John Rawls (February 21, 1921–November 24, 2002) was a renowned American political philosopher and a significant representative of liberalism within the academy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University, and received the National Humanities Medal in 1999.

Rawls is sometimes considered the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century, perhaps especially by those who share his political views and philosophical techniques. Beginning with a series of influential articles that he published in the 1950s and ’60s, Rawls helped refocus Anglo-American moral and political philosophy on questions of substantive justice and fairness. His first book, A Theory of Justice [TJ] (1971), revitalized the social contract tradition of Thomas HobbesJohn Locke, and especially Immanuel Kant, in order to articulate and defend a detailed vision of egalitarian liberalism, which Rawls popularized as the idea of justice as fairness. In Political Liberalism [PL] (1993), he recast the role of political philosophy, introducing the influential concept of public reason that aimed to accommodate the intractable diversity of religious, philosophical, and moral worldviews that characterize modern societies. In The Law of Peoples [LP] (2001), Rawls extended the ideas of justice as fairness and public reason to the international level, with the goal of laying out the standards that should guide relations among liberal and non-liberal societies.

Rawls’s theoretical project has been influential not only in political science and philosophy, but also in law, economics, healthcare, and environmental studies. His work has inspired several generations of spirited defenders and equally spirited critics, and his influence on the discipline of liberal political theory can be gleaned from the fact that innumerable works of “justificatory liberalism” take their bearings from the problem of legitimacy that Rawls made central to his work.

Rawls’s undertaking was exceptionally ambitious. In contrast to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and other modern Enlightenment thinkers—who aimed to uncover the rational presuppositions of morality and natural right—Rawls sought to articulate a “free-standing” conception of justice, one that (he believed) did not depend on controversial metaphysical foundations. Because it neither presupposes nor seeks to shape a consensus about the deepest commitments that divide human beings, Rawls hoped that his “political liberalism” could be more inclusive and just than Enlightenment liberalism. Thus, Rawls famously describes his teaching in PL as “political, not metaphysical,” and his TJ takes as its starting point the assumption that “the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position.” Rawls hoped that this methodology would render commitment to political liberalism less metaphysically demanding while securing greater political stability and legitimacy.

A Theory of Justice: Moral Egalitarianism and Justice as Fairness

Rawls begins TJ by rejecting the utilitarian assumptions that animate much modern liberal thought. The preface of TJ announces that one of the book’s main aims is to provide a “workable and systematic moral conception to oppose” utilitarianism (xvii). By utilitarianism, Rawls has in mind the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century theories advocated by Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, which aim to secure the greatest good for the greatest number of people. From Rawls’s perspective, the chief defect of utilitarianism is that it cannot “provide a satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons, a requirement of absolutely first importance for an account of democratic institutions” (xii). In particular, utilitarianism fails to satisfy the demands of justice insofar as it sacrifices the needs of the economically disadvantaged at the altar of the collective welfare of the majority.

To overcome the defects of utilitarian defenses of liberalism, Rawls seeks to “generalize and carry to a higher order of abstraction the traditional theory of the social contract as represented by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant” (xviii). Crucially, this project is not a mere revival, but instead a thorough rethinking of modern contractarianism, since Rawls hopes to respond to “the more obvious objections often thought fatal” to social contract teachings. While Rawls goes back to the modern contract theories, he brings to them a set of fresh egalitarian social concerns that the Enlightenment theorists did not share. He regards his interpretation of the social contract theory as “highly Kantian in nature” (xvii), and through it he seeks to accommodate contractarianism to contemporary liberal sensibilities.

The ambitious nature of Rawls’s revision of social contract theory can be gleaned from his definition of the “general conception of justice.” Instead of the Lockean and Jeffersonian emphasis on equal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Rawls defines justice in substantive terms as the minimum set of economic conditions that any legitimate society must secure for its citizens. Thus, for Rawls justice requires that “all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage” (54). On the basis of this definition of justice, Rawls deems “inequalities that are not to the benefit of all” as fundamentally unjust (54).

