John Rawls

In 1971 American political theorist John Rawls asked the world a question; how would you design society if you had no idea what your position within that society would be? This question, along with the plethora of ideas and arguments that flowed from his book A Theory of Justice would go on to place John Rawls in the political theory hall of fame as one of, if not the most important political theorist of the second half of the 20th century. 

John Rawls John Rawls

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    Rawls's ideas drastically shook up political theory and breathed a breath of fresh air into a field that was struggling to find itself after World War ll. His emphasis on justice and the use of the state as a force for good caused a massive shift in the types of questions political theorists were asking and opened the door to thinking about the future again instead of focusing only on preventing past mistakes.

    John Rawls biography

    John Bordley Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 21st, 1921, to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump Rawls. Rawls's early life was one defined by tragedy. As one of five brothers, when Rawls was seven years old, he became sick with diphtheria and passed it on to his brother, who would die from the illness. The following year, John Rawls came down with a severe case of pneumonia and, as the year before, passed the illness onto another of his younger brothers, who also died as a result.

    Despite the difficulties of hisJohn Rawls Photo of John Rawls Study SmarterJohn Rawls, Wikimedia Commons In early life, Rawls found himself studying philosophy at Princeton University. Following completing his degree, Rawls contemplated attending seminary and becoming a priest but instead chose to enlist in the US Army in 1943, where he was sent to fight in the Pacific Theatre.

    Rawls enlisted into the US Army as an infantryman and saw direct combat in both New Guinea and the Philippines. Following his tours in both countries, he was sent to Japan to assist in the occupation of the country after its surrender in 1945. Upon being stationed in Japan, Rawls saw first-hand the destruction the nuclear bomb was capable of when he drove through Hiroshima and became disenchanted with the military and, amongst other reasons, decided to leave the Army at the end of his enlistment.

    Following his service in the military, Rawls returned to academia, where he received his PhD from Princeton University and went on to become a professor at both MIT and then Harvard, where he retired in 1991. Beginning in 1995, Rawls began experiencing strokes and saw a gradual decline in his health until his death on November 24, 2002.

    John Rawls' Theory of Justice

    John Rawls Book cover of A Theory of Justice StudySmarterA Theory of Justice book cover, Wikimedia CommonsA Theory of Justice is, without doubt, John Rawls's greatest work, and the primary theme running through it is one that describes justice as fairness. For Rawls, justice, in a societal sense (as opposed to a criminal justice sense), is achieved through distributing resources amongst society in a manner that benefits the least well off. Rawls was not under the impression that society could be made perfectly equal. but instead argues for a society in which the least well-off are still in a good position and not subjected to poverty or low standards of living.

    He further argues that it is equality of opportunity that should be maximised in a society as opposed to an equality of outcome. It is important to note that for Rawls, his theory only works within a liberal society, that is, a society following the core tenants of liberalism.

    For more information on what a liberal society might look like check out our article on Liberalism.

    A Theory of Justice lays out two "principles of justice" which act as the foundation for most of Rawls's thought; they are as follows:

    First principle: each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

    Second principle: social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:

    a. they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;

    b. they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.

    The first principle is the most important principle for Rawls as it is the precondition for properly implementing the second principle. While the wording of the first principle may come off as a bit tricky, what Rawls is saying is that the basic liberties of a liberal society, such as free speech or the right to vote, must be guaranteed to every individual within society regardless of any other factors such as race, religion, or economic status.

    The second principle is broken into two parts, and both A and B discuss how to handle the inevitable inequality that arises in a society. The first part of the principle, "social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions", is Rawls saying upfront that inequality will be present in a society and that trying to remove the inequality is pointless. Instead, he argues that these natural inequalities are to be used to satisfy two conditions: A and B.

    Condition A says that social and economic inequalities are to be attached to "offices and positions" in which every individual in society, regardless of all factors (remember the first principle), will have equal access. For Rawls, this means that regardless of economic status, if an individual has the capability and desire to pursue a particular position or office, then their ability to do so should be equivalent to somebody born into a more fortunate position who might otherwise have easier access.

