John Rawls

John Rawls was a prominent 20th-century philosopher known for his theory of justice as fairness, which emphasizes equality, human dignity, and a social contract framework to guide just societies.

John Rawls (1921 – 2002)


In the world of 20th-century American philosophy, few figures stand as prominently as John Rawls. Often compared to Plato in the realm of classical political philosophy, Rawls is celebrated for his role in the revival of political philosophy and the advancement of normative political theory. He is not only a prominent figure but also known as an Egalitarian Philosopher and a leading proponent of social liberalism.

Influences Shaping John Rawls’ Philosophy

John Locke

John Rawls built the foundation of his theory of justice upon John Locke’s social contract theory. According to Locke, the state of nature was characterized by peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation, but it lacked a central authority to create, enforce, and adjudicate laws. Rawls, following in Locke’s footsteps, constructed his theory within the framework of the social contract tradition.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant, a revered German philosopher, made significant contributions to the idea of human dignity. Both Kant and Rawls are contractarians, deriving principles for social justice from the social contract model. Rawls drew inspiration from Kant, particularly in the development of his philosophy of Justice based on fairness. Like Kant, Rawls believed that human dignity should be a foundational principle of justice, emphasizing the importance of moral individualism within liberalism.

The Context of his Times

John Rawls was not working in isolation but was deeply influenced by the socio-political context of his era. The 20th century witnessed a plethora of social movements, including the Civil Rights movement, feminist activism, environmental concerns, anti-war protests against the Vietnam War, and disarmament campaigns. These movements played a pivotal role in shaping Rawls’ thoughts and contributed to the resurgence of normative political theory.

Key Works of John Rawls

Rawls left an indelible mark on political philosophy through his significant works:

The Theory of Justice (1971): In this seminal work, Rawls sought to offer an alternative to utilitarianism while addressing the complex issue of distributive justice.

Justice as Fairness (1985): This article delves into Rawls’ conception of justice, where he lays out his vision of a just society.

Political Liberalism (1993): In response to criticism from communitarians, Rawls modified his theory of justice to create a more nuanced perspective.

The Laws of Peoples (1993): In this work, Rawls engaged with challenges posed by cosmopolitan scholars like Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge, providing thoughtful responses and furthering his ideas. In this book John Rawls espoused the idea of “Global society”.

Further he also explained 5 types of Political regimes in this particular book:

  • Liberal Society
  • Hierarchal Society
  • Outlaws States
  • Burdened Societies
  • Benevolent Absolutism

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001): Rawls’ final book revisits and reviews the theory of justice he initially presented in 1971, offering a reflective perspective on his life’s work.

Some other works of John Rawls – 

  • Two Concepts of Rule (1955)
  • Ideas of Overlapping Consensus (1987)
  • Distributive Justice

Role of Political Philosophy by John Rawls

John Rawls sees political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles:

  • Political Philosophy can discover grounds for reasoned agreement in society.
  • It can help citizens orient themselves within their own social world.
  • It can probe the limits of practicable political possibility.
  • It can show that human life is not simply domination and cruelty and can help attain reconciliation.

John Rawls’ School of Thought

John Rawls, a prominent figure in the realm of political philosophy, belongs to the school of Positive Liberalism or Social Liberalism. He stands in sharp contrast to utilitarianism, criticizing its idea of justice. Rawls describes his theory as ‘deontological,’ rooted in duty rather than utility—a stark departure from the utilitarian perspective that prioritizes pleasure as the yardstick of ethics.

For Rawls, justice as fairness hinges on the concept of human dignity and transcends mere utility—it rises above it. His theory is purely procedural, emphasizing the importance of the process through which principles of justice are determined.

John Rawls’ Methodology

John Rawls employs the methodology of the ‘social contract.’ In this framework, individuals act as representatives who come together to formulate the principles of justice. According to Rawls, the social contract ensures that these principles emerge from rational dialogue and deliberation rather than being imposed from external sources. The goal is to achieve a consensus on the foundational principles that govern society referred to as well ordered society. He basically conceived “society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage”.

Distribution of Primary Goods

John Rawls distinguishes between two types of primary goods: natural and social. Natural primary goods, such as inherent qualities, are not subject to distribution. Social primary goods, on the other hand, encompass rights, liberty, income, wealth, and dignity. These social primary goods serve as means to attain secondary goods, crucial for achieving individuals’ rational plans.

Rawls does not view individuals through a Hobbesian lens. In his theory, people are inherently moral and possess a disinterested, mutual desire for justice. They have a fundamental understanding of right and wrong and recognize the benefits of cooperation. He propagated for distributive Justice.

John Rawls in his “theory of justice” argued that a reasonably liberal society would in fact be based on general and procedural rules that have no bearing on the question of distribution.

