John Rawls (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

      No Comments on John Rawls (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Rawls was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a
prominent lawyer, his mother a chapter president of the League of
Women Voters. Rawls studied at Princeton, where he was influenced by
Wittgenstein’s student Norman Malcolm; and at Oxford, where he worked
with H. L. A. Hart, Isaiah Berlin, and Stuart Hampshire. His first
professorial appointments were at Cornell and MIT. In 1962 Rawls
joined the faculty at Harvard, where he taught for more than thirty

Rawls’s adult life was a scholarly one: its major events occurred
within his writings. The exceptions were two wars. As a college
student Rawls wrote an intensely religious senior thesis (BI)
and had considered studying for the priesthood. Yet Rawls lost his
Christian faith as an infantryman in World War II on seeing the
capriciousness of death in combat and learning of the horrors of the
Holocaust. Then in the 1960s Rawls spoke out against America’s
military actions in Vietnam. The Vietnam conflict impelled Rawls to
analyze the defects in the American political system that led it to
prosecute so ruthlessly what he saw as an unjust war, and to consider
how citizens could conscientiously resist their government’s
aggressive policies.

Rawls’s most discussed work is his theory of a just liberal society,
called justice as fairness. Rawls first set out justice as
fairness in systematic detail in his 1971 book, A Theory of
. Rawls continued to rework justice as fairness throughout
his life, restating the theory in Political Liberalism
(1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as

Those interested in the evolution of justice as fairness from 1971
onwards should consult Freeman (2007) and Weithman (2011). This entry
reflects Rawls’s final statement of his views on justice as fairness,
as well as on political liberalism and on the law of peoples. Recent
scholarship on Rawls’s work can be found in
Further Reading

2.1 Four Roles of Political Philosophy

Rawls sees political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles in a
society’s public life. The first role is practical: political
philosophy can discover grounds for reasoned agreement in a society
where sharp divisions threaten to lead to conflict. Rawls cites
Hobbes’s Leviathan as an attempt to solve the problem of
order during the English civil war, and the Federalist Papers
as emerging from the debate over the US Constitution.

A second role of political philosophy is to help citizens to orient
themselves within their own social world. Philosophy can meditate on
what it is to be a member of a certain society, and how the nature and
history of that society can be understood from a broader

A third role is to probe the limits of practicable political
possibility. Political philosophy must describe workable political
arrangements that can gain support from real people. Yet within these
limits, philosophy can be utopian: it can depict a social order that
is the best that we can hope for. Given men as they are, as Rousseau
said, philosophy imagines how laws might be.

A fourth role of political philosophy is reconciliation: “to
calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history by
showing us the way in which its institutions… are rational, and
developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational
form” (JF, 3). Philosophy can show that human life is
not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly and corruption;
but that at least in some ways it is better that it has become as it

Rawls viewed his own work as a practical contribution to resolving the
long-standing tension in democratic thought between liberty and
equality, and to limning the limits of civic and of international
toleration. He offers the members of his own society a way of
understanding themselves as free and equal citizens within a fair
democratic polity, and describes a hopeful vision of a stably just
constitutional democracy doing its part within a peaceful
international community. To individuals who are frustrated that their
fellow citizens and fellow humans do not see the whole truth as they
do, Rawls offers the reconciling thought that this diversity of
worldviews results from, and can support, a social order with greater
freedom for all.

2.2 The Sequence of Theories

In contrast to the utilitarian, for Rawls political philosophy is not
simply applied moral philosophy. The utilitarian holds to one
universal moral principle (“maximize utility”), which she
applies to individual actions, political constitutions, international
relations, and all other subjects as required. Rawls has no universal
principle: “The correct regulative principle for
anything,” he says, “depends on the nature of that
thing” (TJ, 29). Rawls confines his theorizing to the
political domain, and within this domain he holds that the correct
principles for each sub-domain depend on its particular agents and

Rawls covers the domain of the political by addressing its sub-domains
in sequence. The first sub-domain that he addresses is a
self-contained democratic society reproducing itself across
generations. Once principles are in place for such a society, Rawls
moves to a second sub-domain: a society of nations, of which this
democratic society is a member. Rawls suggests (though he does not
show) that his sequence of theories could extend to cover further
sub-domains, such as human interactions with animals. Universal
coverage will have been achieved once this sequence is complete, each
sub-domain having received the principles appropriate to it.

2.3 Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory

Within each sub-domain of the political Rawls also follows a sequence:
ideal theory before non-ideal theory. Ideal theory makes two
types of idealizing assumptions about its subject matter. First, ideal
theory assumes that all actors (citizens or societies) are generally
willing to comply with whatever principles are chosen. Ideal theory
thus idealizes away the possibility of law-breaking, either by
individuals (crime) or societies (aggressive war). Second, ideal
theory assumes reasonably favorable social conditions, wherein
citizens and societies are able to abide by principles of political
cooperation. Citizens are not so driven by hunger, for example, that
their capacity for moral reasoning is overwhelmed; nor are nations
struggling to overcome famine or the failure of their states.

Completing ideal theory first, Rawls says, yields a systematic
understanding of how to reform our non-ideal world, and fixes a vision
(mentioned above) of what is the best that can be hoped for. Once
ideal theory is completed for a political sub-domain, non-ideal
can be set out by reference to the ideal. For instance,
once we find ideal principles for citizens who can be productive
members of society over a complete life, we will be better able to
frame non-ideal principles for providing health care to citizens with
serious illnesses or disabilities. Similarly, once we understand the
ideal principles of international relations, we will better see how
the international community should act toward failed states, as well
as toward aggressive states that threaten the peace.

2.4 Reflective Equilibrium

The aim of political philosophy is to reach justified conclusions
about how political life should proceed. For Rawls, how justified one
is in one’s political convictions depends on how close one is to
achieving reflective equilibrium. In reflective equilibrium
all of one’s beliefs, on all levels of generality, cohere perfectly
with one another.

Thus, in reflective equilibrium one’s specific political judgments
(e.g., “slavery is unjust,” “imprisonment without
trial is unjust”) support one’s more general political
convictions (e.g., “all citizens have certain basic
rights”) which support one’s very abstract beliefs about the
political world (e.g., “all citizens are free and equal”).
Viewed from the opposite direction, in reflective equilibrium one’s
abstract beliefs explain one’s more general convictions, which in turn
explain one’s specific judgments. Were one to attain reflective
equilibrium, the justification of each belief would follow from all
beliefs relating in these networks of mutual support and

Though perfect reflective equilibrium is unattainable, we can use the
method of reflective equilibrium to get closer to it and so
increase the justifiability of our beliefs. In carrying through this
method, one begins with one’s considered moral judgments: those made
consistently and without hesitation when one is under good conditions
for thinking (e.g., “slavery is wrong,” “all
citizens are political equals”). One treats these considered
judgments as provisional fixed points, and then starts the process of
bringing one’s beliefs into relations of mutual support and
explanation as described above. Doing this inevitably brings out
conflicts where, for example, a specific judgment clashes with a more
general conviction, or where an abstract principle cannot accommodate
a particular kind of case. One proceeds by revising these beliefs as
necessary, striving always to increase the coherence of the whole.

Carrying through this process of mutual adjustment brings one closer
to narrow reflective equilibrium: coherence among one’s
initial beliefs. One then adds to this narrow equilibrium one’s
responses to the major theories in the history of political
philosophy, as well as one’s responses to theories critical of
political philosophizing as such. One continues to make adjustments in
one’s scheme of beliefs as one reflects on these alternatives, aiming
for the end-point of wide reflective equilibrium, in which
coherence is maintained after many alternatives have been

Because of its emphasis on coherence, reflective equilibrium is often
contrasted with foundationalism as an account of justified
belief. Within foundationalist approaches, some subset of beliefs is
considered to be unrevisable, thereby serving as a foundation on which
all other beliefs are to be based. Reflective equilibrium privileges
no such subset of beliefs: any belief at any level of generality is
subject to revision, if revision will help to bring one’s considered
convictions into greater coherence overall.

2.5 The Independence of Moral and Political Theory

In working toward greater reflective equilibrium, any type of belief
could in principle be relevant to one’s conclusions about how
political institutions should be arranged. Metaphysical beliefs about
free will or personal identity might be relevant, as could
epistemological beliefs about how we come to know what moral facts
there are. However, while this is correct in principle, Rawls holds
that in practice productive moral and political theorizing will
proceed to a large extent independent of metaphysics and epistemology.
Indeed, as a methodological presumption Rawls reverses the traditional
order of priority. Progress in metaethics will derive from progress in
substantive moral and political theorizing, instead of (as often
assumed) vice versa (CP, 286–302).