“Original Position” vs. the “State of Nature”

The main argumentative device of TJ is the “original position.” Following Rawls’s own implicit suggestions, most readers interpret the original position as an up-to-date version of the “state of nature” teaching of Hobbes and Locke. But a crucial difference begins to emerge when we see that Rawls presents the original position not as an empirical account of man’s nature from which his contract teaching emerges, but rather as a “purely hypothetical” and non-historical condition that is intended to “simulate the reflections” that could justify the social structure that TJ proposes (104). Although Rawls relies on the original position to connect “the theory of justice with the theory of rational choice,” critics have suggested that the constraints he builds into it limit its appeal and cast doubt on its universal applicability. Thus, when Rawls describes the aim of the original position, he restricts himself to saying that it is intended to “make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice” (17–18).

Rawls draws attention to this paradoxical feature of his teaching by mentioning (in passing) the “somewhat unusual conditions which characterize the original position” (16). Indeed, these artificial conditions make clear that the original position cannot have the same meaning in Rawls’s political philosophy that the state of nature teaching did in the theory of the contractarians. For Hobbes and Locke, the state of nature revealed the permanent features of human nature when it was divested of social conventions. According to that teaching, man’s primary concern was self-preservation, and his primary passion was the fear of violent death, and this provided a sufficient selfish reason for the creation of a social contract. As Hobbes argues in the Leviathan, because the state of nature entails the “war of every man against every man,” it reveals the necessity of those “dictates of reason” (or laws of nature) that are conducive to peace (Leviathan, Ch. XV). For Hobbes and his followers, enlightened self-interest provides a solution to the problem of collective action in the state of nature: because civil society provides the only genuine remedy against the inconveniences of man’s natural existence, and the only guarantee of civic peace, its obligations are rationally justifiable.

Rawls refuses to make similarly ambitious claims about the original position: he chooses to describe it as an “expository device,” leaving the reader wondering to what extent it is actually grounded in the natural needs and longings of human beings (19). But such a natural approach would lead Rawls into a thicket of unresolved metaphysical and psychological difficulties, and open up a chasm between the moral requirements Rawls imposes on the original position and the selfish and rational characteristics that he imputes to human nature. Rawls is thus led to insist that “[t]he several kinds of egoism,” although not irrational, do not define the actors in the original position (117). But to support this proposition he marshals ambiguous evidence that raises more questions than it answers: “although egoism is logically consistent and in this sense not irrational, it is incompatible with what we ultimately regard as the moral point of view” (117).

Like Hobbes and Locke, Rawls is an individualist, but unlike his Enlightenment predecessors, he does not wish to accept the harsh practical and theoretical consequences of that individualism. This difference between the “state of nature” teaching and the “original position” becomes vivid when we consider Rawls’s recourse to an artificial “veil of ignorance” to ensure that reasoning from the initial position will culminate in the embrace of the Rawlsian just society. By depriving individuals of the knowledge of their social, economic, and even religious circumstances in society, the veil of ignorance is intended “to nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage” (118). Rawls employs the veil of ignorance to move beyond the minimal egalitarianism of the Enlightenment thinkers—which aimed at peace and safety while leaving the distribution of other goods to man’s natural and free competition—to his expansive egalitarianism of “primary social goods” (123).

Reasoning in the original position gives rise to “justice as fairness,” which receives expression in two principles. The first principle secures the basic liberties of a just society, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, and demands that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (220, 53). The first principle of justice takes priority and Rawls insists that it may not be violated, even for the sake of the second principle, which deals with economic justice. The second principle stipulates that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (53).

Crucially, in interpreting the second principle of justice, Rawls rejects the market-based system of modern capitalism as being incompatible with economic requirements of justice as fairness. Capitalism, or what Rawls calls the “system of natural liberty,” cannot ensure a just economic distribution, because it is too heavily influenced by the “prior distribution of natural … talents and abilities.” Market-based competition, Rawls argues, is influenced by factors that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view” because it leaves an individual’s prospects of success prey to natural talents that “have been developed or left unrealized, and their use favored or disfavored … by social circumstances … accident and good fortune” (72). In light of these statements, it is not surprising that TJ has come to be regarded as a powerful philosophical statement in favor of redistributive economic justice and welfare state liberalism.

Political Liberalism: A Free-Standing Conception of Justice

From a Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism

In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, his critique of TJ, Michael Sandel argues that Rawls’s theory holds that the person or moral subject is an abstract agent of choice, completely separated from his or her ends, personal attributes, community, tradition, religion, and history. Only by adopting this notion of the “unencumbered self” does Rawls’s theory of justice make sense. Furthermore, Sandel argues that Rawls never defends these “voluntarist” assumptions about human nature. But because these assumptions are controversial, and indeed inconsistent with some of our basic moral experiences—in which human beings participate not as freely choosing agents but as subjects of tradition and the obligations of community—Sandel believes that they render Rawls’s theory inadequate to meet its self-described task.