Original Position and The Veil of Ignorance: A Thought Experiment

He supported a contractual approach to justice, rooted in the original position (Primitive state). In this hypothetical scenario, all individuals are regarded as equals, shielded by a veil of ignorance that prevents them from possessing knowledge about others’ skills, social backgrounds, incomes, and so on. They possess only a general understanding of economics and psychology.

Even though the individuals in the original position lack information about each other, they possess rationality and would make rational decisions to establish principles that lead to a just distribution of resources in society. In this scenario, each person would aim to maximize their own self-interest, but due to their lack of knowledge about others, they would likely choose a society that minimizes their potential losses. Individuals would ensure that even the most disadvantaged person is not left destitute, in case they themselves turn out to be in that position. This principle of maximizing the minimum welfare is known as the maximizing principle. The negotiators, or individuals in this hypothetical situation, would choose the least risky path and would hypothetically place themselves in the least advantageous position while recommending the criteria for distributing primary goods.

Reflexive Equilibrium: Unveiling Rawls’ Approach to Justice

In the quest to unravel the principles of justice that should govern a society, John Rawls introduced a concept known as “reflexive equilibrium.” This approach delves into the idea that these principles are not merely arbitrary constructs but are deeply rooted in our inherent moral sense.

At its core, reflexive equilibrium is the process by which we refine and validate our judgments. It occurs when we scrutinize our beliefs, question our assumptions, and strive to achieve a harmonious balance within our moral framework. In other words, it’s a method of aligning our moral intuitions with our reasoned judgments, ensuring that our principles of justice resonate with our innate sense of fairness. Here he talks about two types of decision making: narrow and wide based on the rational choices in consideration of the overall aspect.

Rawls posits that moral judgments are not isolated; they are influenced by the broader society in which we live. Justice as fairness, as Rawls envisions it, is the embodiment of this reflexive equilibrium—a system of justice that emerges from the dynamic interplay of our moral intuitions and our rational assessments.

The Maximum Principle: Rational Negotiation for Justice

Rawls views individuals as rational negotiators in the pursuit of justice. He asserts that rational choices aim to maximize advantages while minimizing disadvantages. In practical terms, this means opting for an alternative whose worst outcome is better than the worst outcomes associated with any other choice.

Principles of Justice: Rawls’ Blueprint for a Just Society

According to John Rawls, when individuals engage in this rational negotiation for justice, they are likely to choose the following principles:

Equal Liberty: Each individual should have an equal right to the most extensive liberty possible, as long as it’s compatible with the same liberty for others. Individual liberty is more important liberty than any of the principles.

Social and Economic Inequalities: These inequalities should be arranged in a way that serves two essential objectives: 

  1. To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. 
  2. Attached to positions that are open to all under conditions of equal opportunity and equality.

Lexical Order: Prioritizing Justice

Rawls introduces a critical aspect known as the “lexical order.” This order ensures that the principles are sequenced in a specific manner and subject to a priority rule. The first principle always takes precedence over the second, and within the second principle, 2(b) must precede 2(a). This prioritization guarantees that individual liberty is never compromised for the sake of others’ liberty.

Justice as Fairness: The Essence of Rawls’ Philosophy

In Rawls’ worldview, justice is synonymous with fairness. It means treating all individuals equitably, whether they find themselves in an advantageous or disadvantageous position. His theory of justice takes into account three fundamental principles: Desert (what one deserves based on their qualities), Merit (what society values), and Need (what an individual requires for survival).

Rawls’ principle of justice is fair to both the most advantaged and the least advantaged members of society. He rejects the notion that liberty and equality are mutually exclusive and instead sees them as complementary forces. Rawls considers Justice as the 1st Virtue of Social Institution.

Justice and Human Dignity

In the intricate tapestry of John Rawls’ philosophy, the concept of justice is deeply entwined with the notion of human dignity. Rawls recognized that individuals possess varying talents and abilities, making inequality an inevitable aspect of society. However, he believed that inequalities related to different positions and roles in society could only be morally justified if they contribute to the development of resources that can uplift the most disadvantaged members of society.

For instance, John Rawls argued that those endowed with greater talent should indeed enjoy higher incomes and wealth. However, this possession of greater wealth and income is ethically defensible only when it is utilized for the benefit of the weaker and more vulnerable segments of society. Rawls’ point is clear: those who have been blessed with more should use their advantages to support those less fortunate, thus ensuring a fair and just society.

John Rawls further contended that what isn’t a matter of personal talent often boils down to chance. Therefore, it becomes our moral duty to compensate those who have not been as fortunate as others. According to Rawls, what is not a matter of our talent is also a matter of chance. Hence we should compensate those who have not been as advantageous as we are.

Democratic Equality

John Rawls lived during a time marked by widespread protests and movements advocating for equal rights and opportunities. In this context, he argued that societal stability could only be achieved when people in a democratic political culture treat each other as equal citizens willing to negotiate fair terms. This negotiation process is what Rawls referred to as the “overlapping consensus” on the political conception of justice.

