PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday April 16, 2003

John Rawls


[1.] Background

         2/21/21 - 11/24/02

         professor at Harvard for most of his academic career (1962-1991, when he retired from teaching)

         two major works: A Theory of Justice (1971, revised 1999) and Political Liberalism (1993).


online obituaries:

Harvard University Gazette:

Harvard Crimson:

London Times:,,60-493584,00.html

The Guardian:,3604,848488,00.html


online essays on Rawls:

by Martha Nussbaum:


[1.1.] The Importance of A Theory of Justice.


A Theory of Justice (1971) was a landmark in moral philosophy. Through the first half of the 20th century, ethicists did not concern themselves with practical questions, e.g. "Can war or abortion be justified?" Philosophy was primarily concerned with the analysis of language, e.g., "Can we derive 'ought' from 'is'?", "What is meant by 'good'?" (These sorts of questions belong to meta-ethics, an area that offers no practical advice about how we should and should not live.)


During the 1960s, there was considerable pressure on college professors to talk about more practical things than logical analysis. Furthermore, advanced medical technology was creating a whole batch of brand new moral questions -- there was concern that the medical profession should be thinking about such things.


In the late 1960s, college teaching jobs became very scarce. Philosophy graduate programs were turning out Ph.D.s who couldn't find jobs. Meanwhile, medical schools began teaching courses in medical ethics. People other than philosophy professors began writing articles about euthanasia, abortion, etc. There was an explosion of practical articles by philosophers around 1972, and applied ethics was born.


Rawls' book helped to instigate this explosion. It was a throwback to the way ethics had been conducted in earlier centuries, a return to normative ethics (which advises how we should behave) and an abandonment of meta-ethics. It offered the first real alternative to Utilitarianism to be found in the 20th century.


[1.2.] Philosophical Context of Rawls' Work


With Locke, we saw the advent of:


liberalism -- the political viewpoint that values individual liberty/freedom; the individual is prior to, or more important than, the state -- the function of the state is to protect individual liberty and freedom -- individuals ought to be allowed to pursue their own ends/goals -- the state respects diversity and does not attempt to impose a single lifestyle on all individuals


[On this definition of "liberalism," its opposite is the classical approach[1] to political philosophy: the state is prior to, or more important than, the individual.]


How is individual freedom best defended? The question allows for a spectrum of answers, the two ends of which roughly coincide with two different conceptions of freedom:


positive conception

of freedom/liberty

(freedom to):

greatest threat to personal liberty is unjust distributions of wealth, resources, and opportunity





negative conception

of freedom/liberty

(freedom from):

greatest threat to personal liberty is

unwarranted interference by

other human beings









[2.] Social Justice.


The sort of justice with which Rawls is concerned is social justice. It is not a trait of particular actions; instead, it is one of the traits[2] possessed by a good "basic structure of society." This is his technical term for


...the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements. Thus the legal protection of freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, competitive markets, private property in the means of production, and the monogamous family are examples of major social institutions. (TJ p.7, emphases added)[3]


The principles of justice of a society are a set of principles that do two things (TJ p.4-5):

         assign rights and duties to individuals in a non-arbitrary manner

         properly distribute the "benefits and burdens of social cooperation"

Society is structured in a just way when it is structured according to principles that do this. But of course, this leaves lots of room to disagree about what counts as a non-arbitrary distinction and as a proper distribution; i.e., it leaves room for various different theories or concepts of justice.


[Here Rawls is engaging in a bit of conceptual analysis -- recall that political philosophy is largely normative/prescriptive but partly conceptual analysis -- here Rawls is analyzing or "unpacking" the concept of social justice -- "...the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance ... are included in the concept of justice..." TJ p.5]


Further, a theory or concept of (social) justice can be liberal, but it need not be:[4]

         liberal theory of (social) justice: a theory that (a) specifies how rights, duties, and resources are to be distributed in a society and that (b) prioritizes the individual and his/her freedom above the well-being of the state

         illiberal theory of (social) justice: a theory that (a) specifies how rights, duties, and resources are to be distributed in a society and that (b) prioritizes the well-being of the state above the individual and his/her freedom.


Even if it is assumed that a liberal account of justice is preferable to an illiberal account, there is still room for disagreement on the details.


Rawls will give a liberal theory of justice, but it will place him towards the left on the spectrum of liberalism.



[1] The term "classical" comes from Talisse, R. On Rawls.

[2] Other characteristics of good social institutions mentioned by Rawls are efficiency and liberality; e.g. TJ p.9, not in Cahn. [Henceforth, if references to A Theory of Justice do not include a Cahn page number, then the passage in question is not included in the excerpt from that book included in Cahn.]

[3] Rawls himself acknowledged that the concept of a society's basic structure is "somewhat vague. It is not always clear which institutions or features thereof should be included." (TJ p.9)

[4] I take from Talisse, On Rawls pp.19-20, the basic point that Rawls' description of what counts as a theory or concept of justice is consistent with both liberal and classical (e.g. Aristotelian) theories / concepts of justice. Talisse does not use the term "illiberal," however.

Political Philosophy Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 4/16/2003.

Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer