John Rawls

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The suppression of liberty is always likely to be irrational.

John Bordley Rawls (21 February 192124 November 2002) was an American philosopher, and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University and the Fulbright Fellowship at Christ Church. His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), was hailed at the time of its publication as "the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II, and is now regarded as one of the primary texts in political philosophy.


Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.

A Theory of Justice (1971; 1975; 1999)

Social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.
Main article: A Theory of Justice
The intolerant can be viewed as free-riders, as persons who seek the advantages of just institutions while not doing their share to uphold them.
  • This is a long book, not only in pages.
    • Preface, pg. viii
  • I am particularly grateful to Nozick for his unfailing help and encouragement during the last stages.
    • Preface, pg. xii
  • Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.
    • Chapter I, Section 1, pg. 3-4
  • The concept of justice I take to be defined, then, by the role of its principles in assigning rights and duties and in defining the appropriate division of social advantages. A conception of justice is an interpretation of this role.
    • Chapter I, Section 2, pg. 10
  • The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.
    • Chapter I, Section 3, pg. 12
  • Social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.
    • p. 14.
  • It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper.
    • Chapter I, Section 3, pg. 15
  • A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self evident premises or conditions on principles; instead, its justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitted together into one coherent view.
    • Chapter I, Section 4, p. 21
  • Indeed, it is tempting to suppose that it is self evident that things should be so arranged so as to lead to the most good.
    • Chapter I, Section 5, pg. 25
  • An individual who finds that he enjoys seeing others in positions of lesser liberty understands that he has no claim whatever to this enjoyment.
    • Chapter I, Section 6, pg. 31
  • An intuitionist conception of justice is, one might say, but half a conception.
    • Chapter I, Section 8, pg. 41
  • We may suppose that everyone has in himself the whole form of a moral conception.
    • Chapter I, Section 9, pg. 50
  • Intuitionism is not constructive, perfectionism is unacceptable.
    • Chapter I, Section 9, pg. 52
  • Our concern is solely with the basic structure of society and its major institutions and therefore with the standard cases of social justice.
    • Chapter II, Section 10, pg. 58
  • The first statement of the two principles reads as follows. First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both(a)reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.
    • Chapter II, Section 11, pg. 60
  • In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class.
    • Chapter II, Section 12, pg. 73
  • A scheme is unjust when the higher expectations, one or more of them, are excessive. If these expectations were decreased, the situation of the less favored would be improved.
    • Chapter II, Section 13, pg. 79
  • The even larger difference between rich and poor makes the latter even worse off, and this violates the principle of mutual advantage.
    • Chapter II, Section 13, pg. 79
  • In justice as fairness society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.
    • Chapter II, Section 14, pg. 84
  • We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. 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. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action. In justice as fairness men agree to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit. The two principles are a fair way of meeting the arbitrariness of fortune; and while no doubt imperfect in other ways, the institutions which satisfy these principles are just.
    • Chapter II, Section 14, pg. 87-88
  • Greater intelligence, wealth and opportunity, for example, allow a person to achieve ends he could not rationally contemplate otherwise.
    • Chapter II, Section 15, pg. 93
  • The difference principle, for example, requires that the higher expectations of the more advantaged contribute to the prospects of the least advantaged.
    • Chapter II, Section 16, pg. 95
  • No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.
    • Chapter II, Section 17, pg. 102
  • If A were not allowed his better position, B would be even worse off than he is.
    • Chapter II, Section 17, pg. 103
  • First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism. More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its particular economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve. The persons in the original position have no information as to which generation they belong.
    • p. 117
  • There are infinitely many variations of the initial situation and therefore no doubt indefinitely many theorems of moral geometry.
    • Chapter III, Section 21, pg. 126
  • The circumstances of justice may be described as the normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary.
    • Chapter III, Section 22, pg. 126
  • First of all, principles should be general. That is, it must be possible to formulate them without use of what would be intuitively recognized as proper names, or rigged definite descriptions.
    • Chapter III, Section 23, pg. 131
  • The claims of existing social arrangements and of self interest have been duly allowed for. We cannot at the end count them a second time because we do not like the result.
    • Chapter III, Section 23, pg. 135
  • To each according to his threat advantage does not count as a principle of justice.
    • Chapter III, Section 24, pg. 141
  • I have assumed throughout that the persons in the original position are rational.
    • Chapter III, Section 25, pg. 142
  • Inequalities are permissible when they maximize, or at least all contribute to, the long term expectations of the least fortunate group in society.
    • Chapter III, Section 26, pg. 151
