Andreas Follesdal


            John Rawls (1921-2002)

Giant on the Shoulders of Giants

Diacritica (Portugal) 2003 vol 17 2: 285-290



John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, died on Nov. 24, 2002. His book A Theory of Justice from 1971 is the book in political philosophy that has received most attention in the previous century.


The book A Theory of Justice reset the agenda for ethicists and political theorists, who soon realised that they must either work within Rawls’ framework, or argue why they would not. Amazingly, this complex book also had a massive impact on the intellectual and political discussions within law, psychology, political science and economics, across the globe -  most recently witnessed by a special issue of the European Journal of Political Theory tracing his impact in Europe, published in October 2002. The book made two major contributions of interest to a broad readership: It presented and argued for principles for assessing burning political issues of its time, and it suggested how it is possible to argue and reason about values.



It is Rawls’ argument for principles of justice from an imagined contract position that made him most famous. When does a government have moral claim to be obeyed by citizens? Only if the social institutions can be defended as a fair system of cooperation among free and equal citizens with different philosophies and world views, satisfying certain principles of distribution of social benefits. Rawls developed the contractualist tradition in response to this answer, drawing in particular on the work of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Rawls insisted that justice should be understood as fairness, in the sense that voluntary cooperation among equals must offer fair terms to all. In the same way, institutions of a fair society must secure the equal worth of all. A legitimate society must offer all members such terms that they would have chosen to join. Only if society is fair in this sense do we treat each other as free and equal participants in the systems of cooperation for mutual advantage.


“A Veil of Ignorance”

To bring order to our muddled thoughts and strong convictions about distributive justice, Rawls suggested a thought experiment that may well be referred to 300 years from now. Rawls asks us to imagine an “Original Position”, a contracting situation where parties are to agree to criteria for a just society. But the parties do not know which talents and world view they have, their race or gender, nor which place they will end up in in society. They must therefore agree behind a “Veil of Ignorance”. Such a veil prevents them from taking inappropriate considerations into account when arguing about how institutions should affect the distribution of benefits and burdens, and which talents should be furthered. But why should we care what would be chosen under such weird conditions? Rawls’ answer was that the arguments voiced in this hypothetical Original Position are those we do on reflection accept as appropriate and fair regarding how to use state power among us on a footing of freedom and equality. For instance, on reflection we agree that certain talents or world views should not in themselves justify differential treatment among people committed to treating each other as equals.

Thus we, here and now, can argue better about principles of distributive justice by considering the principles that would be favored in such an Original Position. Even if the parties do not know the details of their own life plans and talents, they would all prefer various fundamental rights and other social instruments that are valued regardless of life plans. Rawls therefore claimed that behind such a Veil of Ignorance, the parties would not risk living in a utilitarian society which would permit -- and indeed require -- the oppression of a small, permanently minority if this maximised the total utility. Nor would the parties agree to arbitrarily favor certain talents or world views, since they would not know whether they would be thus favored.


Principles of Justice

Rawls claimed in brief that the decisive criterion for selecting principles of justice is the position of the worst off. Parties would prefer certain principles over several alternatives. First, all must be secured equal political and civil rights. All must also be ensured fair equality of opportunity, so that individuals with the same talents and who are prepared to use those talents should enjoy equal access to society’s offices and positions.

Regarding economic distribution, Rawls rejected both complete freedom in the form of pure market liberalism and complete equality in the form of equal pay. Instead the social institutions should secure equal life earnings regardless of social position -- unless the situation of worst off can be improved by rewarding others to increase the total pie. Inequalities are acceptable if they are required to increase the smallest share of that economic pie. This principle is called the Difference Principle.


These principles of distribution express with greater clarity much of what is common among many religious and philosophical world views. In Europe we find them in many party platforms, among both Social democrats and Christian democrats. Much disagreement among political parties may indeed be understood as differences concerning who are the worst off, and what social arrangements and inequalities are necessary to improve their situation. Rawls’ contribution is largely the increased precision of such principles, and his way of justifying them while seeking to avoid contested philosophical and religious premises.


Justifying Morality

In addition to arguing for substantive principles of justice, A Theory of Justice also provides insights concerning another important question, whether moral judgments can be justified. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Rolf Schock Prize in philosophy in 1999, “not only because of its much discussed principles of justice, but also because of the way it argues for them. Rawls gets the prize not least because of his methodological contributions, which amount to a theory about how moral and normative statements can be justified.”

This issue of justification had concerned philosophers for decades, even when more substantive issues of political philosophy had been largely left aside.

Some had claimed that moral judments are meaningless in a technical sense, neither true nor false but only expressions of emotions. Others claimed that our views about what is right and wrong in concrete situations often draws on more general moral principles about right and wrong, about relevant considerations, and so forth. But how can these principles in turn be justified?


