John Rawls (1921–2002)


John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from Princeton University in 1943, he joined the US army and saw active service in the Far East. After the war he resumed his studies at Princeton, earning a doctorate in moral philosophy in 1950. After two further years teaching at Princeton, Rawls went to the University of Oxford on a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. In 1964 he became a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University—a connection he maintained until his death.


Rawls is most famous for his book A Theory of Justice (1971); indeed, this is arguably the most celebrated work of political philosophy of the twentieth century (see page 10 of the Introduction). Rawls used a variation of social contract theory (see page 35, Chapter 1 for a discussion of the liberal social contract tradition, as well as the biographies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau). He envisaged a group of individuals in a hypothetical situation, where they were ignorant of their status in life. From behind this “veil of ignorance,” what principles of justice would individuals lay down as the best way to govern their society? (For analysis, see pages 85–87, Chapter 4)

Rawls believes that such individuals would establish two key principles. First, they would want protection for certain liberties that turn out to be very similar to those enjoyed in a liberal democratic society. However, the enjoyment of such liberties by the majority (if not all) the people depended on equality of opportunity, but also what Rawls called the “difference” principle. By this he meant that although economic inequalities would be allowed, they could only be justified if they produced benefits for society as a whole.

Overall, Rawls believed that “justice” was based upon “fairness.” However, he insisted that, if there was a clash between liberty and equality, freedom must come first. This order of priorities underlined the fact that Rawls was a liberal—a point that is also illustrated by his characterization of individuals behind the “veil of ignorance”; as being rational and (moderately) self-interested. For Rawls’s admirers, his work could thus be used to attack the ideas of laissez-faire liberals from premises that most of them would have to accept. Believers in laissez-faire agreed that individuals were rational and self-interested; but while they were unlikely to quarrel seriously with Rawls’s list of necessary liberties, they tended to reject his views on equality.

From a British perspective, the clamour of praise for Rawls’s work is something of a puzzle. One might almost suspect that the book would have been hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a revival of political philosophy, regardless of its content. Rawls, after all, was very well connected within the academic communities of both Britain and America. His conclusions are not far removed from the views associated with Britain’s post-war “consensus,” which had been heavily influenced by William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes, who were both liberals. Yet people like Beveridge and Keynes had seen no need to justify their views with an implausible device like the veil of ignorance; the successful institution of a welfare state in Britain implied that its citizens were capable of appreciating policies that were in the long-term interest of individuals and society as a whole.

In America, though, things were different; there was nothing comparable to the (fairly) generous British welfare state. In that context, Rawls’s work looked fairly radical; and as such it was attacked by other philosophers, notably Robert Nozick (see page 87, Chapter 4). For laissez-faire liberals like Nozick, Rawls’s “difference principle” was actually quite spurious; they believed that a system that allowed economic inequalities was self-evidently beneficial to society as a whole, because in the absence of an unrestrained profit motive there could be no significant material advances. The advocates of laissez-faire emphasized what they called a “trickle-down” effect, whereby the vast wealth and heavy expenditure of certain individuals would (eventually) benefit people at all levels of society.

In 1993 Rawls published Political Liberalism, a modified restatement of his theory, which now included echoes of the social libertarian arguments of John Stuart Mill (see page 39, Chapter 1). A more controversial volume, The Law of Peoples, was published three years before his death. In this book Rawls dismayed some of his admirers by claiming that the principles of justice could and should not be applied on a global scale. This seemed to run counter to the spirit of the theory of justice, which could be used to support the case for a radical redistribution of wealth between nations, to achieve something like equality of opportunity on a world scale. Instead of accepting this argument, Rawls sounded like a right-wing Republican in claiming that such a redistribution could end up being no more than a subsidy for the lazy. He also allowed for the possibility of military intervention against states that violated human rights—a view that was being warmly espoused at the time of his death by neo-conservatives who were unlikely allies for such an archetypal American liberal.

Further Reading

Samuel Freeman, Rawls, Routledge, 2007.

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