  • Yet it seems extraordinary that the justice of increasing the expectations of the better placed by a billion dollars, say, should turn on whether the prospects of the least favored increase or decrease by a penny.
    • Chapter III, Section 26, pg. 157
  • We must not be enticed by mathematically attractive assumptions into pretending that the contingencies of men's social positions and the asymmetries of their situations somehow even out in the end. Rather we must choose our conception of justice fully recognizing that this is not and cannot be the case.
    • Chapter III, Section 28, pg. 171
  • When the basic structure of society is publicly known to satisfy its principles for an extended period of time, those subject to these arrangements tend to develop a desire to act in accordance with these principles and to do their part in institutions which exemplify them
    • Chapter III, Section 29, pg.177
  • Justice as fairness provides what we want.
    • Chapter III, Section 30, pg. 190
  • The fault of the utilitarian doctrine is that it mistakes impersonality for impartiality.
    • Chapter III, Section 30, pg. 190
  • Ideally a just constitution would be a just procedure arranged to insure a just outcome.
    • Chapter IV, Section 31, pg. 197
  • Clearly when the liberties are left unrestricted they collide with one another.
    • Chapter IV, Section 32, p. 203
  • We must choose for others as we have reason to believe they would choose for themselves if they were at the age of reason and deciding rationally.
    • Chapter IV, Section 33, p. 209
  • The suppression of liberty is always likely to be irrational.
    • Chapter IV, Section 33, p. 210
  • Let us now consider whether justice requires the toleration of the intolerant, and if so under what conditions. There are a variety of situations in which this question arises. Some political parties in democratic states hold doctrines that commit them to suppress the constitutional liberties whenever they have the power. Again, there are those who reject intellectual freedom but who nevertheless hold positions in the university. It may appear that toleration in these cases is inconsistent with the principles of justice, or at any rate not required by them.
    • p. 216
  • An intolerant sect has no right to complain when it is denied an equal liberty. … A person’s right to complain is limited to principles he acknowledges himself.
    • p. 217
  • Justice does not require that men must stand idly by while others destroy the basis of their existence.
    • Chapter IV, Section 35, p. 218
  • Essentially the fault lies in the fact that the democratic political process is at best regulated rivalry; it does not even in theory have the desirable properties that price theory ascribes to truly competitive markets.
    • Chapter IV, Section 36, p. 226
  • The fundamental criterion for judging any procedure is the justice of its likely results.
    • Chapter IV, Section 37, p. 230
  • Properly understood, then, the desire to act justly derives in part from the desire to express most fully what we are or can be, namely free and equal rational beings with the liberty to choose.
    • Chapter IV, Section 40, p. 256
  • A just system must generate its own support.
    • Chapter V, Section 41, p. 261
  • There is a divergence between private and social accounting that the market fails to register. One essential task of law and government is to institute the necessary conditions.
    • Chapter V, Section 42, p. 268
  • Ideal legislators do not vote their interests.
    • Chapter V, Section 43, p. 284
  • Justice is happiness according to virtue.
    • Chapter V, Section 48, p. 310
  • The intolerant can be viewed as free-riders, as persons who seek the advantages of just institutions while not doing their share to uphold them.
    • Chapter VI, Section 59, pg. 388
  • Many conservative writers have contended that the tendency to equality in modern social movements is the expression of envy. In this way they seek to discredit this trend, attributing it to collectively harmful impulses.
    • Chapter IX, Section 82, p. 538
  • That persons have opposing interests and seek to advance their own conception of the good is not at all the same thing as their being moved by envy and jealousy.
    • Chapter IX, Section 81, p. 540
  • Men resign themselves to their position should it ever occur to them to question it; and since all may view themselves as assigned their vocation, everyone is held to be equally fated and equally noble in the eyes of providence.
    • Chapter IX, Section 82, p. 547
  • Being happy involves both a certain achievement in action and a rational assurance about the outcome.
    • Chapter IX, Section 83, p. 549
  • The extreme nature of dominant-end views is often concealed by the vagueness and ambiguity of the end proposed.
    • Chapter IX, Section 83, p. 554
  • At best the principles that economists have supposed the choices of rational individuals to satisfy can be presented as guidelines for us to consider when we make our decisions.
    • Chapter IX, Section 84, p. 558
  • The hazards of the generalized prisoner's dilemma are removed by the match between the right and the good.
    • Chapter IX, Section 86, p. 577
  • I have tried to set forth a theory that enables us to understand and to assess these feelings about the primacy of justice. Justice as fairness is the outcome: it articulates these opinions and supports their general tendency.
    • Chapter IX, Section 87, p. 586
  • Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.
    • p. 6
Main article: Political Liberalism
Main article: The Law of Peoples

Quotes about Rawls



  • Why then in Britain has secularism become seen to be hostile to religion? Because neutrality is too often assumed to require the bleaching out of all traces of faith, excluding religious belief and discourse from public life. But it doesn't, and we can see why by appeal to the notion of public reason, articulated most clearly by the late political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls was quite clear that the religious have no obligation at all to keep their faith entirely to themselves.
    "Reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time," he wrote, "provided that in due course proper political reasons – and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines – are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support."


