The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Rawls, John (1921-2002)

John Rawls was perhaps the most prominent and broadly influential American political philosopher of the 20th century. Rawls is best known for his 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, which argues in favor of the institutions of the modern liberal-democratic welfare state against egalitarian socialism, on the one hand, and classical liberalism, on the other hand.

After teaching for a time at Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rawls joined the philosophy department at Harvard University in 1962 and remained there for the rest of his long career. During the 1950s, Rawls’s work eschewed a straightforward analysis of moral concepts, then popular among philosophers, but instead attempted to describe a general procedure for moral decision making along Kantian lines. His work also was informed by contemporary writings in the theory of rational choice. From the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Rawls published a series of influential papers that would become the basis of his most celebrated work, A Theory of Justice.

A Theory of Justice declares that justice is the “first virtue of social institutions” and seeks to identify those principles of social organization that will create a “realistic utopia” in which individuals are free to pursue their ends as they wish, subject only to constraints that everyone has reason to accept. According to Rawls, the subject matter of a theory of justice is the “basic structure” of a society—the system of interlocking legal, political, economic, and social institutions that assigns to citizens their fundamental rights and duties and that determines the terms of social cooperation and the resulting distribution of opportunities and economic holdings.

Rawls’s conception of justice, which he dubbed “justice as fairness,” consists of two related principles of justice. The “first principle,” intended to set constitutional limits on democratic government, is essentially a restatement of J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer’s principles of equal liberty, which holds that “each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all.” Crucially, however, the liberties Rawls has in mind do not include those relating to property and contract. The “second principle,” intended to guarantee the “value” of the basic liberties he posits, concerns the distribution of opportunities: wealth, the “social bases of self-respect,” and other social advantages. He divides this principle into two parts. The first part, known as the “difference principle,” requires that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.” The second part requires that “inequalities attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” According to Rawls, the first principle is “lexically prior” to the second, in that inequalities of opportunity and outcome may not be addressed before a maximally extensive system of equal liberties has been established and that the “rearrangement” of these inequalities must take place within the constraints of the system of liberty.

Rawls attempts to justify his view of “justice as fairness” and to rule out competing alternatives by recourse to a kind of “social contract” thought experiment in the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. However, unlike the neo-Hobbesian models of rational agency embodied in standard economic models, Rawls, heavily influenced by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, depicts people as distinctly moral agents possessing a “sense of justice” or “moral capacity” that provides both judgments about moral matters and motivation to act in accordance with moral rules, even when this entails the sacrifice of narrow self-interest. People are understood as rational, in the economist’s sense, but also as “reasonable.” Rawls’s thought experiment of choice from the “original position” is meant to model the way our sense of justice moderates rational maximization. In the original position, agents are conceived as maximizing “primary goods”—goods necessary for the achievement of most any end. But agents also are conceived as choosing their terms of association from behind a “veil of ignorance” regarding their talents, opportunities, economic class, social connections, and so on, which is meant to model the impartiality and fairness of reasonable moral beings.

Rawls argues that his two principles of justice are what agents—so idealized—would choose in the original position. However, within Rawls’s larger argument, this stands as only a preliminary justification of his notion of “justice as fairness.” Principles of justice also must prove stable, and stability requires that real people would be able to affirm and comply with them under realistic conditions. The principles of justice must be in “reflective equilibrium” with our “considered moral judgments” (i.e., the output of the sense of justice after deliberation) for two reasons. First, if proposed principles of justice clash with the moral judgments of individuals, we will not be inclined to accept them or a theory that proposes them. If we do not accept them, we will not willingly act on them, and therefore they will fail to guide our behavior and determine the character of the social order. The principles of a just society must be self-reinforcing. As a result, Rawls spends the last third of A Theory of Justicearguing that individuals brought up in a society ordered by “justice as fairness” will develop a personal conception of the good congruent with the demands of justice.

In his second major work, Political Liberalism, published in 1993, Rawls acknowledged that his prior argument for the stability of “justice as fairness” rested on the assumption that we all are raised in a society unified under a single, heavily Kantian “comprehensive conception” of moral personhood and the good. This unity, he argues, can be maintained only though coercion and is inconsistent with the permanent diversity in moral outlooks characteristic of a free society. So Political Liberalism attempts to recast “justice as fairness” as a relatively neutral “political” doctrine that rests on no single metaphysical or moral view, but that can be constructed as the content of an “overlapping consensus” of many competing “reasonable” comprehensive moral views. Thus, it can be rendered consistent with “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” Rawls’s last major work, The Law of Peoples, attempts a theory of international relations that, in opposition to some of his followers, resists applying the notion of “justice as fairness” worldwide.

Rawls’s work is notable for dominating Anglo-American political philosophy in the latter third of the 20th century, in part, by inspiring other works such as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which was, to a large extent, written as a response to A Theory of Justice. Nozick argued that Rawls’s difference principle would require constant, invasive government intervention in voluntary activities to maintain the prescribed pattern of distribution, thus running afoul of the priority of liberty in Rawls’s own scheme. Rawls’s denigration of economic liberties and his defense of redistribution have inspired a number of critical analyses by libertarian and classical liberal thinkers. F. A. Hayek and James M. Buchanan, like Nozick, were sharply critical of the centrality of distributive patterns in Rawls’s account of justice. However, both Hayek and Buchanan endorsed Rawls’s general methodological framework, arguing that it generates classical liberal conclusions when joined to an adequate understanding of the principles of political economy.


Further Readings

Buchanan, James M. Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005.

Epstein, Richard A. “Rawls Remembered.” National Review Online,

Hayek, Friedrich A. Law, Legislation, and Liberty: Volume 2. The Mirage of Social Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. 100.

Lomasky, Loren. “Libertarianism at Twin Harvard.” Social Philosophy and Policy 22 no. 1 (Winter 2005): 178–199.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Free Press, 1976.

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

———. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

———. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Originally published .