Rawls’s own metaethical theory of the objectivity and validity of
political judgments, political constructivism, will be described
below, after the substantive political theory from which it

In a free society, citizens will have disparate worldviews. They will
believe in different religions or none at all; they will have
differing conceptions of right and wrong; they will divide on the
value of lifestyles and of forms of interpersonal relationships.
Democratic citizens will have contrary commitments, yet within any
country there can only be one law. The law must either establish a
national church, or not; women must either have equal rights, or not;
abortion and gay marriage must either be permissible under the
constitution, or not; the economy must be set up in one way or

Rawls holds that the need to impose a unified law on a diverse
citizenry raises two fundamental challenges. The first is the
challenge of legitimacy: the legitimate use of coercive
political power. How can it be legitimate to coerce all citizens to
follow just one law, given that citizens will inevitably hold quite
different worldviews?

The second challenge is the challenge of stability, which
looks at political power from the receiving end. Why would a citizen
willingly obey the law if it is imposed on her by a collective body
many of whose members have beliefs and values quite dissimilar to her
own? Yet unless most citizens willingly obey the law, no social order
can be stable for long.

Rawls answers these challenges of legitimacy and stability with his
theory of political liberalism. Political liberalism is not
yet Rawls’s theory of justice (justice as fairness). Political
liberalism answers the conceptually prior questions of legitimacy and
stability, so fixing the context and starting points for justice as

3.1 Legitimacy: The Liberal Principle of Legitimacy

In a democracy, political power is always the power of the people as a
collective body. In light of the diversity within a democracy, what
would it mean for citizens legitimately to exercise coercive political
power over one another? Rawls’s test for the acceptable use of
political power in a democracy is his liberal principle of

Our exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is
exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which
all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse
in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human
reason. (PL, 137)

According to this principle, political power may only be used in ways
that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse. The use of
political power must fulfill a criterion of reciprocity:
citizens must reasonably believe that all citizens can reasonably
accept the enforcement of a particular set of basic laws. Those
coerced by law must be able to endorse the society’s fundamental
political arrangements freely, not because they are dominated or
manipulated or kept uninformed.

The liberal principle of legitimacy intensifies the challenge of
legitimacy: how can any particular set of basic laws legitimately be
imposed upon a pluralistic citizenry? What constitution could all
citizens reasonably be expected to endorse? Rawls’s answer to this
challenge begins by explaining what it would mean for citizens to be

3.2 Reasonable Citizens

Reasonable citizens want to live in a society in which they
can cooperate with their fellow citizens on terms that are acceptable
to all. They are willing to propose and abide by mutually acceptable
rules, given the assurance that others will also do so. They will also
honor these rules, even when this means sacrificing their own
particular interests. Reasonable citizens want, in short, to belong to
a society where political power is legitimately used.

Each reasonable citizen has her own view about God and life, right and
wrong, good and bad. Each has, that is, what Rawls calls her own
comprehensive doctrine. Yet because reasonable citizens are
reasonable, they are unwilling to impose their own comprehensive
doctrines on others who are also willing to search for mutually
agreeable rules. Though each may believe that she knows the truth
about the best way to live, none is willing to force other reasonable
citizens to live according to her beliefs, even if she belongs to a
majority that has the power to enforce those beliefs on everyone.

One reason that reasonable citizens are so tolerant, Rawls says, is
that they accept a certain explanation for the diversity of worldviews
in their society. Reasonable citizens accept the burdens of
. The deepest questions of religion, philosophy, and
morality are very difficult even for conscientious people to think
through. People will answer these questions in different ways because
of their own particular life experiences (their upbringing, class,
occupation, and so on). Reasonable citizens understand that these deep
issues are ones on which people of good will can disagree, and so will
be unwilling to impose their own worldviews on those who have reached
conclusions different than their own.

3.3 Reasonable Pluralism and the Public Political Culture

Rawls’s account of the reasonable citizen accords with his view of
human nature. Humans are not irredeemably self-centered, dogmatic, or
driven by what Hobbes called, “a perpetual and restless desire
of power after power.” (1651, 58) Humans have at least the
capacity for genuine toleration and mutual respect.

This capacity gives hope that the diversity of worldviews in a
democratic society may represent not merely pluralism, but
reasonable pluralism. Rawls hopes, that is, that the
religious, moral, and philosophical doctrines that citizens accept
will themselves endorse toleration and accept the essentials of a
democratic regime. In the religious sphere for example a reasonable
pluralism might contain a reasonable Catholicism, a reasonable
interpretation of Islam, a reasonable atheism, and so on. Being
reasonable, none of these doctrines will advocate the use of coercive
political power to impose conformity on those with different

The possibility of reasonable pluralism softens but does not solve the
challenge of legitimacy: how a particular set of basic laws can
legitimately be imposed on a diverse citizenry. For even in a society
of reasonable pluralism, it would be unreasonable to expect everyone
to endorse, say, a reasonable Catholicism as the basis for a
constitutional settlement. Reasonable Muslims or atheists cannot be
expected to endorse Catholicism as setting the basic terms for social
life. Nor, of course, can Catholics be expected to accept Islam or
atheism as the fundamental basis of law. No comprehensive
doctrine can be accepted by all reasonable citizens, and so no
comprehensive doctrine can serve as the basis for the legitimate use
of coercive political power.

Yet where else then to turn to find the ideas that will flesh out
society’s most basic laws, which all citizens will be required to

Since justification is addressed to others, it proceeds from what is,
or can be, held in common; and so we begin from shared fundamental
ideas implicit in the public political culture in the hope of
developing from them a political conception that can gain free and
reasoned agreement in judgment. (PL, 100–01)

There is only one source of fundamental ideas that can serve as a
focal point for all reasonable citizens of a liberal society. This is
the society’s public political culture. The public political
culture of a democratic society, Rawls says, “comprises the
political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public
traditions of their interpretation (including those of the judiciary),
as well as historic texts and documents that are common
knowledge” (PL, 13–14). Rawls looks to
fundamental ideas implicit, for example, in the design of the
society’s government, in the constitutional list of individual rights,
and in the historic decisions of important courts. These fundamental
ideas from the public political culture can be crafted into a
political conception of justice.

3.4 Political Conceptions of Justice

Rawls’s solution to the challenge of legitimacy in a liberal society
is for political power to be exercised in accordance with a
political conception of justice. A political conception of
justice is an interpretation of the fundamental ideas implicit in that
society’s public political culture.

A political conception is not derived from any particular
comprehensive doctrine, nor is it a compromise among the worldviews
that happen to exist in society at the moment. Rather a political
conception is freestanding: its content is set out independently of
the comprehensive doctrines that citizens affirm. Reasonable citizens,
who want to cooperate with one another on mutually acceptable terms,
will see that a freestanding political conception generated from ideas
in the public political culture is the only basis for cooperation that
all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse. The use of
coercive political power guided by the principles of a political
conception of justice will therefore be legitimate.

The three most fundamental ideas that Rawls finds in the public
political culture of a democratic society are that citizens are
free and equal, and that society should be a
fair system of cooperation. All liberal political conceptions
of justice will therefore be centered on interpretations of these
three fundamental ideas.

Because there are many reasonable interpretations of
“free,” “equal” and “fair,” there
will be many liberal political conceptions of justice. Since all the
members of this family interpret the same fundamental ideas, however,
all liberal political conceptions of justice will share certain basic

  1. A liberal political conception of justice will ascribe to all
    citizens familiar individual rights and liberties, such as rights of
    free expression, liberty of conscience, and free choice of
  2. A political conception will give special priority to these rights
    and liberties, especially over demands to further the general good
    (e.g., to increase national wealth) or perfectionist values (e.g., to
    promote a particular view of human flourishing);
  3. A political conception will assure for all citizens sufficient
    all-purpose means to make effective use of their freedoms.

These abstract features must, Rawls says, be realized in certain kinds
of institutions. He mentions several features that all societies that
are ordered by a liberal political conception will share: fair
opportunities for all citizens (especially in education and training);
a decent distribution of income and wealth; government as the employer
of last resort; basic health care for all citizens; and public
financing of elections.

By Rawls’s criteria, a libertarian conception of justice (such as
Nozick’s in Anarchy, State, and Utopia) is not a liberal
political conception of justice. Libertarianism does not assure all
citizens sufficient means to make use of their basic liberties, and it
permits excessive inequalities of wealth and power. By contrast,
Rawls’s own conception of justice (justice as fairness) does qualify
as a member of the family of liberal political conceptions of justice.
The use of political power in a liberal society will be legitimate if
it is employed in accordance with the principles of any liberal
conception of justice—justice as fairness, or some other.