  • The key innovation in Rawl's scenario, designed to ensure that undue selfishness among the participants in this exercise in reflection cancels itself out, is what he calls the "veil of ignorance". Everyone gets to vote on a favored design of society, but when you decide which society you would be happy to live in and give your allegiance to, you vote without knowing your particular role or niche in it will be. You may be a senator or a surgeon or a street sweeper or a soldier; you don't get to find out until after you have voted. Choosing from behind the veil of ignorance ensures that people will give due consideration to the likely effects, the costs and benefits, for all the citizenry, including those worse off.


  • If the basic assumption of the theory of ideology is at all tenable, namely, that the general power relations embodied in our social structures can exert a distorting influence on the formation of our beliefs and preferences without our being aware of it, then we are definitely not going to put that kind of influence out of action by asking the agents in the society to imagine that they didn’t know their position. To think otherwise is to believe in magic: imagine you are “impartial” and you will be. In fact, doing that will be more likely to reinforce the power of these entrenched prejudices because it will explicitly present them as universal, warranted by reason, etc.
  • The idea that seems to be presupposed by the doctrine of the veil of ignorance—namely, that one can in some way get a better grasp or understanding of the power relations in society and how they work by covering them up, ignoring them, or simply wishing them away—seems very naïve. … To think that an appropriate point of departure for understanding the political world is our intuitions of what is “just,” without reflecting on where those intuitions come from, how they are maintained, and what interests they might serve, seems to exclude from the beginning the very possibility that these intuitions might themselves be “ideological.”


  • The ultimate merit of Rawls’s work did not lie only in his own theory, but in the extraordinarily broad discussion that it generated. Rawls’s work provided a framework for a flurry of counter-theories, such as G.A. Cohen’s in Rescuing Justice and Equality, which challenged Rawls from the left and advocated a stricter egalitarianism; and Robert Nozick’s sophisticated libertarian response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; and Michael Walzer’s development, in Spheres of Justice, of a communitarian approach to the problem.
  • Rawls challenged the view that utilitarianism, or some variant of social liberalism, was the only way to construct a social order. In A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, he laid out his alternative. Imagine, he postulated, that you have to make a choice about what social order you would want to be born into behind 'a veil of ignorance', in which you don't know beforehand your sex, skin colour, skills or the class of your parents. Your overriding concern would be to ensure that it was fair, because if you drew a short straw you would want to know that, as far as possible, society had structures that would redress the balance.
  • This means society should build what Rawls calls an 'infrastructure of justice' that ensures everyone has access to key primary goods - some reasonable level of income and material wellbeing, opportunity and basic rights and liberties - which allow them to consider they have been given a proper chance to achieve full membership of society. Moreover, the rich must recognise that their incomes can only be allowed to reach the level consistent with ensuring that the position of the poor is the best it could possibly be, so that were the positions to be swapped, the rich could accept their reduced position as fair.


  • Rawls’ main interest was certainly not religion. It was social justice. He formulated two principles: first, that a just society should guarantee the basic liberties to all, including freedom of conscience; second, that social and economic inequalities are justified only if they work to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. For him, the first principle prevailed over the second: it was not admissible to deny the basic liberties to promote social justice. The second principle embodied his criticism of both unregulated capitalism and Marxism. Economic inequalities, he believed, are natural and unavoidable, but they are not against social justice only if they are part of a system where they are made to work to also benefit those at the lower level of the social scale. Actually, the poor may and do benefit from the presence of the rich, who support social welfare with their taxes, create workplaces, and may spend their money to create institutions, including cultural and educational, that benefit everybody. The rich would not do so spontaneously only, Rawls believed, and may need some compulsion by the state. This is why he was after all a philosopher of the left, although calling him a socialist may be an exaggeration.
    …I was not myself a follower of Rawls and my own political and philosophical ideas were closer to the American conservatives he opposed. Yet, I found it interesting that even in the Democrat and liberal camp the most elegant theorist acknowledged the religious roots of the very idea of social justice and agreed that the American experiment, in all its possible versions, should affirm freedom of religion as fundamental.