Reflective equilibrium

Rawls suggested that our moral judments justify each other in reflective equilibrium. We adjust our principles, our judgments of what counts as relevant considerations, and our concrete moral judgments in light of each other, so that they end up as premises and conclusions in a normative theory. In this sense they can provide mutual justification for each other. Our assessment of concrete situations are justified "from above", while our general principles are justified "from below", by showing that these principles are those that provide the best fit with our various concrete moral judgments.

Rawls thus justified his principles in two stages. First he showed that the principles are preferred in an Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance. This veil gives expression to what considerations we regard as appropriate concerning the issue of distributive justice among citizens of equal worth. Thereafter this social contract is justified by showing that the conclusions match our adjusted and considered moral judgments concerning equal dignity, fair differences in income, the distribution of political power, and equality of opportunity.


The Plurality of Conceptions of the Good

In later articles and in the book Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls was particularly concerned with the importance for a society of a shared conception of justice. A society marked by different world views and religions, and of a plurality of conceptions of the good, must still have some such common conception to secure trust and compliance with the social institutions over time. Rawls claimed that his justification for distributive principles draws on assumptions about the value of individuals and the role of society that can command overlapping consensus across a variety of world views. The theory can be a common factor in many religious and philosophical views that for instance disagree about why individuals should be treated as equals by the social institutions. Or so he hoped.


Revisions of A Theory of Justice

Rawls had sought to defend his principles with great care. Yet his contributions did not escape controversy. Indeed, his analytical training led him to present premises and chains of reasoning as clearly as possible, which made it easier for others to identify controversial premises, weaknesses and faults. Thus A Theory of Justice has been criticised on many counts, criticisms that led Rawls to expand, revise and improve on his theory. He sometimes rephrased his earlier claims, sometimes regarded the criticism as misguided, and sometimes changed his views in light of the arguments. Even though he changed his views on several points, he chose to only modify A Theory of Justice slightly for a revised version in 1999. A briefer book stating his revised position, Justice as Fairness, appeared in 2001 at Harvard University Press. He also wrote about international justice in the book Law of Peoples (1999).


The Person

To give a sketch of the person John Rawls is more difficult than to give a brief account of his contributions to political philosophy. The thinker was modest, almost shy, and avoided media attention both in his career choice and in his mode of dissemination. He spent his working life in the academic community, at Harvard University from 1962 until he retired in 1991, and never sought publicity.

Rawls was born in Maryland in 1921, and grew up in the Southern part of the United States, where he observed that the blacks suffered politically, socially and economically from the long-term social effects of slavery. The Civil rights movement and the conflicts surrounding the Vietnaam War challenged the legitimacy of the social order and of political leaders while he was writing his book.


Rawls had a remarkable way of engaging with other philosophers. He always insisted that in order to learn from others we must interpret them charitably before raising objections and seeking improvements in their views – preferably such that the authors themselves would have accepted. He assumed that they often sought answers to very different questions than those that concern us, agreeing with the historian Collingwood that the history of political philosophy is not a series of answers to the same, ‘eternal’ questions, but a series of answers to a series of different questions. His lectures, some recently available and more to come, show how he explicitly borrowed both insights and arguments from a wide range of European thinkers. He often recalled the old saying ascribed to Newton, that if we see further than previous generations it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Rawls’ strategy of seeking kind and constructive yet critical reading of others also benefitted his colleagues and students: He would always seeking charitable interpretations of our questions and answers, regardless of whether they matched his own point of view.

Rawls' theory is a thorough and systematic answer to one fundamental and important political question: what distribution of benefits and burdens the social institutions should facilitate, among individuals deeply divided by conceptions of the good life yet united in regarding society as a project among equals.

Also today, societies need such philosophical contribution to the public debate. The population needs a shared justification for criteria for a just society. The future of pensions and other welfare arrangements, the use of market mechanisms in public sector, shifting conceptions of sovereignty and democracy wrought by the European Union, and the grounds and limits of tolerance are examples of topics that must be handled in ways that respect the equal dignity of all.

Regardless of how we assess Rawls' principles of distributive justice, it is sometimes fruitful to argue as if we are behind a veil of ignorance. Reflective equilibrium and overlapping consensus suggests how values and normative judgments can be justified even in a society with a plurality of religious and philosophical views.


John Rawls spent his life exploring and defending the view that we must always treat everybody in society as equals. He argued for that claim, and lived by that creed.


Andreas Follesdal (1957) is Professor of practical philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway, and at ARENA, a research program on the Europeanisation of the Nation-State. He has his Ph.D. in political philosophy from Harvard University on the topic of international justice, with John Rawls as adviser; the last year as a Graduate Fellow at the Program in Ethics and the Professions.

Follesdal works on domestic and international justice, and democracy and legitimacy in the European Union.

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