3.5 Stability: An Overlapping Consensus

Political power is used legitimately in a liberal society when it is
used in accordance with a political conception of justice. Yet the
challenge of stability remains: why will citizens willingly obey the
law as specified by a liberal political conception? Legitimacy means
that the law may permissibly be enforced; Rawls still needs to explain
why citizens have reasons, from within their own points of view, to
abide by such a law. If citizens do not believe they have such
reasons, social order may disintegrate.

Rawls places his hopes for social stability on an overlapping
. In an overlapping consensus, citizens all endorse a
core set of laws for different reasons. In Rawlsian terms, each
citizen supports a political conception of justice for reasons
internal to her own comprehensive doctrine.

Recall that the content of a political conception is freestanding: it
is specified without reference to any comprehensive doctrine. This
allows a political conception to be a “module” that can
fit into any number of worldviews that citizens might have. In an
overlapping consensus each reasonable citizen affirms this common
“module” from within her own perspective.

Here is an example. The quotation below from the second Vatican
Council of the Catholic Church shows how a particular comprehensive
doctrine (Catholicism) affirms one component of a liberal political
conception (a familiar individual liberty) from within its own

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to
religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune
from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of
any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is
forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone
to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs,
whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with
others, within due limits. The council further declares that the right
to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the
human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed Word of
God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious
freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society
is governed and thus it is to become a civil right. (1965, art. 2)

Catholic doctrine here supports the liberal right to religious freedom
for reasons internal to Catholicism. A reasonable Islamic doctrine,
and a reasonable atheistic doctrine, might also affirm this same right
to religious freedom–not, of course, for the same reasons as Catholic
doctrine, but each for its own reasons. In an overlapping consensus,
all reasonable comprehensive doctrines will support the right to
religious freedom, each for its own reasons. Indeed, in an overlapping
consensus, all reasonable comprehensive doctrines will endorse all of
a political conception of justice, each from within its own point of

Citizens within an overlapping consensus work out for themselves how
the liberal “module” fits within their own worldviews.
Some citizens may see liberalism as derived directly from their
deepest beliefs, as in the quotation from Vatican II above. Others may
accept a liberal conception as attractive in itself, but mostly
separate from their other concerns. What is crucial is that all
citizens view the values of a political conception of justice as very
great values, which normally outweigh their other values should these
conflict on some particular issue. All citizens, for their own
reasons, give the political conception priority in their reasoning
about how their society’s basic laws should be ordered.

Rawls sees an overlapping consensus as the most desirable form of
stability in a free society. Stability in an overlapping consensus is
superior to a mere balance of power (a modus vivendi) among
citizens who hold contending worldviews. After all, power often
shifts, and when it does the social stability of a modus
may be lost.

In an overlapping consensus, citizens affirm a political conception
wholeheartedly from within their own perspectives, and so will
continue to do so even if their group gains or loses political power.
Rawls says that an overlapping consensus is stable for the right
: each citizen affirms a moral doctrine (a liberal
conception of justice) for moral reasons (as given by their
comprehensive doctrine). Abiding by liberal basic laws is not a
citizen’s second-best option in the face of the power of others; it is
each citizen’s first-best option given her own beliefs.

Rawls does not assert that an overlapping consensus is achievable in
every liberal society. Nor does he say that, once established, an
overlapping consensus must forever endure. Citizens in some societies
may have too little in common to converge on a liberal political
conception of justice. In other societies, unreasonable doctrines may
spread until they overwhelm liberal institutions.

Rawls does hold that history shows both deepening trust and
convergence in beliefs among citizens in many liberal societies. This
gives hope that an overlapping consensus is at least possible. Where
an overlapping consensus is possible, Rawls believes, it is the best
support for social stability that a free society can achieve.

3.6 Public Reason

Having seen how Rawls answers the challenges of legitimacy and
stability, we can return to legitimacy and its criterion of
reciprocity: citizens must reasonably believe that all citizens can
reasonably accept the enforcement of a particular set of basic laws.
It is unreasonable for citizens to attempt to impose what they see as
the whole truth on others—political power must be used in ways
that all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse. With his
doctrine of public reason, Rawls extends this requirement of
reciprocity to apply directly to how citizens explain their political
decisions to one another. In essence, public reason requires citizens
to be able to justify their political decisions to one another using
publicly available values and standards.

To take a straightforward example: a Supreme Court justice deciding on
a gay marriage law would violate public reason were she to base her
opinion on God’s forbidding gay sex in the book of Leviticus, or on a
personal spiritual revelation that upholding such a law would hasten
the end of days. This is because not all members of society can
reasonably be expected to accept Leviticus as stating an authoritative
set of political values, nor can a religious premonition be a common
standard for evaluating public policy. These values and standards are
not public.

Rawls’s doctrine of public reason can be summarized as follows:

Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a
duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on
fundamental political issues by reference only to public
and public standards.

Each of the highlighted terms in this doctrine can be further
elucidated as follows:

  • The public values that citizens must be able to appeal to are
    the values of a political conception of justice: those related to the
    freedom and equality of citizens, and to the fairness of the terms of
    social cooperation. Among such public values are the freedom of
    religious practice, the political equality of women and of racial
    minorities, the efficiency of the economy, the preservation of a
    healthy environment, and the stability of the family (which helps the
    orderly reproduction of society from one generation to the next).
    Nonpublic values are the values internal to associations like churches
    (e.g., that women may not hold the highest offices) or private clubs
    (e.g., that racial minorities can be excluded) which cannot be squared
    with public values such as these.

  • Similarly, citizens should be able to justify their political
    decisions by public standards of inquiry. Public standards are
    principles of reasoning and rules of evidence that all citizens could
    reasonably endorse. So citizens are not to justify their political
    decisions by appeal to divination, or to complex and disputed economic
    or psychological theories. Rather, publicly acceptable standards are
    those that rely on common sense, on facts generally known, and on the
    conclusions of science that are well established and not

  • The duty to abide by public reason applies when the most
    fundamental political issues are at stake: issues such as who
    has the right to vote, which religions are to be tolerated, who will
    be eligible to own property, and what are suspect classifications for
    discrimination in hiring decisions. These are what Rawls calls
    constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice.
    Public reason applies more weakly, if at all, to less momentous
    political questions, for example to most laws that change the rate of
    tax, or that put aside public money to maintain national

  • Citizens have a duty to constrain their decisions by public reason
    only when they engage in certain political activities, usually
    when exercising powers of public office. So judges are bound by public
    reason when they issue their rulings, legislators should abide by
    public reason when speaking and voting in the legislature, and the
    executive and candidates for high office should respect public reason
    in their public pronouncements. Significantly, Rawls says that voters
    should also heed public reason when they vote. All of these activities
    are or support exercises of political power, so (by the liberal
    principle of legitimacy) all must be justifiable in terms that all
    citizens might reasonably endorse. However, citizens are not bound by
    any duties of public reason when they engage in other activities, for
    example when they worship in church, perform on stage, pursue
    scientific research, send letters to the editor, or talk politics
    around the dinner table.

  • The duty to be able to justify one’s political decisions with public
    reasons is a moral duty, not a legal duty: it is a duty of
    . All citizens always have their full legal rights to free
    expression, and overstepping the bounds of public reason is never in
    itself a crime. Rather, citizens have a moral duty of mutual respect
    and civic friendship not to justify their political decisions on
    fundamental issues by appeal to partisan values or controversial
    standards of reasoning that cannot be publicly redeemed.

In an important proviso, Rawls adds that citizens may speak the
language of their controversial comprehensive doctrines—even as
public officials, and even on the most fundamental issues—so
long as they show how these assertions support the public values that
all share. So President Lincoln, for instance, could legitimately
condemn the evil of slavery using Biblical imagery, since he also
condemned slavery in terms of the public values of freedom and
equality. Thus even within its limited range of application, Rawls’s
doctrine of public reason is rather permissive concerning what
citizens may say and do within the bounds of civility.

Justice as fairness is Rawls’s theory of justice for a liberal
society. As a member of the family of liberal political conceptions of
justice it provides a framework for the legitimate use of political
power. Yet legitimacy is only the minimal standard of moral
acceptability; a political order can be legitimate without being just.
Justice sets the maximal standard: the arrangement of social
institutions that is morally best.

