Key thinker: John Rawls (1921–2002)

John Rawls (1921–2002)


John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a relatively well-off family. After finishing school, he enrolled at Princeton University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1943 ( In February of that year, Rawls enlisted in the U.S. army, serving as an infantryman in New Guinea and the Philippines during the Second World War. The violence Rawls encountered on his tour led him to abandon his Christian faith and adopt atheism. Though he rose quickly through the ranks, Rawls became disillusioned with the military and chose to return to Princeton, where he earned his PhD in moral philosophy in 1950 (

Rawls embarked on an academic career that would take him from Princeton to Cornell and MIT. He also spent time at Oxford University as a Fulbright Fellow and taught at Harvard University, where he held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship ( Rawls rarely made public appearances and never became the public intellectual that his work had allowed him to be. He dedicated most of his life to his family and research, but following several strokes in 1995 he was unable to fully continue his research ( John Rawls died on 24 November 2002 in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was 81 years old.


Rawls is best known for A Theory of Justice (1971), arguably the most celebrated work of political philosophy in the twentieth century. He is often credited with reviving normative analytical political philosophy (see 31.1. Introduction). Rawls builds on liberal social contract theory to form a thought experiment which, he argues, will result in the establishment of a set of normative principles of justice (see 32.2. A Theory of Justice: The Basics). Rawls placed a group of individuals in a hypothetical situation—the ‘original position’ (see 32.2.3. The Original Position)—where each was ignorant of their place or status in society. He asked himself what principles of justice these people would agree on as the best way to govern society from behind this ‘veil of ignorance’ (

Rawls thought that reasonable individuals placed behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ would establish two key principles to govern their hypothetical society. First, they would demand the protection of a set of key liberties (as Rawls puts it ‘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’) (Rawls, 2006, p. 63). This is the greatest equal liberty principle. Second, social and economic inequalities are only legitimate if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged in society, and if privileges are gained in a context of equal opportunity. These are the two constituent parts of the difference principle (

For Rawls, justice was based on fairness (see 32.1. Introduction). In Justice as Fairness, a 1985 restatement of his theory of justice, Rawls argues that while justice as fairness was comprised of two principles, liberty and equality, the principles did not hold the same weight. Rather, they were organized according to their ‘lexical priority’; if there was a clash between liberty and equality, freedom must come first ( Nonetheless, each is a key aspect of justice as fairness, which cannot exist without its constituent parts. This order of principles—and his emphasis on liberties that are those often enjoyed in liberal societies—points to Rawls’ liberal bias. This is also evident in his characterization of the individuals behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ as rational and (moderately) self-interested.

Justice as Fairness is a rebuttal to laissez-faire liberalism, beginning from premises that such liberals are likely to accept (though they might be less willing to accept its conclusions). But for his critics, Rawls’ theory of justice does not go far enough. Iris Marion Young (see Chapter 22 on Iris Marion Young), for example, insists that a theory of justice should be less concerned with basic institutions than with ending domination and oppression. Other feminist critics have pointed out that the hypothetical individuals in Rawls’ original position—rational, mutually disinterested economic actors—will inevitably choose principles of justice that relate to distributive justice. ‘Justice as fairness’ is therefore ill-equipped to deal with other kinds of injustices such as those arising within the family, which Rawls consigns to the private sphere (see 32.3.2. The Feminist Critics). Moreover, Rawls does not consider the role of love, care, and relationships or any other strong social ties as a necessary part of the self. This Kantian perspective (see Chapter 29 on Immanuel Kant) dismisses any judgements based on emotions. Emotions such as anger at an unjust social and political order are therefore expelled from a theory which purports to be concerned with justice.

Charles W. Mills (see Chapter 10 on Charles Mills) further argues that it is important to place Rawls’ thought within its political and intellectual context (though analytical political philosophers might disagree). Rawls’ revival of normative analytical political theory coincided with the latter part of the era of decolonization in the global south and Civil Rights in the United States (see 32.4.1. What is the basic structure?). It is concerning not to see these two major struggles against injustice in the twentieth century acknowledged in Rawls’ work. Rawls reproduces the tacit exclusion of non-white people from liberal political philosophy. The original position, and the principle of justice as fairness which follows, forecloses any discussion of a racial or colonial past. It therefore misjudges what the normative priorities of political philosophy ought to be. After all, how can a just society emerge from a framework that practically makes it impossible to address past injustices?

In 1993, Rawls published Political Liberalism, another modified restatement of his theory. A more controversial volume, The Law of Peoples, was published three years before his death ( In the book, Rawls argues that his principles of justice cannot and should not be applied on a global scale. While justice as fairness could be used to justify the radical redistribution of wealth between nations—a sort of equality of opportunity principle on a world scale—Rawls refused to apply his principles globally. He insisted that there was no transnational institutional structure which could guarantee justice as fairness (see 32.4.3. The Scope of Justice). Rawls’ conception of social justice therefore only applies to closed, independent, and self-sufficient societies.

Like the individuals behind the veil of ignorance, these societies don't have a history: he implies that the underdevelopment of certain countries can be attributed solely to their national cultures. But this perspective entirely ignores the role that slavery, colonialism, and imperialism played in the making of the modern world. As Walter Rodney shows in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), the development of the global north was made possible by the underdevelopment of the south. In fact, the very liberal societies Rawls so admires have been built off the profits from slavery and colonization.

Further reading

Charles W. Mills (2015) Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy, New Political Science, 37:1, 1-24

Nussbaum, M. (2002). Rawls and Feminism. In S. Freedman (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rawls (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, pp. 488-520). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benhabib, S. (2004). The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Okin SM. ‘Forty acres and a mule’ for women: Rawls and feminism. Politics, Philosophy & Economics. 2005;4(2):233-248.

Rawls, J., (2006). A theory of justice. In White, J.E. (ed.) Contemporary moral problems (pp. 60-66). Belmont CA., Thomas Wadworth. 

Rodney, Walter, Angela Y. Davis, Vincent Harding, Robert A. Hill, William Strickland, and Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. New edition. Brooklyn: Verso, 2018.

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