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John Rawls and contemporary political philosophy

Last week, I was invited to say some introductory words at a non-academic event dedicated to the work of John Rawls. As the main speaker would tell more about the content of Rawls’ theory, I decided to focus on the following question: why is Rawls seen as the most important contemporary political philosopher? Robert Nozick’s claim of 1974, that contemporary political theorists either have to work within Rawls’ framework or explicitly explain why they don’t, is still applicable today. For Jerry Cohen, Rawls’ masterpiece A Theory of Justice is the third most important book in the history of Western political thought. Only Plato’s Politeia and Hobbes’ Leviathan have a higher status, or so does Cohen claim. But what is it, precisely, that makes the work of John Rawls that significant?John Rawls

In this post I will give three suggestions. For those of you with a background in political theory, these three reasons are well-known. My aim here is very modest and two-fold: (a) I want to introduce the significance of Rawls’ theory to non-philosophers and (b) I’m interested to hear suggestions of contributions of Rawls to the field of political philosophy that might be more important than the ones I present here (in other words: what should I focus on next time I present Rawls to a broad audience?).

First, it is often argued that Rawls’ impact can be explained by reference to the sad state of political philosophy, as a discipline, in the first half of the 20th century. In 1961, Isaiah Berlin claimed that “no commanding work of political philosophy has appeared in the twentieth century” and therefore asked “Does political theory still exist?”. The discipline was preoccupied by conceptual analysis. Theorists mainly asked questions like ‘What is freedom?’, ‘What is liberty?’ and ‘What is a right’. Rawls, on the other hand, provided the discipline with a full-fletched normative theory. Instead of a sole focus on the meaning of freedom, liberty and rights, Rawls also explained which freedoms, liberties and rights people ought to have in a just society. Moreover, contrary to the praxis at the time, he even provided his theory with a new, systematic and consistent argument.

A second reason why Rawls is, arguably, the most important contemporary political theorist is that he convincingly rejected utilitarianism. Until late in the 20th century, the debate was dominated by the political theories of the 19th century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They argued that we ought to organize our political and economic institutions in a way that maximizes total utility or wellbeing in society. Although this might sound as an attractive guideline, Rawls explains that we have to renounce utilitarianism. The reason is that utilitarianism allows to significantly decrease the utility or wellbeing of certain individuals in order benefit many more other persons so that, in the end, the total sum of utility or wellbeing in society increases. It thereby allows to use some persons as a means for the benefit of others. For example, depending on the conditions, utilitarianism might not be able to explain what is wrong with political and economic institutions that allow some to work in sweatshops, at bad working conditions and very low wages, so that millions of others are provided with very cheap clothes. Rawls rejected this idea, and suggested an alternative theory based on some fundamental and equal rights and liberties, fair opportunities and some social and economic rights to income and wealth. These rights and liberties are essential to a just society, Rawls claimed, and cannot be bypassed in order to maximize utility or to achieve some other collective goal.

Thirdly, Rawls spread the idea, both within and outside academia, that we should judge a society based on how it treats its worst-off members, i.e. those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Instead of using a cost-benefit analysis or some other method to increase efficiency, policymakers should question how their policies impact on the rights, opportunities and welfare of the worst-off. Rawls argues that in a just society the worst-off ought to be as well-off as possible. The reason is two-fold: (a) society is a social cooperation in which everyone takes part and, thus, all have a right to a fair share of the opportunities and welfare it produces and (b) most of the existing inequalities in opportunities and wealth are a matter of brute luck (i.e. the consequence of the natural and/or social lottery) rather than a matter of merit (or individual responsibility). Therefore, our social, political and economic institutions should make sure the worst-off are as well-off as possible.

I believe that those three reasons explain a large part of the significance of John Rawls for the field of contemporary political philosophy. Nevertheless, I’m equally convinced that those are not the only explanations, and they might not even be the most important ones. Feel free to suggest some other reasons, or reject any of the above.

I am a PhD student in Political Theory and junior assistant in Political Sciences at Ghent University. My main research interest is the study of liberal and libertarian theories of justice and equality. Among other things, I wonder what, if anything, liberals can learn from libertarians.


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  1. Alasdair Love

    @Kasper Ossenblok, I think the main response by libertarians to liberals would be that their positive conception of liberty (as outlined in Isaiah Berlin’s essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’) actually ends up reducing the liberty of others. This is perhaps most famously put forward by Robert Nozick in his ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia’ in a thought experiment using the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. Essentially, it illustrates how taxing the rich reduces their economic freedom and their right of transfer. Of course one’s view on this comes down to whether your conception of freedom is positive or negative; any argument on either side (at least in my mind) appears to be an appeal to institution, as thought experiments tend to be.

    • Kasper Ossenblok

      Thank you for your comment Alasdair Love. Like you, I believe the Wilt Chamberlain objection does provide a serious threat to egalitarian redistribution as it shows that the history of ownership rights does play a role in whether or not, and to what extent, certain transactions are taxable. Nevertheless, I do not believe it is all about intuitions, as I do think egalitarians have provided some good arguments against the Wilt Chamberlain argument (cf. G.A. Cohen’s ‘Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality’) and have proposed some alternative views that do take into account the relevance of the history of ownership rights and the way markets are necessary to preserve liberty (cf. Dworkin’s equality of resources and left-libertarian accounts like the ones of Vallentyne, Steiner and Otsuka).

  2. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Brian Barry suggested that Rawls’s main originality was his successful articulation of the liberal tradition and its focus on individual rights with a kind of Marx-inspired attention to the way social structures affect individual’s life courses.

    I would say that another characteristic of Rawls’s success is his good literacy in the social sciences. It might seem obvious now, but I’m not sure it was frequent before Rawls to have philosophers with a good understanding of economics. This considerably enlarged his audience, I think.

  3. Jesper L Pedersen

    Hi Kasper, thanks for your post. While I agree with all your above points I would like to add a fourth: namely that Rawls represents a defense of the status quo. know that by phrasing it that way I make it sound negative, but I do mean it as a (mostly) positive thing. That is, the idea of a free-market society that also emphasises social responsibility is one that’s worth defending, both from the left and from the right. The book was written (and the initial ideas behind it laid out) at a time when the New Deal and post-war consensus in America was just taking hold, both in the US and in Europe. At the time it was under threat from communism (even if that threat was largely overstated and defenders against communism prone to paranoia) and from a right-wing reactionary movement that would become much more powerful in the ’80s. A Theory of Justice is important because it provides a coherent, articulate (if verbose) and rigorous defense of the middle way.

    • Kasper Ossenblok

      Thanks Jesper. It does sound, initially, negative indeed to prhase it that way, but I take your point.
      I’m re-reading Samuel Freeman on Rawls, and Freeman mentions that Rawls himself thought that one of his main contributions to liberal theory is “to uncover and explicitly utilize an ideal of the person that underlies the high liberal tradition and liberalism as a philosophical doctrine. This is the ideal of free and equal persons with two ‘moral powers’ and a freely adopted conception of the good.”
      So that’s yet another contribution to consider.

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