For John Rawls, democratic equality was not just a lofty ideal but a practical necessity for maintaining stability in a society where individuals adhere to various comprehensive doctrines and hold diverse worldviews.

Criticism of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice

However, John Rawls’ philosophy was not without its critics. Let’s look at the major criticisms of John Rawls’ theory of Justice from different areas.

Communitarian Criticism

Communitarians argued that Rawls didn’t give enough importance to the role of community in shaping individuals and their values. They raised concerns about Rawls’ highly individualistic stance and his view of society.

Critics like Michael Sandel, in his book ‘Liberalism and the Limits of Justice,’ questioned Rawls’ conception of the self and his prioritization of liberty. Communitarians argued that individuals don’t have absolute freedom to choose their ends; instead, they discover their ends within the context of their communities and cultures.

For communitarians, the concept of the situated self was crucial. Michael Walzer, in ‘Spheres of Justice,’ advocated that different goods should be distributed differently, taking into account the meanings attached to them by various cultural and social groups. This critique challenged Rawls’ idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to justice and called for a more nuanced understanding that respects the diversity of human values and communities.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist scholars have argued that Rawls’ theory fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of justice. It overlooks the specific experiences, inequalities, and power dynamics faced by women and gender minorities in society. Susan Moller Okin in her book “Justice, Gender and the Family,” is that philosophical works on justice, including Rawls’, often overlook the importance of the family in discussions of justice. The family is seen as a private matter, while justice is seen as relevant only to the public sphere. However, this assumption ignores the fact that the family and its functioning are heavily influenced by the public world of laws, institutions, and ideas of justice that shape it.

Another significant criticism, raised by feminist scholars like Carol Pateman, is that in Rawls’ theory, only the heads of households (typically assumed to be men) are involved in the decision-making process and agree to the principles of justice, excluding women. Pateman labels Rawls’ social contract as patriarchal, as it perpetuates male dominance and marginalizes women in the process.

Feminist critics stress the importance of incorporating intersectionality, acknowledging how gender intersects with other social categories like race, class, and sexuality. By not considering the interconnectedness of various forms of discrimination and oppression, Rawls’ theory falls short in addressing systemic inequalities.

Libertarian Criticism

Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek are two prominent philosophers from Libertarian thought who criticized John Rawls’ theory of justice.

Robert Nozick’s Critique:

Nozick, in his influential work “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (1974), presented a libertarian perspective that directly challenged Rawls’ approach. Nozick argued that Rawls’ focus on distributive justice and the redistribution of wealth through a welfare state violated individual rights. Nozick believed that a just society should arise from voluntary exchanges and acquisitions, and any form of wealth redistribution would be a form of coercion.

So in opposition to this theory, Nozick proposed his own theory of Justice: “Entitlement theory of Justice”. Nozick argues for an entitlement theory of justice, where the justice of a distribution is determined by whether it arises from just initial acquisitions and just transfers of property. In contrast, Rawls emphasizes the importance of redistributive justice to address social and economic inequalities.

The Wilt Chamberlain Example: Nozick famously used the example of Wilt Chamberlain, a successful basketball player, to illustrate his criticism of Rawls. In this thought experiment, Nozick showed how voluntary transactions between individuals could lead to significant inequalities that are just as long as they are the result of free exchanges. Rawls’ theory, according to Nozick, would require constant interference with these exchanges to achieve its desired equality, which he viewed as unjust.

Robert Nozick advocates for a minimal or night-watchman state that only protects individual rights to life, liberty, and property. He contends that Rawls’ theory justifies a more extensive welfare state that would violate individual liberties by redistributing wealth and interfering in people’s choices.

Friedrich Hayek’s Critique:

Friedrich Hayek, a leading figure in classical liberal thought, also criticized Rawls’ theory of justice from a different angle. Hayek regarded Rawls’ theory of “Social Justice as a mirage”

Hayek emphasized the importance of dispersed knowledge in society, arguing that no central authority can possess the information required to plan and allocate resources efficiently. He believed that Rawls’ approach, with its emphasis on central planning and redistribution, would lead to inefficiencies and unintended consequences.

Hayek contended that Rawls’ theory gave too much weight to distributive justice at the expense of individual freedom. He believed that any attempt to enforce strict equality would inevitably infringe upon individual liberty and lead to the suppression of individual initiative and innovation.

Quotes by John Rawls 

  • “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” 
  • “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” 
  • “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” 
  • “I assume that to each according to his threat advantage is not a conception of justice.”
  • Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of a society as a whole cannot override.” 
  • “Right is prior to good.” 


John Rawls theory of Justice is appreciated for it is grounded in the concept of Human Dignity. Only in such societies where human dignity is a value system can there be peace and harmony. Rawls revived the principles of Normative philosophy. His masterpiece ‘A Theory of Justice’ is considered as a reference point by all contemporary political philosophers from Nozick to Amartya Sen.

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