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

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

Philosophy John Rawls: Moral and Political Philosophy
Jon Mandle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • 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 (reprinted as Rawls 1999c and 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. 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. 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” (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 such doctrines. Rawls intended his principles of justice to be used in evaluating the basic institutional structure of a society. Some theorists influenced by his views 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 rejected the liberal rights he defended domestically (although toleration need not be extended to those who rejected basic human rights). In all three of these areas—defending a liberal contractarian conception of justice as an alternative to utilitarianism; developing the ideas of democratic justification contained in public reason and the idea of a political conception of justice; and introducing a principled distinction 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 represent a baseline against which other theories present themselves.

Monographs and General Overviews

As a first, brief introduction to Rawls’s thought and significance, Nussbaum 2001, written on the occasion of Rawls’s eightieth birthday, is an excellent choice. Wenar 2012 offers a reliable online encyclopedia entry covering Rawls’s major positions and arguments. Laden 2003 is a review of the collection Richardson and Weithman 1999 (cited under General Collections), but can serve as an outstanding synthesis of the broad Rawlsian project. Since Rawls’s death in 2002, a number of excellent monographs on his work have been published, the most comprehensive of which is Freeman 2007. Pogge 2007 includes as its first chapter the most extensive biography in print, and is also an excellent critical introduction. More recently, Moon 2014 situates Rawls’s work in its historical context of 20th-century liberal thought.

  • Freeman, Samuel. Rawls. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    At over 500 pages, covering most areas of Rawls’s work, this is the most comprehensive single discussion of Rawls’s political philosophy. Freeman was a student, friend, and editor of Rawls, and offers insightful and reliable reconstructions of Rawls’s positions and replies to critics.

  • Laden, Anthony. “The House That Jack Built: Thirty Years of Reading Rawls.” Ethics 113 (2003): 367–390.

    DOI: 10.1086/342855E-mail Citation »

    Review of Richardson and Weithman 1999 (cited under General Collections) but serves as an outstanding synthesis of the broad Rawlsian project. Dissents from the “standard” interpretation in which Rawls aims to derive principles of justice from basic, uncontroversial premises. Instead, presents the account of public reason as “the high point” of Rawls’s work.

  • Moon, J. Donald. John Rawls: Liberalism and the Challenges of Late Modernity. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

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    Situates Rawls’s work in relation to broad social changes and challenges to liberalism in the 20th century. Especially valuable for readers coming to Rawls from a background in political science.

  • Nussbaum, Martha. “The Enduring Significance of John Rawls.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (20 July 2001).

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    A brief overview of Rawls’s life and theory written for a general audience. Serves as an appreciation and first introduction to the significance of Rawls’s work.

  • Pogge, Thomas. John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Translated by Michelle Kosch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195136364.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A generally sympathetic, yet at times critical, assessment of Rawls’s work. Includes as its first chapter the most extensive biography of Rawls in print. Does not include Pogge’s important later critique of The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999b, cited under Primary Texts). First published in German in 1994 (John Rawls, München: C. H. Beck).

  • Wenar, Leif. “John Rawls.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012).

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    Perhaps the best article-length exposition of Rawls’s thought available. Serves as a reliable guide to Rawls’s positions, but does not indicate where interpretations are disputed or where the view has been subject to the most powerful (or frequent) criticisms.

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