Rawls constructs justice as fairness around specific interpretations
of the ideas that citizens are free and equal and that society should
be fair. He sees it as resolving the tensions between the ideas of
freedom and equality, which have been highlighted both by the
socialist critique of liberal democracy and by the conservative
critique of the modern welfare state. Rawls holds that justice as
fairness is the most egalitarian, and also the most plausible,
interpretation of these fundamental concepts of liberalism. He also
argues that justice as fairness provides a superior understanding of
justice to that of the dominant tradition in modern political thought:

4.1 The Basic Structure of Society

Justice as fairness aims to describe a just arrangement of the major
political and social institutions of a liberal society: the political
constitution, the legal system, the economy, the family, and so on.
Rawls calls the arrangement of these institutions a society’s
basic structure. The basic structure is the location of
justice because these institutions distribute the main benefits and
burdens of social life: who will receive social recognition, who will
have which basic rights, who will have opportunities to get what kind
of work, what the distribution of income and wealth will be, and so

The form of a society’s basic structure will have profound effects on
the lives of citizens. The basic structure will influence not only
their life prospects, but more deeply their goals, their attitudes,
their relationships, and their characters. Institutions that will have
such pervasive influence on people’s lives require justification.
Since leaving one’s society is not a realistic option for most people,
the justification cannot be that citizens have consented to a basic
structure by staying in the country. And since the rules of any basic
structure will be coercively enforced, often with serious penalties,
the demand to justify the imposition of any particular set of rules
intensifies further.

In setting out justice as fairness, Rawls assumes that the liberal
society in question is marked by reasonable pluralism as described
above, and also that it is under reasonably favorable conditions: that
there are enough resources for it to be possible for everyone’s basic
needs to be met. Rawls makes the simplifying assumption that the
society is self-sufficient and closed, so that citizens enter it only
by birth and leave it only at death. He also confines his attention
mainly to ideal theory, putting aside questions such as those of
criminal justice.

4.2 Two Guiding Ideas of Justice as Fairness

Social cooperation in some form is necessary for citizens to be able
to lead decent lives. Yet citizens are not indifferent to how the
benefits and burdens of cooperation will be divided amongst them.
Rawls’s principles of justice as fairness articulate the central
liberal ideas that cooperation should be fair to all citizens regarded
as free and as equals. The distinctive interpretation that Rawls gives
to these concepts can be seen as combining a negative and a positive

Rawls’s negative thesis starts with the idea that citizens do not
deserve to be born into a rich or a poor family, to be born naturally
more or less gifted than others, to be born female or male, to be born
a member of a particular racial group, and so on. Since these features
of persons are morally arbitrary in this sense, citizens are not
entitled to more of the benefits of social cooperation simply because
of them. For example the fact that a citizen was born rich, white, and
male provides no reason in itself for this citizen to be favored by
social institutions.

This negative thesis does not say how social goods should be
distributed; it merely clears the decks. Rawls’s positive distributive
thesis is equality-based reciprocity. All social goods are to be
distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would be to
everyone’s advantage. The guiding idea is that since citizens are
fundamentally equal, reasoning about justice should begin from a
presumption that cooperatively-produced goods should be equally
divided. Justice then requires that any inequalities must benefit all
citizens, and particularly must benefit those who will have the least.
Equality sets the baseline; from there any inequalities must improve
everyone’s situation, and especially the situation of the worst-off.
These strong requirements of equality and reciprocal advantage are
hallmarks of Rawls’s theory of justice.

4.3 The Two Principles of Justice as Fairness

These guiding ideas of justice as fairness are given institutional
form by its two principles of justice:

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:

  1. They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under
    conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
  2. They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged
    members of society (the difference principle). (JF,

The first principle of equal basic liberties is to be embodied in the
political constitution, while the second principle applies primarily
to economic institutions. Fulfillment of the first principle takes
priority over fulfillment of the second principle, and within the
second principle fair equality of opportunity takes priority over the
difference principle.

The first principle affirms that all citizens should have the familiar
basic rights and liberties: liberty of conscience and freedom of
association, freedom of speech and liberty of the person, the rights
to vote, to hold public office, to be treated in accordance with the
rule of law, and so on. The first principle accords these rights and
liberties to all citizens equally. Unequal rights would not benefit
those who would get a lesser share of the rights, so justice requires
equal rights for all, in all normal circumstances.

Rawls’s first principle confirms widespread convictions about the
importance of equal basic rights and liberties. Two further features
make this principle distinctive. First is its priority: the basic
rights and liberties must not be traded off against other social
goods. The first principle disallows, for instance, a policy that
would give draft exemptions to college students on the grounds that
educated civilians will increase economic productivity. The draft is a
drastic infringement on basic liberties, and if a draft is implemented
then all who are able to serve must be equally subject to it, even if
this means slower growth. Citizens’ equal liberty must have priority
over economic policy.

The second distinctive feature of Rawls’s first principle is that it
requires fair value of the political liberties. The political
liberties are a subset of the basic liberties, concerned with the
right to hold public office, the right to affect the outcome of
national elections and so on. For these liberties, Rawls requires that
citizens should be not only formally but also substantively equal.
That is, citizens who are similarly endowed and motivated should have
similar opportunities to hold office, to influence elections, and so
on regardless of how rich or poor they are. This fair value proviso
has major implications for how elections should be funded and run, as
will be discussed below.

Rawls’s second principle of justice has two parts. The first part,
fair equality of opportunity, requires that citizens with the same
talents and willingness to use them have the same educational and
economic opportunities regardless of whether they were born rich or
poor. “In all parts of society there are to be roughly the same
prospects of culture and achievement for those similarly motivated and
endowed” (JF, p. 44).

So, for example, if we assume that natural endowments and the
willingness to use them are evenly distributed across children born
into different social classes, then within any type of occupation
(generally specified) we should find that roughly one quarter of
people in that occupation were born into the top 25% of the income
distribution, one quarter were born into the second-highest 25% of the
income distribution, one quarter were born into the second-lowest 25%,
and one-quarter were born into the lowest 25%. Since class of origin
is a morally arbitrary fact about citizens, justice does not allow
class of origin to turn into unequal opportunities for education or
meaningful work.

The second part of the second principle is the difference principle,
which regulates the distribution of wealth and income. Allowing
inequalities of wealth and income can lead to a larger social product:
higher wages can cover the costs of training and education, for
example, and can provide incentives to fill jobs that are more in
demand. The difference principle allows inequalities of wealth and
income, so long as these will be to to everyone’s advantage, and
specifically to the advantage of those who will be worst off. The
difference principle requires, that is, that any economic inequalities
be to the greatest advantage of those who are advantaged least.

To illustrate, consider four hypothetical economic structures A-D, and
the lifetime-average levels of income that these different economic
structures would result in for representative members of three

Middle GroupMost-Advantaged

Here the difference principle selects Economy C, because it contains
the distribution where the least-advantaged group does best.
Inequalities in C are to everyone’s advantage relative to a completely
equal distribution (Economy A), and relative to a more equal
distribution (Economy B). But the difference principle does not allow
the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor (Economy D). The
difference principle embodies equality-based reciprocity: from an
egalitarian baseline, it requires that any inequalities are good for
all, and especially for the worst-off.

The difference principle is partly based on the negative thesis that
the distribution of natural assets is undeserved. A citizen does not
merit more of the social product simply because she was lucky enough
to be born with the potential to develop skills that are currently in
high demand. Yet this does not mean that everyone must get the same
shares. The fact that citizens have different talents and abilities
can be used to make everyone better off. In a society governed by the
difference principle, citizens regard the distribution of natural
endowments as a common asset that can benefit all. Those better
endowed are welcome to use their gifts to make themselves better off,
so long as their doing so also contributes to the good of those less
well endowed.

The difference principle thus expresses a positive ideal, an ideal of
deep social unity. In a society that satisfies the difference
principle, citizens know that their economy works to everyone’s
benefit, and that those who were lucky enough to be born with greater
natural potential are not getting richer at the expense of those who
were less fortunate. One might contrast Rawls’s positive ideal to
Nozick’s ideal of libertarian freedom, or to ideas about economic
justice that are dominant within contemporary society. “In
justice as fairness,” Rawls says, “men agree to share one
another’s fate.” (TJ, 102)

4.4 The Conception of Citizens

Having surveyed Rawls’s two principles of justice as fairness, we can
return to Rawls’s interpretations of the liberal ideas that citizens
are free and equal and that society should be fair. Rawls uses these
conceptions of citizens and society to construct the formal
justification for the two principles: the argument from the original

Rawls’s interpretation of the idea that citizens are free is as
follows. Citizens are free in that each sees herself as being entitled
to make claims on social institutions in her own right—citizens
are not slaves or serfs, dependent for their social status on others.
Citizens are also free in that they see their public identities as
independent of any particular comprehensive doctrine: a citizen who
converts to Islam, or who recants her faith, will expect, for example,
to retain all her political rights and liberties throughout the
transition. Finally, citizens are free in being able to take
responsibility for planning their own lives, given the opportunities
and resources that they can reasonably expect.

