Philosophy Index

John Rawls

John Rawls (1921–2002) was an American political philosopher, and a professor at Cornell, MIT and Harvard.

Rawls is most famous for A Theory of Justice, in which he argues for a version of the social contract which defines “justice as fairness”.

The Original Position

Rawls believed that the social contract must be drawn up from an original position in which everyone decides on the rules for society from behind a veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance is essentially a manner of blinding oneself from ones own social status. It is only from behind this veil that one can truly develop a fair society. When considering whether or not slavery is permissible, for example, one must not know whether one is going to be a slave or a slave-owner.

From this original position, Rawls believes that two principles of justice arise. The first is the liberty principle, the idea that all people should have access to their basic liberties — freedom of speech, political freedoms, personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest — insofar as those liberties are compatible with the same liberties of other people.

The second principle, the difference principle, states that inequalities in social and economic distribution must be arranged so that they provide the greatest benefit to those with the least advantage. That is, if goods are being distributed in a society, those who need them most should be given priority to receieve them.

Rawls claims that we must arrive at this conclusion from the original position because we do not want factors beyond our control to dictate the opportunities we have in life. If we are born at a disadvantage, into a poor family, for example, we must be given the opportunity to overcome it in a way that puts us on equal ground with those who did not have to overcome the same obstacles.

An asteroid in the solar system's main belt was named in honour of John Rawls, called 16561 Rawls.

Selected Works

  • A Theory of Justice (1971)
  • Political Liberalism (1993)


Name: John Rawls
Born: February 21, 1921
Died: November 24, 2002
Degrees: B.A. (Princeton, 1943)
Ph.D. (Princeton, 1950)
Service: U.S. Army, Private (1943–1946)
Awards: Schock Prize (1999)
National Humanities Medal (1999)