    Say the daughter of a billionaire and the son of a single mother living in poverty both wish to attend Harvard. Rawls would argue that in a just society, both individuals would have equal access to the same resources. If they meet the requirements for entrance to Harvard, then both should have access to the institution. Because both the boy and the girl have the same intellectual capabilities, it is unjust that the boy cannot attend Harvard because of the predetermined economic circumstances.

    Condition B is known more commonly as the "difference principle".

    John Rawls' difference principle

    As mentioned earlier, condition B is known as the "difference principle", and Rawls describes it as such:

    "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."

    The keywords in this quote are "to everyone's advantage", which is the condition for accepting inequalities within a Rawlsian society according to the two principles of justice. For Rawls, inequality can be justified if individuals in unequal positions utilise their position to improve the lives of those in less fortunate circumstances. Remember the wording of condition B, "they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society." The difference principle then is using the greatest benefits to fill the difference between the greatest and the least advantaged benefits.

    While it is easy to think about this in terms of economic inequalities, there are several other natural inequalities that also have to be taken into account, according to Rawls.

    Think about a girl who is born hyper-intelligent and into a family with the means to nurture her intelligence. Through sheer luck, she will have superior abilities by nature and the chance to improve these abilities via the good fortune of being born into a well-off family. Rawls would say this is not a bad thing and that if she uses her abilities to improve her already good lot in life, there is nothing wrong with that. However, he would argue that while it is acceptable to use these natural advantages for her own gain, she must also use them for the betterment of the least advantaged in society as well. He would make this argument by invoking "justice as fairness" and that liberal society is responsible for carrying out justice.

    Rawls understood that inequalities are unavoidable in a society. This point is most clearly evident in the original position thought experiment and the application of the "maximin" principle. It is how Rawls justifies these inequalities that offered a novel way of thinking about dealing with the inherent inequality problem in a liberal society.

    John Rawls's veil of ignorance

    A Theory of Justice offers one of the most powerful thought experiments to come out of 20th-century political philosophy, and Rawls uses it to encourage the reader to think about what a just society should look like. The experiment is known as the "original position" and goes something like this:

    Suppose all of humanity is placed directly outside of Earth in a space ship and before returning to Earth, they all have to agree upon a basic structure for society. The catch is this; this society has to be constructed through a "veil of ignorance." This means that no single person can know what their role in society will be, how they will look, what they will believe, their economic status, their intelligence level, or any other factor that would incline them to design society to favour something over another. Rawls argues that in such an original position, under a veil of ignorance because nobody can know what circumstances they will be born into and yet has to live within the society they design, everyone will attempt to maximise the worst-off positions in society in case it is them who have to fill the least desirable role.

    John Rawls Statue of blind justice StudySmarterStatue of Blind Justice, Chris Light, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

    Because anyone could end up in the position of a cashier or CEO, poor or rich, one race or another, one religious belief or another, and so on, Rawls argues that rational humans will utilise a "maximin" principle. This means that they will design society to maximise the inevitable minimum positions within said society. By using this thought experiment to reshape our current society, Rawls believed that we could create a more just and fair society.

    John Rawls - Key takeaways

    • John Rawls was one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century.
    • A Theory of Justice is Rawls's most influential work.
    • Rawls uses two "principles of justice" to underpin his entire system of thought regarding creating a fair society.
    • The original position thought experience encouraged individuals to think about how they would design society if they did not know what their position within that society would be.
    • The difference principle argues that in a just society, it is the responsibility of the more fortunate to work towards bridging the distance between themselves and the least well-off.
    • Rawls' introduction of a 'veil of ignorance' was one ohis biggest contributions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about John Rawls

    Who is John Rawls?

    A 20th-century political theorist known for his work 'A Theory of Justice'. 

    What does John Rawls mean by the veil of ignorance?

    The veil of ignorance is part of a thought experiment which asks people to create a society without knowing what place they will have in that society.

    What is the main idea of Rawls's Theory of Justice? 

    That justice is fairness.

    What did Rawls believe?


    That it was possible to create a more fair society by utilising his theory of justice.

    What is John Rawls's liberalism?

    Liberalism is important to Rawls's Theory of Justice, as it assumes that the society is a liberal society. 

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