Citizens are equal, Rawls says, in virtue of having the capacities to
participate in social cooperation over a complete life. Citizens may
have greater or lesser skills, talents, and powers “above the
line” that cooperation requires, but differences above this line
have no bearing on citizens’ equal political status.

Rawlsian citizens are not only free and equal, they are also
reasonable and rational. The idea that citizens are reasonable is
familiar from political liberalism. Reasonable citizens have the
capacity to abide by fair terms of cooperation, even at the expense of
their own interests, provided that others are also willing to do so.
In justice as fairness, Rawls calls this reasonableness the capacity
for a sense of justice. Citizens are also rational: they have
the capacity to pursue and revise their own view of what is valuable
in human life. Rawls calls this the capacity for a conception of
the good
. Together these capacities are called the two moral

Like every theory of justice (for example those of Locke, Rousseau and
Mill), justice as fairness requires an account of citizens’
fundamental interests: what citizens need qua citizens. Rawls
derives his account of primary goods from the conception of
the citizen as free and equal, reasonable and rational. Primary goods
are essential for developing and exercising the two moral powers, and
are useful for pursuing a wide range of specific conceptions of the
good life. Primary goods are:

  • The basic rights and liberties;
  • Freedom of movement, and free choice among a wide range of
  • The powers of offices and positions of responsibility;
  • Income and wealth;
  • The social bases of self-respect: the recognition by social
    institutions that gives citizens a sense of self-worth and the
    confidence to carry out their plans. (JF, 58–59)

All citizens are assumed to have fundamental interests in getting more
of these primary goods, and political institutions are to evaluate how
well citizens are doing according to what primary goods they have. It
is equalities and inequalities of these primary goods that, Rawls
claims, are of the greatest political significance.

4.5 The Conception of Society

Rawls’s conception of society is defined by fairness: social
institutions are to be fair to all cooperating members of society,
regardless of their race, gender, religion, class of origin, natural
talents, reasonable conception of the good life, and so on.

Rawls also emphasizes publicity as an aspect of fairness. In
what he calls a well-ordered society all citizens accept the
principles of justice and know that their fellow citizens also do so,
and all citizens recognize that the basic structure is just. The full
philosophical justifications for the principles of justice are also
knowable by and acceptable to all reasonable citizens.

The idea behind publicity is that since the principles for the basic
structure will be coercively enforced on free citizens, they should
stand up to public scrutiny. The publicity condition requires that a
society’s operative principles of justice not be too esoteric, and not
be screens for deeper power relations. Fairness requires that, in
“public political life, nothing need be hidden… there is no
need for the illusions and delusions of ideology for society to work
properly and for citizens to accept it willingly.” (PL,

4.6 The Original Position

Rawls’s conceptions of citizens and society are still quite abstract,
and some might think innocuous. The original position aims to
move from these abstract conceptions to determinate principles of
social justice. It does so by translating the question: “What
are fair terms of social cooperation for free and equal
citizens?” into the question “What terms of cooperation
would free and equal citizens agree to under fair conditions?”
The move to agreement among citizens is what places Rawls’s justice as
fairness within the social contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau and

The strategy of the original position is to construct a method of
reasoning that models abstract ideas about justice so as to focus
their power together onto the choice of principles. So Rawls’s
conceptions of citizens and of society are built into the design of
the original position itself. Rawls’s intent is that readers will see
the outcome of the original position as justified because they will
see how it embodies plausible understandings of citizens and society,
and also because this outcome confirms many of their considered
convictions about justice on specific issues.

The original position is a thought experiment: an imaginary situation
in which each real citizen has a representative, and all of these
representatives come to an agreement on which principles of justice
should order the political institutions of the real citizens. This
thought experiment is better than trying to get all real citizens
actually to assemble in person to try to agree to principles of
justice for their society. Even if that were possible, the bargaining
among real citizens would be influenced by all sorts of factors
irrelevant to justice, such as who could threaten the others most, or
who could hold out for longest.

The original position abstracts from all such irrelevant factors. The
original position is a fair situation in which each citizen is
represented as only a free and equal citizen: each representative
wants only what free and equal citizens want, and each tries to agree
to principles for the basic structure while situated fairly with
respect to the other representatives. The design of the original
position thus models the ideas of freedom, equality and fairness. For
example, fairness and equality are modeled in the original position by
making the parties who represent real citizens symmetrically situated:
no citizen’s representative is able to threaten any other citizen’s
representative, or to hold out longer for a better deal.

The most striking feature of the original position is the veil of
, which prevents arbitrary facts about citizens from
influencing the agreement among their representatives. As we have
seen, Rawls holds that the fact that a citizen is of a certain race,
class, and gender is no reason for social institutions to favor or
disfavor her. Each representative in the original position is
therefore deprived of knowledge of the race, class, and gender of the
real citizen that they represent. In fact, the veil of ignorance
deprives the parties of all facts about citizens that are irrelevant
to the choice of principles of justice: not only facts about their
race, class, and gender but also facts about their age, natural
endowments, and more. Moreover the veil of ignorance also screens out
specific information about what society is like right now, so as to
get a clearer view of the permanent features of a just social

Behind the veil of ignorance, the informational situation of the
parties that represent real citizens is as follows:

  • Parties do not know:
    • The race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, wealth, natural
      endowments, comprehensive doctrine, etc. of any of the citizens in
      society, or to which generation in the history of the society these
      citizens belong.
    • The political system of the society, its class structure, economic
      system, or level of economic development.
  • Parties do know:
    • That citizens in the society have different comprehensive
      doctrines and plans of life; that all citizens have interests in more
      primary goods.
    • That the society is under conditions of moderate scarcity: there
      is enough to go around, but not enough for everyone to get what they
    • General facts and common sense about human social life; general
      conclusions of science (including economics and psychology) that are

The veil of ignorance situates the representatives of free and equal
citizens fairly with respect to one another. No party can press for
agreement on principles that will arbitrarily favor the particular
citizen they represent, because no party knows the specific attributes
of the citizen they represent. The situation of the parties thus
embodies reasonable conditions, within which the parties can make a
rational agreement. Each party tries to agree to principles that will
be best for the citizen they represent (i.e., that will maximize that
citizen’s share of primary goods). Since the parties are fairly
situated, the agreement they reach will be fair to all actual

The design of the original position also models other aspects of
Rawls’s conceptions of citizens and society. For example the publicity
of a well-ordered society is modeled by the fact that the parties must
choose among principles that can be publicly endorsed by all citizens.
There are also some assumptions that make the hypothetical agreement
determinate and decisive: the parties are not motivated by envy (i.e.,
by how much citizens besides their own end up with); the parties are
not assumed to be either risk-seeking or risk-averse; and the parties
must make a final agreement on principles for the basic structure:
there are no “do-overs” after the veil of ignorance is
lifted and the parties learn which real citizen they represent.

4.7 The Argument from the Original Position: The Selection of Principles

The argument from the original position has two parts. In the first
part, the parties agree to principles of justice. In the second part,
the parties check that a society ordered by these principles could be
stable over time. Rawls only attempts to show that his two principles
of justice as fairness would be favored over utilitarian principles,
since he sees utilitarianism as the main competing tradition of
reasoning about justice. The parties are thus presented with a choice
between Rawls’s two principles and utilitarian principles, and asked
which principles they would prefer to agree to.

The first part of the original position contains two fundamental
comparisons between Rawls’s principles and utilitarian principles. In
the first comparison, the parties compare Rawls’s principles to
the principle of average utility: the principle that the
basic structure should be arranged so as to produce the highest level
of utility averaged among all citizens. Rawls argues that the parties
would favor his principles in this comparison, because the first
principle of justice as fairness secures equal liberties for all

In this first comparison, Rawls argues that it is rational for the
parties to use maximin reasoning: to maximize the minimum
level of primary goods that the citizens they represent might find
themselves with. And maximin reasoning, he says, favors justice as

Under average utilitarianism, Rawls argues, the basic liberties of
some citizens might be restricted for the sake of greater benefits to
other citizens. For example, restricting the political and religious
liberties of a weak minority might work to the benefit of the
majority, and so produce a higher average level of utility in the
society. A party in the original position will find the possibility
that their citizen might be denied political and religious liberties
intolerable, given that the party could instead secure equal liberties
for their citizen by choosing justice as fairness. A party will not be
willing to gamble with the political standing and deepest commitments
of the citizen they represent, Rawls says, when they could safeguard
the standing and commitments of their citizen even if their citizen
turns out to be in a weak minority.

Moreover, Rawls says, a society ordered by the principles of justice
as fairness has other advantages over a utilitarian society. Securing
equal basic liberties for all encourages a spirit of cooperation among
citizens on a basis of mutual respect, and takes divisive conflicts
about whether to deny liberties to some citizens off of the political
agenda. By contrast, a utilitarian society would be riven by mutual
suspicions, as different groups put forward highly speculative
arguments that average utility could be increased by implementing
their partisan policies. Rawls’s first principle, by securing
permanent equal liberties for all citizens, increases social harmony
by making it much easier for justice to be seen to be done. The
balance of considerations in favor of justice as fairness over average
utility here is, Rawls claims, decisive.

In the second fundamental comparison, the parties are offered a choice
between justice as fairness and the principle of restricted
. The principle of restricted utility is identical to
Rawls’s two principles, except that the difference principle is
replaced with a principle which says that the distribution of wealth
and income should maximize average utility, constrained by a
guaranteed minimum level of income for all. While the first comparison
turned on the importance of the basic liberties, the second comparison
contains Rawls’s formal argument for the difference principle.

Maximin reasoning plays no role in the argument for the difference
principle. Nor does aversion to uncertainty (JF, xvii, 43,
95, 96).

In this second comparison, Rawls argues that the parties will favor
justice as fairness because its principles provide a better basis for
enduring cooperation among all citizens. The difference principle, he
says, asks less of the better-off than restricted utility asks of the
worst-off. Under the difference principle, he says, those who are
better endowed are permitted to gain more wealth and income, on the
condition that their doing so also benefits their fellow citizens.
Under restricted utility, by contrast, those living at the minimum
will suspect that their interests have been sacrificed to make the
better-off better off still. These citizens at the minimum may become
cynical about their society, and withdraw from active participation in
public life.

Moreover, it is again difficult to maintain a public agreement as to
which economic policies actually will maximize average utility, and
debates over where to set the guaranteed minimum may lead to mistrust
among social classes. The difference principle instead encourages
mutual trust and the cooperative virtues by instantiating an ideal of
economic reciprocity. Each party will see the advantages for the
citizen they represent of securing the more harmonious social world of
justice as fairness.

4.8 The Argument from the Original Position: The Check for Stability

Having selected the two principles of justice as fairness, the parties
turn to the second part of the original position: the check that these
principles can order a society stably over time. The parties check,
that is, whether those who grow up under institutions arranged by
these principles will develop sufficient willingness to abide by them
that the principles can serve as the focus of an enduring overlapping

Rawls argues that the parties will see that his two principles are
congruent with each citizen’s good. Under the two principles, the
society’s basic institutions affirm the freedom and equality of each
citizen, giving a public basis for each citizen’s self-respect. This
public basis of self-respect is vital for citizens to be able to
pursue their life plans with energy and confidence. Citizens will also
see that the basic liberties allow sufficient social space for them to
pursue their reasonable conceptions of the good. Whether poor or rich,
citizens will tend not to be envious or imperious, as they will see
how the economy works toward the reciprocal advantage of all. And
citizens may be satisfied by reflecting on the collective good that
they can achieve with each other, by working to maintain just
institutions over time.

Given that the two principles are congruent with citizens’ good, Rawls
argues that it is reasonable to suppose that citizens will develop a
desire to act in accordance with them. People become attached to
people and institutions that they see benefiting them, and the two
principles create a social world in which each citizen can pursue her
own ends on a basis of mutual respect with other citizens. Since this
is experienced as a good, the principles will gain citizens’ willing
and stable allegiance. “The most stable conception of
justice,” Rawls says, “is one that is perspicuous to our
reason, congruent with our good, and rooted not in abnegation but in
affirmation of the self” (TJ, 261).

4.9 Institutions: The Four-Stage Sequence

The two parts of the argument for justice as fairness above occur at
the first stage of the original position. At this first stage, the
parties also agree to a principle of just savings to regulate
how much each generation must save for future generations. Since the
parties do not know which era the citizens they represent live in, it
is rational for them to choose a savings principle that is fair to all
generations. Rawls says that the parties need not choose a savings
principle that requires endless economic growth. Rather, the parties
may prefer a Millian “steady state” of zero real growth,
once a generation has been reached in which the two principles are

After agreeing on the two principles and a principle of just savings,
the parties then proceed further through the four-stage
, tailoring these general principles to the particular
conditions of the society of the citizens they represent. Through this
four-stage sequence, the veil of ignorance that screens out
information about society’s general features gradually becomes
thinner, and the parties use the new information to decide on
progressively more determinate applications of the principles already
agreed upon. The parties, that is, progressively fill in the
institutional details of what justice requires in the real world.

At the second stage of the original position, the parties are given
more information about society’s political culture and economic
development, and take on the task of crafting a constitution
that realizes the two principles of justice. At the third stage, the
parties learn still more about the details of society, and agree to
specific legislation that realize the two principles within
the constitutional framework decided at the second stage. At the
fourth stage, the parties have full information about society, and
reason as judges and administrators to apply the
previously-agreed legislation to particular cases. When the four
stages are complete, the principles of justice as fairness are fully
articulated for society’s political life.

To illustrate: at the constitutional (second) and legislative (third)
stages, the parties specify basic liberties such as “freedom of
thought” into more particular rights, like the right to free
political speech. The right to political speech is itself then further
specified as the right to criticize the government, the rights
protecting the press from political interference, and so on. Through
the four-stage sequence, the parties also adjust the basic liberties
to fit with one another and with other values, always aiming for an
overall scheme of liberties that will best enable citizens to develop
and exercise their two moral powers and pursue their determinate
conceptions of the good. (PL, 289–371)

At the later stages, the parties also work out the institutions that
will be necessary to realize the fair value of the equal political
liberties. On this topic, Rawls is adamant: unless there are public
funds for elections, restrictions on campaign contributions, and
substantially equal access to the media, politics will be captured by
concentrations of private economic power. This will make it impossible
for equally-able citizens to have equal opportunities to influence
politics regardless of their wealth, as fair value demands.

The parties attempt to realize the second principle of justice at the
legislative stage, by shaping the laws that regulate property,
contract, taxation, inheritance, hiring and minimum wages, and so on.
Their task is not to allocate some fixed set of goods that appear from
nowhere, but rather to devise a set of institutions for education,
production, and distribution whose operation will realize fair
equality of opportunity and the difference principle over time.

For fair equality of opportunity, Rawls emphasizes that laws and
policies must go beyond merely preventing discrimination in education
and hiring. To ensure fair opportunity regardless of social class of
origin, the state must also fund high-quality education for the less
well-off. Moreover, the state must also guarantee both a basic minimum
income and health care for all.

On realizing the difference principle, Rawls says that the goal is an
economic order that maximizes the position of the worst-off group
(e.g., unskilled laborers, or those with less than half of the median
wealth and income over their lifetimes). Given that institutions
realizing the prior principles are already in place, this should be
approximately achievable by, for example, varying marginal rates of
tax and tax exemptions.

Rawls explicitly rejects the welfare state (JF,
137–40). Welfare-state capitalism leaves control of the economy
in the hands of a group of rich private actors. It therefore fails to
ensure for all citizens enough resources to have roughly equal chances
of influencing politics, or to have sufficiently equal opportunities
in education and employment. The welfare state therefore tends to
generate a demoralized under-class.

Laissez-faire capitalism is even worse for equality than the welfare
state along these dimensions. And a socialist command economy would
put too much power in the hands of the state, again endangering
political equality and also threatening basic liberties such as free
choice of employment.

Justice as fairness, Rawls says, favors either a property-owning
or liberal (democratic) socialism. The government of a
property-owning democracy takes steps to encourage widespread
ownership of productive assets and broad access to education and
training. Liberal socialism is similar, but features worker-managed
firms. The aim of both systems of political economy is to enable all
citizens, even the least advantaged, to manage their own affairs
within a context of significant social and economic equality.
“The least advantaged are not, if all goes well, the unfortunate
and unlucky—objects of our charity and compassion, much less our
pity—but those to whom reciprocity is owed as a matter of basic
justice” (JF, 139).

4.10 The Original Position and Political Constructivism

Rawls puts forward the original position as a useful device for
reaching greater reflective equilibrium. He holds that the value of
the original position as a method of reasoning is affirmed when it
selects the first principle of justice, since the first principle
accords with many people’s settled convictions about the importance of
assuring the basic rights and liberties for all. Having gained
credibility by confirming these settled moral judgments, the original
position then goes on to select principles for issues on which
people’s judgments may be less certain, such as how society should
structure employment opportunities, and what a just distribution of
wealth and income might be.

