of the liberal tradition. Part of Rawlss own pioneering contribution was to show the resources of the social contract tradition could be deployed to defend equality of opportunity and highly economic egalitarianism as well.

The lack of information available in the original position, effected by what Rawls called the veil of ignorance, struck many rational choice theorists as an implausible stipulation. Rawls defended the informational constraints by arguing that the veil of ignorance merely makes vivid a condition we intuitively recognize as a plausible one to impose on our own reasoning about justice: Our thinking about what is right should not, we think, be distorted by information about what is to our own advantage. The veil of ignorance guarantees that the parties reasoning about justice will not be distorted in this way. Because parties in the original position are free, equal, and unbiased, Rawls argued, they are situated fairly. Because they are situated fairly, he concluded, the principles they would choose are fair. Rawls therefore called his conception of justice justice as fairness.

Modern liberal democracies exist under conditions of religious and philosophical pluralism. In Political Liberalism and other later work, Rawls argued that justice as fairness could secure agreement about basic justice among citizens of democracies in these conditions. It could do so because justice as fairness does not begin with metaphysical theses about the human person or the human good that are drawn from any one religious or philosophical view. Rather, it begins with ideas about the person, about political argument, and about social cooperation that are implicit in the public culture of democratic societies. For example, Rawls argued that the conditions of the original position represent fundamental elements of human moral personality. Rawlss argument that political philosophy should begin with ideas latent in public culture seemed to some philosophers to introduce a highly questionable method into political theorizing. But, Rawls countered, liberal thinkers in the early modern period sought a basis for political agreement that could be shared by citizens of diverse religions. To claim that political philosophy should not presuppose the truth of a contentious metaphysical theory is to do no more, he maintained, than to extend their principle of toleration from religion to philosophy itself. Because the principle of religious toleration is so much a part of the liberal tradition, Rawlss imaginative extension of the principle of tolerationlike his defense of economic egalitarianism and fair equality of opportunitycounts as an important part of his enduring bequest to that tradition.

SEE ALSO Democracy; Hobbes, Thomas; Justice; Justice, Distributive; Locke, John; Maximin Principle; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social Contract; State of Nature


Freeman, Samuel, ed. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Rawls. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rawls, John. 1999. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paul Weithman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rawls, John." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Rawls, John." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 17, 2018).

"Rawls, John." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 17, 2018 from

John Rawls

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

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). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"John Rawls." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 17 Jan. 2018 <>.

"John Rawls." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (January 17, 2018).

"John Rawls." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 17, 2018 from

Rawls, John Bordley


John Bordley Rawls was one of the major moral and political philosophers of the twentieth century. His work embraced liberalism and egalitarianism, while rejecting utilitarianism and more radical political ideas. His most important work, A Theory of Justice (1971), discusses the idea of "justice as fairness."

Rawls was born on February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, Maryland. He earned his bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1943 and his doctorate from Princeton in 1950. Rawls was an instructor at Princeton between 1950 and 1952, before attending Oxford University in England as a Fulbright Fellow. Upon his return to the United States in 1953, he served as a professor at Cornell University (1953–59) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960–62).

In 1962, Rawls was appointed professor of philosophy at Harvard University, an institution he served until his retirement in 1991. He continued as a professor emeritus at Harvard, however, in the late 1990s.

Rawls developed his ideas on justice in scholarly articles in the 1950s and 1960s. The

publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 was the culmination of this work. The book received widespread praise for its application of analytic techniques to the substantive (rather than the methodological) issues in morality.

Rawls's theory of justice is premised on two fundamental principles of justice that, he believed, would guarantee a just and morally acceptable society. The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty that is compatible with the liberty of others. The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be to everyone's advantage and open to all.

One central concern for Rawls was to show how such principles would be universally adopted. Working from these principles, Rawls developed in detail a simple, but powerful, idea that he called "justice as fairness." This idea proposes that the rules of a group are fair to the extent that a person would agree to be bound by them when ignorant ("the veil of ignorance") of his own possession of characteristics that the rules of the system reward or penalize. In this "original position," a person would not agree to unfair rules because there would be the possibility that he or she would be disadvantaged by them. Thus, the original position forces a person to make moral conclusions and to adopt a generalized point of view in making a social contract.

"Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override."
—John Rawls

Rawls published Political Liberalism in 1993 (updated in 1996), partly in response to criticism of A Theory of Justice. His Collected Papers were published in 1999, as was The Law of Peoples; with, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited. In 2000, his lectures while a professor at Harvard were edited and collected as Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Harvard University Press published more essays the following year as Justice as Fairness, a Restatement. Rawls died on November 24, 2002, at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

further readings

Bullock, Alan, and R.B. Woodings, eds. 1983. 20th Century Culture: A Biographical Companion. New York: Harper & Row.

Kukathas, Chandran, ed. 2003. John Rawls: Critical Assessments of Leading Political Philosophers. New York: Routledge.

Rawls, John. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.

——. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.

Talisse, Robert B. 2001. On Rawls. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.


Jurisprudence; Moral Law.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rawls, John Bordley." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 17 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Rawls, John Bordley." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (January 17, 2018).

"Rawls, John Bordley." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved January 17, 2018 from

Rawls, John Bordley

John Bordley Rawls, 1921–2002, American philosopher and political theorist, b. Baltimore, grad. Princeton (A.B., 1943; Ph.D., 1950). He taught at Princeton (1950–52), Cornell (1953–59), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960–62) before becoming (1962) professor of philosophy at Harvard. Rawls's chief work, A Theory of Justice (1971, 2d ed. 1999), has been called the 20th century's most influential work of liberal political philosophy. In it, he attempts, within the social contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, to offer an alternative to utilitarian political philosophy (see utilitarianism). His system was developed from two basic principles: Each person has a right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with like liberty for others, and inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power are just only when they can be reasonably expected to work to the advantage of those who are worst off. For Rawls, justice does not require equality in social position, but it does require that people share one another's fate.

Providing the social contract tradition with a formidable philosophic defense by balancing the claims of liberty and equality, Rawls's book revived interest in systematic political theory. His other works include The Law of Peoples (1999) and Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (2000). He restated and enlarged the arguments of his 1971 magnum opus, replying to his critics and correcting what he perceived as mistakes in the original work while aiming at a broader audience, in his Justice as Fairness (2001). Rawls's liberalism has often been compared to the conservatism of his fellow Harvard philosophy professor, Robert Nozick.

See studies by B. M. Barry (1973), R. P. Wolff (1977), D. L. Schaefer (1979), A. Pampapathy Rao (1979, 1981, and 1998), R. Martin (1985), T. W. Pogge (1989), C. Kukathas and P. Pettit (1990), J. A. Corlett, ed. (1991), R. Alejandro (1998), D. A. Dombrowski (2001), and R. B. Talisse (2001).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rawls, John Bordley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Rawls, John Bordley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (January 17, 2018).

"Rawls, John Bordley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 17, 2018 from