  • In the Rawlsian paradigm, such a person is likely to be a northwest European or North American with a certain way of asking and answering questions of this sort, even if deprived of self-knowledge of the more circumstantial kind. The liberalism that predictably results from such a mental experiment has always been vulnerable to the charge that it lacks purchase upon real-world challenges: it neither derives from present circumstances nor responds to past experience.
    Perhaps this would not matter if the Rawlsian approach to grounding liberal thought were primarily addressed to persons of a liberal predisposition. But that would be pointless. The test of such a theorem is how effective it is at convincing persons not already so disposed. And even then, the question remains of exactly how such liberals should act when dealing with persons and societies that do not correspond to their preferences. On this Rawls is by no means silent, but he is forced to introduce external considerations that cannot be derived from the model itself.
    • Tony Judt, in Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, Thinking the twentieth century (2012), Ch. 8 : Age of Responsibility: American Moralist


  • To make concrete what [Rawls's] theory regards as justice, compare two of our society's worst-off. The first, a mugger who has never held a job, is vicious when he can get away with it and spends his ill-gotten gains on drugs. The second, a mother of three, has been abandoned by her husband; she earns the minimum wage at a menial job and is trying hard to raise her children well. According to what Rawls calls justice, these two are entitled to the same resources from society simply because they are among the worst-off. The mugger's viciousness and lack of effort and the mother's decency and struggle create no morally relevant difference between them. [¶] Now change the scenario a bit. The mugger continues as before, but the mother's efforts have borne fruit. She has found a better job and is doing well at it. Her family now is moderately secure and comfortable but hardly affluent. On Rawls's view, justice requires taking some of the mother's resources in order to give them to the mugger. [¶] in deeming this blatant injustice just, Rawls repudiates the conception—accepted from the Old Testament to recent times—that justice consists in giving people what they deserve: reward for good conduct and punishment for bad. [...] Rawls is explicit about his repudiation...


  • One main problem in Rawl’s defense of “justice as fairness” is that Rawls believes that no one can deserve his or her advantages or assets in life—it’s all a matter of luck. As he puts it, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting point in society.” The reason? Because even a person’s character (i.e., the virtues he or she practices that may provide him with ways of getting ahead of others) “depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit”…
    • Tibor R. Machen, “What is Morally Right With Insider Trading,” Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 10 (April 1996), pp.135-142.
  • Rawls' notion of liberty, however, is the impoverished notion of contemporary liberals, for whom liberty consists in the expressive or lifestyle freedom to say what one wants and have sexual relations with the species of one's choice. So, for example, being subject to a 75 percent tax on one's income or being subject to the seizure of 90 percent of one's peacefully acquired property does not count at all as an abridgment of liberty. Indeed, it is not really clear that chaining the talented and energetic to their desks should, for Rawls, count as an infringement of their liberty as long as these individuals are still permitted to express their views, cast their votes, meet with their chosen sexual partners, and, perhaps, are paroled on weekends to travel to their preferred cultural events. In any case, Rawls does not view anything the modern welfare state does in the name of income redistribution as an abridgment of liberty.


  • When we make that basic criticism, however, we are not only following Rawls's methodological suggestion - that we search for reflective equilibrium by holding up theoretical alternatives to our own considered judgments, in Socratic fashion. We are also bringing one deep part of Rawls's own conception to bear against another, saying that the contract doctrine may not do full justice to the idea that each person has an inviolability based upon justice. Even in moving away from Rawls, we are fully engaged with him. Surely that is a sign of his work's depth and enduring significance.
    • Martha Nussbaum, "The Enduring Significance of John Rawls", The Chronicle of Higher Education (20 July 2001)


  • Rawls’s analysis of fairness, justice, institutions and behaviour has illuminated our understanding of justice very profoundly and has played – and is still playing – a hugely constructive part in the development of the theory of justice. But we cannot make the Rawlsian mode of thinking on justice into an intellectual ‘stand-still’. We have to benefit from the richness of the ideas we have got from Rawls – and then move on, rather than taking a ‘vacation’. We do need ‘justitia’, not ‘justitium’.
  • Rawls's work, for better or worse, is not inspired by this kind of epic ambition. His very modesty and lack of speculative curiosity are what exclude him from the ranks of the great philosophers. Rawls is not an Isaiah Berlin with his anguished sense of the conflict of goods which besets human life; nor is he a Leo Strauss with his vivid awareness of the forces of persecution with which philosophy has always to contend; nor is he a Michael Oakeshott with his diagnosis of the dangers posed by excessive rationalism to the goals of a free society. Rawls is a philosopher for our time. His desire is to render both theoretically and practically legitimate the redistributivist policies of the prosperous North Atlantic welfare states. There is already more than a whiff of nostalgia about this project. This is by no means a contemptible goal, but it is well to remember that this project of rationalization is one — but only one — way in which philosophy can be practiced.
    • Steven M. Smith, "The Philosopher of Our Times", The New York Sun (May 11, 2007)
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