In this way, the original position first confirms and then extends our
judgments about justice. For Rawls it is important that the same
method of reasoning that explains the equal basic liberties also
justifies more political and economic equality than many people might
have initially expected. The momentum of the argument for the first
principle carries through to the argument for the second principle.
Those who believe in equal basic liberties, but who reject the other
egalitarian features of justice as fairness, must try to find some
other route to justifying those basic liberties.

The original position is also the crux of Rawls’s metaethical theory,
political constructivism. Political constructivism is Rawls’s
account of the objectivity and validity of political judgments.

The original position embodies, Rawls says, all of the relevant
conceptions of person and society, and principles of practical
reasoning, for making judgments about justice. When there is an
overlapping consensus focused on justice as fairness, the original
position specifies a shared public perspective from which all citizens
can reason about the principles of justice and their application to
their society’s institutions. Judgments made from this perspective are
then objectively correct, in the sense of giving reasons to citizens
to act regardless of their actual motivations, or the reasons they
think they have within their particular points of view.

Political constructivism does not maintain that the original position
shows that the principles of justice as fairness are true. Questions
of truth are ones about which reasonable citizens may disagree, and
are to be addressed by each citizen from within their own
comprehensive doctrine. Judgments made from the original position are,
however, valid, or as Rawls says, reasonable.

With the theories of legitimacy and justice for a self-contained
liberal society completed, Rawls then extends his approach to
international relations with the next in his sequence of theories: the
law of peoples.

Rawls assumes that no tolerable world state could be stable. He cites
Kant in asserting that a world government would either be a global
despotism or beleaguered by groups fighting to gain their political
independence. So the law of peoples will be international, not
cosmopolitan: it will be a foreign policy that guides a liberal
society in its interactions with other societies, both liberal and

Rawls describes the main ideas motivating his law of peoples as

Two main ideas motivate the Law of Peoples. One is that the great
evils of human history—unjust war and oppression, religious
persecution and the denial of liberty of conscience, starvation and
poverty, not to mention genocide and mass murder—follow from
political injustice, with its own cruelties and callousness…
The other main idea, obviously connected with the first, is that, once
the gravest forms of political injustice are eliminated by following
just (or at least decent) social policies and establishing just (or at
least decent) basic institutions, these great evils will eventually
disappear. (LP, 6–7)

The most important feature of the “realistic utopia” that
Rawls envisages in The Law of Peoples is that the great evils
of human history no longer occur. The most important condition for
this realistic utopia to come about is that all societies are
internally well-ordered: that all have just, or at least decent,
domestic political institutions.

5.1 The International Basic Structure and the Principles of the Law of Peoples

Much of Rawls’s presentation of the law of peoples parallels the
presentations of political liberalism and justice as fairness. As a
liberal society has a basic structure of institutions so, Rawls says,
there is an international basic structure (LP, 33, 62, 114,
115, 122, 123). While Rawls does not say that the international basic
structure has a pervasive impact on the life chances of individuals,
the rules of this basic structure are coercively enforced (for
example, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was coercively reversed by
a coalition of other countries). The principles that should regulate
this international basic structure thus require justification. The
justification of these principles must accommodate the fact that there
is even more pluralism in worldviews among contemporary societies than
there is within a single liberal society.

Rawls puts forward eight principles for ordering the international
basic structure:

  1. Peoples are free and independent, and their freedom and
    independence are to be respected by other peoples.
  2. Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.
  3. Peoples are equal and are parties to the agreements that bind
  4. Peoples are to observe the duty of nonintervention (except to
    address grave violations of human rights).
  5. Peoples have a right of self-defense, but no right to instigate
    war for reasons other than self-defense.
  6. Peoples are to honor human rights.
  7. Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions in the
    conduct of war.
  8. Peoples have a duty to assist other peoples living under
    unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent
    political and social regime. (LP, 37)

All of these principles, with the exception of the last one, are
familiar from contemporary international law (though Rawls’s list of
human rights for principles 4 and 6 is shorter than the list in
international law). Rawls also leaves room for his law of peoples to
accommodate various organizations that may help societies to increase
their political and economic coordination, such as idealized versions
of a United Nations, a World Trade Organization, and a World Bank.

5.2 Peoples: Liberal and Decent

The actors in Rawls’s international theory are not individuals
(citizens) but societies (peoples). A people is a group of
individuals ruled by a common government, bound together by common
sympathies, and firmly attached to a common conception of right and
justice. “People” is a moralized concept, and not all
states currently on the world map qualify as such.

Rawls’s conception of peoples within the law of peoples parallels his
conception of citizens within justice as fairness. Peoples see
themselves as free in the sense of being rightfully politically
independent; and as equal in regarding themselves as equally deserving
of recognition and respect. Peoples are reasonable in that they will
honor fair terms of cooperation with other peoples, even at cost to
their own interests, given that other peoples will also honor those
terms. Reasonable peoples are thus unwilling to try to impose their
political or social ideals on other reasonable peoples. They satisfy
the criterion of reciprocity with respect to one another.

Rawls describes the fundamental interests of a people as follows:

  • Protecting its political independence, its territory, and the
    security of its citizens;
  • Maintaining its political and social institutions and its civic
  • Securing its proper self-respect as a people, which rests on its
    citizens’ awareness of its history and cultural accomplishments.

Rawls contrasts peoples with states. A state, Rawls says, is
moved by the desires to enlarge its territory, or to convert other
societies to its religion, or to enjoy the power of ruling over
others, or to increase its relative economic strength. Peoples are not
states, and as we will see peoples may treat societies that act on
state-like desires as international outlaws.

Peoples are of two types, depending on the nature of their domestic
political institutions. Liberal peoples satisfy the
requirements of political liberalism: they have legitimate liberal
constitutions, and they have governments that are under popular
control and not driven by large concentration of private economic

Decent peoples are not internally just from a liberal
perspective. Their basic institutions do not recognize reasonable
pluralism or embody any interpretation of the liberal ideas of free
and equal citizens cooperating fairly. The institutions of a decent
society may be organized around a single comprehensive doctrine, such
as a dominant religion. The political system may not be democratic,
and women or members of minority religions may be excluded from public
office. Nevertheless, decent peoples are well-ordered enough, Rawls
says, to merit equal membership in international society.

Like all peoples, decent peoples do not have aggressive foreign
policies. Beyond this, Rawls describes one type of decent
society—a decent hierarchical society—to
illustrate what decency requires.

A decent hierarchical society’s basic structure specifies a decent
system of social cooperation. First, it secures a core list of
human rights. Second, its political system takes the
fundamental interests of all persons into account through a decent
consultation hierarchy
. This means that the government genuinely
consults with the representatives of all social groups, which together
represent all persons in the society, and that the government
justifies its laws and policies to these groups. The government does
not close down protests, and responds to any protests with
conscientious replies. The government also supports the right of
citizens to emigrate.

Rawls imagines a decent hierarchical society he calls
“Kazanistan.” In Kazanistan, Islam is the favored
religion, and only Muslims can hold the high office. However
non-Muslim religions may be practiced without fear, and believers in
them are encouraged to take part in civic culture of the wider
society. Minorities are not subject to arbitrary discrimination by
law, or treated as inferior by Muslims. Kazanistan would qualify,
Rawls says, as a decent, well-ordered member of the society of
peoples, entitled to respectful toleration and equal treatment by
other peoples.

5.3 International Toleration and Human Rights

Liberal peoples tolerate decent peoples, and indeed treat them as
equals. Not to do so, Rawls says, would be to fail to express
sufficient respect for acceptable ways of ordering a society. Liberal
peoples should recognize the good of national self-determination, and
let decent societies decide their futures for themselves. The
government of a liberal people should not criticize decent peoples for
failing to be liberal, or set up incentives for them to become more
so. Criticism and inducements may cause bitterness and resentment
within decent peoples, and so be counter-productive.

Indeed public reason imposes duties of civility upon the members of
international society, just as it does upon members of a liberal
society. Government officials and candidates for high office should
explain their foreign policy positions to other peoples in terms of
the principles and values of the law of peoples, and should avoid
reliance on contentious parochial reasons that all peoples cannot
reasonably share.

One major reason that liberal peoples tolerate decent peoples, Rawls
says, is that decent peoples secure for all persons within their
territory a core list of human rights. These core human rights include
rights to subsistence, security, personal property, and formal
equality before the law, as well as freedoms from slavery, protections
of ethnic groups against genocide, and some measure of liberty of
conscience (but not, as we have seen, a right to democratic
participation). These core human rights are the minimal conditions
required for persons to be able to engage in social cooperation in any
real sense, so any well-ordered society must protect them.

