In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Rawls: Moral and Political Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • Primary Texts
  • Monographs and General Overviews
  • General Collections
  • Intellectual Biography and Reception
  • The Law of Peoples

Philosophy John Rawls: Moral and Political Philosophy
Jon Mandle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0282


John Rawls (b. 1921–d. 2002) was the leading Anglo-American political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. In his seminal 1971 book, A Theory of Justice (revised edition, Rawls 1999c, cited under Primary Texts), Rawls defends a liberal theory of social and political justice that he called “justice as fairness” as an alternative to utilitarianism, the then-dominant framework. By considering which principles of justice would be chosen from a hypothetical but fair initial choice situation called “the original position,” Rawls presents a variation on the traditional social contract doctrine. He argues that, deprived of specific knowledge of their own situation, the parties in the original position would be forced to reason impartially, and they would agree to principles of justice that required an equal scheme of basic rights and liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and an egalitarian (although not strictly equal) distribution of wealth and positions of authority. These principles are to be used to evaluate the basic structure of society—the system formed by a society’s basic social institutions. Rawls continues to defend these principles of justice and the argument from the original position, but in his second book, Political Liberalism (Rawls 2005, cited under Primary Texts), he presents justice as fairness as an example of a “political conception of justice” (pp. xxix, 11–15). Recognizing the diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines, Rawls argues that a democratic society’s “public reason” should not be tied to any particular comprehensive doctrine, and its stability could be founded only on an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Although Rawls intended his principles of justice to be used in evaluating the basic institutional structure of a society, some theorists argued that the same (or similar) principles should also be used to evaluate the justice of the global order. In The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999b, cited under Primary Texts), however, Rawls rejects this direct extension. Instead he argues for a far less egalitarian standard of permissible economic inequality among societies and for toleration of certain non-liberal societies that reject the liberal rights he defends domestically (although toleration need not be extended to those who rejected basic human rights). In all three of these areas—defending a liberal conception of justice, modeled on the idea of a social contract, as an alternative to utilitarianism; developing the ideas of democratic justification contained in public reason and a political conception of justice; and introducing a distinction, grounded in a political liberalism itself, between the standards of domestic justice and those of international relations or global justice—Rawls was both controversial and agenda-setting for Anglo-American philosophy. In political philosophy today, his theories continue to represent a baseline against which other theories present themselves.

Primary Texts

The works in this section represent the most important statements of Rawls’s theory. A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999c), first published in 1971, is the major presentation of “justice as fairness.” It quickly became, and has remained for five decades, the central work in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy. Political Liberalism (Rawls 2005), first published in 1993, offers major developments in the theory and also has occupied a central place in contemporary debates. In 1999, Rawls published The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999b), which presents an extension of his approach to govern matters of foreign policy and global justice. The relationship among these three central works remains controversial. Also in 1999, he published his Collected Papers (Rawls 1999a), which includes his previously published articles (as well as some new material). And in 2001, he published an edited version of his lectures on justice as fairness, which is Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Rawls 2001). In addition to the works listed in this section, other publications include his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (edited by Barbara Herman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (edited by Samuel Freeman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), and his senior undergraduate thesis, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith (edited by Thomas Nagel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

  • Rawls, John. Collected Papers. Edited by Samuel Freeman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999a.

    Contains most of Rawls’s published articles between 1951 and 1998. Essential for understanding the development of his theory but should not be used as a substitute for his main books. Few readers will want to proceed continuously from the first chapter to the last; most will refer to individual papers to clarify specific issues.

  • Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999b.

    An expansion and revision of Rawls’s 1993 article of the same name (reprinted in Rawls 1999a, pp. 529–564). Extends political liberalism to cover the relations of liberal democratic regimes to other societies. Very controversial in rejecting the direct extension of principles of domestic justice to the global order.

  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999c.

    The major presentation of “justice as fairness.” The revised edition was based on changes Rawls made in preparation for the German translation in 1975. However, it appeared in English only in 1999, well after other developments in his theory had occurred. The new preface, written in 1990, includes important clarifications. Lengthy and complicated, but rewards careful, repeated study. Original edition published in 1971 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • Rawls, John. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Edited by Erin Kelly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    Based on Rawls’s lectures on justice as fairness from the 1980s forward. Includes elements from both A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999c) and Political Liberalism (Rawls 2005). Provides valuable clarification on many issues in the justification and application of justice as fairness, including the idea of a “property-owning democracy” (pp. 135–140).

  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. Expanded ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

    First published in 1993, the expanded edition includes three substantive additions: the “Introduction to the Paperback Edition” (published in 1996), reprints of the “Reply to Habermas” (first published in 1995), and “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (first published in 1997). Recasts justice as fairness as a “political conception.” Essential for understanding Rawls’s approach to political philosophy.

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