Sandel’s critique of Rawls is part of what emerged in the 1980s as the debate over communitarianism and liberalism. Twenty-two years after TJ, Rawls published Political Liberalism (PL), a major restatement of his views. Although he denies that PL “replies to criticisms raised by communitarians and others,” in the introduction to that work Rawls goes out of his way to present PL as a significant reformulation of his argument, driven by the need to resolve difficulties internal to his theory of justice: “[J]ustice as fairness is presented [in TJ] as a comprehensive liberal doctrine,” which requires that “all members of its well-ordered society affirm that same doctrine.” But given the plurality of views that persists under free institutions, Rawls has now come to recognize that the agreement that TJ presupposed is impossible within a liberal political order: “This kind of well-ordered society contradicts the fact of reasonable pluralism and hence Political Liberalism regards that society as impossible.” Accordingly, “a main aim of PL is to show that the idea of the well-ordered society in Theory may be reformulated so as to take account of the fact of reasonable pluralism.”

This transformation in Rawls’s approach accounts for the very different set of questions and priorities that inform Rawls’s investigation in PL. When Rawls formulates the guiding question of PL, he takes explicit stock of the problem of religious pluralism: “How is it possible for those affirming a comprehensive doctrine, religious or non-religious, and in particular doctrines based on religious authority, such as the Church or the Bible, also to hold a reasonable political conception of justice that supports a constitutional democratic society?” This explains the heightened emphasis in PL on the question of how to achieve stability and legitimacy in a pluralistic society encompassing citizens who are committed to diverse viewpoints. The latter objective requires Rawls to introduce a conception of public reason “that does not trespass on citizens’ comprehensive doctrines so long as those doctrines are consistent with a democratic polity.”

Public Reason and Overlapping Consensus

The key innovation of PL involves the introduction of the “idea of public reason.” According to Rawls, public reason is the form of reason that should govern citizens of a liberal democracy in deliberating about “’constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice.” While citizens will continue to hold divergent metaphysical, moral, and religious commitments in private, the ideal that Rawls constructs would require them to draw upon publicly shared principles in political deliberation. Rawls hopes that by adopting his prescription, citizens in a constitutional regime will be able to reach an “overlapping consensus” on political questions while preserving their commitment to a diversity of viewpoints, which Rawls emphasizes will inevitably include “both religious and nonreligious, liberal and nonliberal” values. (xxxviii)

Rawls borrows the idea of public reason from Immanuel Kant, but reverses Kant’s position. In “What is Enlightenment?” Kant had argued that “the public use of man’s reason must be free,” for “enlightenment requires nothing but freedom.” “The private use of reason,” however, “may quite often be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment.” For Rawls, in contrast, it is private reason that is free to lead where it may, while public reason (as we shall see) is always restricted, in order to accommodate intractable diversity. Kant justified the freedom of public reason on the grounds that “it alone can bring out enlightenment among men.” By enlightenment, Kant meant “the use of [one’s] own understanding,” “without the guidance of another,” above all, “in religious matters,” which are “the focal point of enlightenment.”

Enlightenment, however, is not the goal of Rawlsian public reason; and, far from being the focal point, religious matters are removed from consideration by public reason altogether. According to the restriction established by Rawlsian public reason, liberalism does not “question the possible truth of affirmation of faith.” The truth or falsehood of comprehensive doctrines is simply not at issue from the perspective of Rawlsian liberalism: “The intention is not to replace those comprehensive views, nor to give them a true foundation. Indeed, that intention would be delusional” (xviii). As Joseph Raz puts it, “[t]he beliefs, attitudes, and institutions which constitute public culture may well have a sound foundation in some comprehensive, possibly universal, moral theory. Alternatively, they may lack sound foundations. Neither matters.” Because deliberation in terms of public reason can proceed on the basis of premises that can be shared between citizens who remain deeply divided in their comprehensive views, Rawls promises that political liberalism will “try to bypass religion and philosophy’s profoundest controversies” (152). By so bracketing the question of religious truth, Rawls hopes that political liberalism will “make it possible for all [citizens] to accept the political conception as true or reasonable from the standpoint of their own comprehensive views, whatever [they] may be” (150).