The role of human rights in the law of peoples is thus to set limits
on international toleration. Any society that guarantees Rawls’s list
of human rights is to be immune from coercive intervention from other
peoples. Societies that violate human rights overstep the limits of
toleration, and may rightly be subject to economic sanctions or even
military intervention.

5.4 The International Original Position

The international original position parallels the domestic original
position of justice as fairness. This original position answers the
question: “What terms of cooperation would free and equal
peoples (liberal and decent) agree to under fair conditions?”
The strategy is to build the conception of peoples into the design of
this original position, along with restrictions on reasons for
favoring basic principles of international law. The strategy, that is,
is to describe reasonable conditions under which a rational agreement
on principles can be made.

In the international original position representatives of each people
agree on principles for the international basic structure. Each party
is behind a veil of ignorance, deprived of information about the
people they represent, such as the size of its territory and
population, and its relative political and economic strength. Each
party tries to do the best they can for the people they represent, in
terms of the fundamental interests that all peoples have.

Rawls claims that the parties in the international original position
would favor the eight principles listed above. Starting from a
baseline of equality and independence, the parties would see no reason
to introduce inequalities into the relationships among peoples (beyond
certain functional inequalities in the design of cooperative
organizations, such as richer countries contributing more to an
idealized United Nations). The parties would reject international
utilitarian principles, as no people is prepared to accept that it
should sacrifice its fundamental interests for the sake of greater
total global utility.

After selecting the eight principles of the law of peoples, the
parties next check that these principles can stably order
international relations over time. Analogously to the domestic case,
the parties will see that the principles of the law of peoples affirm
the good of peoples, and that peoples will develop trust and
confidence in one another as all willingly continue to abide by these
principles. The stability of the international political order will
thus be stability for the right reasons (and not a mere modus
), since each people will affirm the principles as its
first-best option whatever the international balance of power might

Rawls also attempts to draw empirical support for his stability
argument from the literature on the democratic peace. Social
scientists have found that historically democracies have tended not to
go to war with one another. Rawls explains this by saying that liberal
societies are, because of their internal political structures,
satisfied. Liberal peoples have no desires for imperial
glory, territorial expansion, or to convert others to their religion,
and whatever goods and services they need from other countries they
can obtain through trade. Liberal peoples, Rawls says, have no reasons
to fight aggressive wars, so a genuine peace can endure among them.
And since decent peoples are defined as non-aggressive, any decent
people can join this liberal peace as well.

Once the parties have agreed to the eight principles of the law of
peoples, they then continue to specify these principles more precisely
in a process analogous to the domestic four-stage sequence.

5.5 Non-Ideal Theory: Outlaw States and Burdened Societies

The principles selected in the international original position contain
provisions for non-ideal situations: situations in which nations are
unwilling to comply with the ideal principles, or are unable to
cooperate on their terms. These provisions are embedded in principles
4 through 8 of the law of peoples.

Outlaw states are non-compliant: they threaten the peace by
attempting to expand their power and influence, or by violating the
human rights of those within their territory. The principles of the
law of peoples allow peoples to fight these outlaw states in
self-defense, and to take coercive actions against them to stop their
violations of human rights. In any military confrontations with
outlaws, peoples must obey the principles of the just prosecution of
war, such as avoiding direct attacks on enemy civilians in all but the
most desperate circumstances. The aim of war, Rawls says, must be to
bring all societies to honor the law of peoples, and eventually to
become fully participating members of international society.

Burdened societies struggle with social and economic
conditions that make it difficult for them to maintain either liberal
or decent institutions. A burdened society may lack sufficient
material or social resources to support a scheme of social
cooperation, perhaps because its population has grown beyond its
territory’s means to support it. It is the basic structure and
political culture of a society that are most crucial for its
self-sufficiency; yet the international community must help a burdened
society to rise above this threshold. The law of peoples (eighth
principle) requires that burdened peoples be assisted until they can
handle their own affairs (i.e., become well-ordered).

This duty of assistance is Rawls’s greatest divergence from the rules
of today’s international law. Accepting this duty would require
significant changes in how nations respond to global poverty and
failed states.

5.6 Reconciliation and Realistic Utopia

Rawls’s vision is of a perpetually peaceful and cooperative
international order, where liberal and decent peoples stand ready to
pacify aggressive states, to secure core human rights, and to help
struggling countries until they become self-sufficient.

Compared to the visions of other theories, Rawls’s vision has limited
ambitions. Officials of democratic societies can do little more than
hope that decent societies will become internally more tolerant and
democratic. Once the duty to assist burdened peoples is satisfied,
there are no further requirements on international economic
distributions: for Rawls, inequalities across national borders are of
no political concern as such. Individuals around the world may suffer
greatly from bad luck, and they may be haunted by spiritual

The limited practical goal of Rawls’s law of peoples is the
elimination of the great evils of human history: unjust war and
oppression, religious persecution and the denial of liberty of
conscience, starvation and poverty, genocide and mass murder. The
limits of this ambition mean that there will be much in the world to
which Rawls’s political philosophy offers no reconciliation.

Nevertheless, while Rawls’s vision is limited, it is also utopian. To
believe that Rawls’s vision is possible is to believe that individuals
are not inevitably selfish or amoral, and that international relations
can be more than merely a contest for power, wealth, and glory.
Affirming the possibility of a just and peaceful future can inoculate
us against a resignation or cynicism that might otherwise seem

“By showing how the social world may realize the features of a
realistic utopia,” Rawls says, “political philosophy
provides a long-term goal of political endeavor, and in working toward
it gives meaning to what we can do today” (LP,

Beyond the texts by Rawls cited above, readers may wish to consult
Rawls’s lectures on Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel (LHMP) and
on Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Marx, Sidgwick, and Butler
(LHPP) to see how Rawls’s interpretations of these authors
informed his own theorizing. Reath, Herman, and Korsgaard (1997) is a
collection of essays by Rawls’s students on his work in the history of

Students wanting a clear guide to A Theory of Justice may
wish to read Lovett (2011), or (more advanced) Mandle (2009). Voice
(2011) gives an outline-style summary of Rawls’s three main books that
is accessible to those with some undergraduate philosophical training.
Mandle and Reidy (2014) offers an alphabetized list of short entries,
from Abortion to Maximin to Wittgenstein, of important concepts,
issues, influences and critics.

Freeman (2007) sets out in a single volume the historical development
of Rawls’s theories, as well as sympathetic elaborations of many of
his central arguments. Pogge (2007) is a rigorous examination of
Rawls’s domestic theories, which also contains a biographical sketch
and brief replies to libertarian and communitarian critics (for which
see also Pogge (1989)). Maffettone (2011) and Audard (2007) are
critical introductions to Rawls’s three major works. Moon (2014)
offers an original reinterpretation of the Rawlsian project.

Mandle and Reidy (2013) is the most important recent collection of
scholarly essays, spanning a wide range of issues arising from Rawls’s
work. Freeman (2003) is a collection of mostly friendly articles on
major themes in Rawls’s domestic theories; it also contains an
introductory overview of all of Rawls’s work. Young (2016) is a
selection of more critical articles.

Historically, the most influential volume of essays on justice as
fairness has been Daniels (1975). Brooks and Nussbaum (2015) presents
incisive recent articles on Rawls’s political liberalism. Older
collections on political liberalism include Davion and Wolf (1999),
Griffin and Solum (1994) and Lloyd (1994). Martin and Reidy (2006)
focuses on the law of peoples. Hinton (2015) is a volume of articles
by leading scholars on the original position.

Abbey (2013) is an edited volume on feminist interpretations of
Rawls’s work. Bailey and Gentile (2014) is an important anthology of
articles that explore how extensively religious believers can engage
in the political life of a Rawlsian society. Fleming (2004) is a
symposium on Rawls and the law. O’Neill and Williamson (2012) contains
many significant essays on the institutional design of Rawls’s
preferred polity, the property-owning democracy.

Readers who can gain access (usually through a library) to Kukathas
(2003, 4 volumes) or Richardson and Weithman (1999, 5 volumes) will
find many of the most important critical articles on Rawls’s work,
divided according to specific themes (e.g., maximin reasoning, public
reason) and types of criticisms (e.g., conservative critiques,
feminist critiques). Readers without access to the Richardson and
Weithman volumes can follow the links, in the Other Internet Resources
section below, to their tables of contents and can then locate the
articles desired in their original places of publication.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *