John Bordley Rawls (1921-2002)

  • Rawls wrote only two books, A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993) but stands as one of the most controversial and debated figures in modern Western political philosophy (Evans). He is alternatively credited with proposing a philosophy that would actually guarantee true equality and condemned for creating the philosophical justification for the modern welfare state.
  • Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective.
  • There is general agreement, however, that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 led to a revival in the academic study of political philosophy. (Wikipedia)
  • Professor of Philosophy at Cornell, MIT, Harvard

 Modern Liberalism

  • Traditionally, the concept of liberalism implied decreased power of government over the lives of its citizens. As the excesses of capitalism and the threat of communism/socialism became more apparent, liberalism shifted its focus to some extent, addressing the economic status of citizens, as well as attempting to address societal inequality.
  • Liberalism also came under attack, oddly enough, for becoming too conservative. Its advocates were never entirely in favor of universal suffrage (Locke, Voltaire) and, in the 1880s, became associated with support of traditional values and the elite.
  • 1910-1930 Organic Liberalism attempts to replace this ideology, with a philosophy dedicated to promoting self-fulfillment, that is, to prevent economic monopoly, abolish poverty, and secure people against the disabilities of sickness, unemployment, and old age. (Hobbhouse, Green)
  • Finally, liberalism essentially splits—with the new wing embracing positive rights/liberty, the belief that government should guarantee that the needs of the people are met.

 Specific Arguments

The Original Position

  • The original position is a hypothetical situation in which rational calculators, acting as agents or trustees for the interests of concrete individuals, are pictured as choosing those principles of social relations under which their principals would do best. Their choices are subject to certain constraints, however, and it is these constraints which embody the specifically moral elements of original position argumentation. Crudely, the rational calculators do not know facts about their principals which would be morally irrelevant to the choice of principles of justice. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Rawls articulates this through the veil of ignorance, which restricts information, for instance, about principals’ age, sex, religious beliefs, etc.
  • Because each person has the same information (or lack thereof) as every other person, the original position is a situation of choice, not of negotiation.

 Two Principles of Justice

The two principles are intended to apply to the basic structure of society–the fundamental political and economic arrangements–as opposed to particular actions by governmental officials or individual statutes.

The Liberty Principle

  • The liberty principle requires that the basic structure provide each citizen with a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties–such as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and due process of law.
  • In “A Theory of Justice”, Rawls sets forth the proposition that “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that eventhe welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”
  • When in conflict, the Liberty Principle takes precedence.

The Difference Principle

  • The difference principle requires that inequalities in wealth and social position be arranged so as to benefit the worst off group in society.
  • Behind the veil of ignorance, we would never choose a state of inequality, argues Rawls, because we could not be sure of our status.


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