Rawls therefore fashions his doctrine of public reason as an alternative to public enlightenment in order to accommodate pluralism more effectively than was possible under the classical liberal teaching: “political liberalism is sharply different from and rejects Enlightenment Liberalism, which historically attacked orthodox Christianity” (486). Political liberalism will aspire to “impartiality” or neutrality, and when public reason functions as it should, it will avoid “questions of truth,” not just with respect to liberal but also illiberal views (395). As far as religion is concerned, public reason will accomplish this feat by “tak[ing] the truth of religion off the political agenda” (151). Crucially, Rawls insists that this approach will not entail the promotion of religious or metaphysical indifference: “Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity” (766). Even this last exception does not entail a challenge to the truth of the doctrine in question, because Rawls insists that political liberalism refrains from challenging the truth of any view, and remains silent about its own truth. Because comprehensive doctrines contradict each other, there can be no unique comprehensive justification of liberal political order: when considered politically, liberalism must be “free-standing” in order to leave room for citizens to uncover the bases of their commitment to the constitutional regime from within their own comprehensive outlooks.

Scholarly attention has focused on the restrictions that Rawls places on the use of public reason, and critics have objected to Rawls’s insistence that arguments that rely exclusively on religious views cannot be employed in public deliberation. Rawls’s first account of this requirement, in the cloth-bound version of PL, declares that on “fundamental political matters, reasons given explicitly in terms of comprehensive doctrines are never to be introduced in public reason” (247). But by embracing this requirement Rawls opens his theory to a thorny challenge, because he has to explain how his vision of public reason can do justice to the greatest moral conflicts and historical reforms in American history. In particular, Rawls has difficulty explaining how the religious rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., the abolitionists before him, and even possibly Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, can be made compatible with public reason. He is led to admit in PL that for much of American history, public reason has been at most an ideal rather than a genuine requirement of responsible public deliberation (250-252).

Rawls reconsiders the fairness of such a restrictive position, and reevaluates the complexity of King’s case in his Law of the Peoples. In “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” Rawls offers a more permissive alternative. He now argues that we are allowed “to introduce into political discussion at any time our comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, provided that, in due course, we give properly public reasons to support the principles and policies our comprehensive doctrine is said to support.” This standard, however, still limits religious appeals, critics argue, because it makes their legitimacy contingent on whether or not sufficiently non-religious reasons are also supplied in public discourse.

One of the most controversial aspects of Rawls’s account of public reason concerns his discussion of abortion, which appears in a long footnote in PL. In an attempt to illustrate “comprehensive doctrines that run afoul of public reason,” Rawls turns to objections to abortion in the first trimester, proposing to consider the question by striking a balance between three important values: “the due respect for human life, the ordered reproduction of political society over time, including the family in some form, and finally the equality of women as equal citizens” (243n32). In his attempt to show how public reason can operate without at the same time unduly burdening or even excluding religious viewpoints from deliberation, Rawls comes to the following conclusion:

Now I believe that any reasonable balance of these three values will give a woman a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester. The reason for this is that at this early stage of pregnancy the political value of the equality of women is overriding, and this right is required to give it substance and force. Other political values, if tallied in, would not, I think, affect this conclusion.

In subsequent publications Rawls retreated from his calm and confident decree that public reason settles the debate over the justice of abortion once and for all. Nevertheless, it should be sobering for those who are interested in nurturing a liberalism that is genuinely pluralistic that even in the hands of so conscientious a thinker as Rawls the appeal to public reason can serve to deny the reality of competing goods and perspectives.

–Essays by Giorgi Areshidze.

Bibliography and Further Readings:

References to Works by John Rawls:

Other References:

  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Edwin Curley (Hackett Publishing, 1994)
  • Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment,” in Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), edited by H. S. Reiss and translated by H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Two Powerful Criticisms of Rawls’s Political Thought:

General Introductions to Rawls’s Thought and Life:

  • Henry S. Richardson and Paul J. Weithman, eds., The Philosophy of Rawls, 5 vols., (Garland, 1999)
  • Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rawls (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Thomas Pogge, “A Brief Sketch of Rawls’s Life,” in The Philosophy of Rawls, Vol. 1, pp. 1-15