John Rawls was born in Baltimore, U.S.A. and educated at Princeton
University, gaining his PhD. in 1950. After teaching at Princeton, Cornell, and the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology he was appointed a professor of philosophy at Harvard in 1962, where
he remained until he retired in 1991.
 [A Theory of Justice] Arguing that utilitarianism is a threat to
the rights of the individual and does not adequately address the problem of
inequality, Rawls says that people should be treated as ends
in themselves and not as means [a]. He seeks to understand justice in terms of fair
distribution of goods in accordance with the free rational choice of
individuals motivated by mutual disinterest; and on account of this autonomy he considers the principles
of justice as categorical imperatives [Sec. 40] [b]. His view of
justice is also closely connected with his definition of a person's good as "the successful execution of a rational plan of
life" (lesser goods being parts thereof) . This plan of life relates to a variety of
ends, including the satisfaction of human desires and needs, friendship,
self-realization, and so on; he is not advocating a crude hedonism. The individual's conception of the good and his sense of justice
constitute his 'moral personality'. A moral person is a subject with ends he has chosen, and his fundamental
preference is for conditions that enable him to frame a mode of life that
expresses his nature as a free and equal human being as fully as circumstances
Rawls argues that it is precisely such moral persons who are entitled to
equal justice and indeed this fact can be used to interpret the concept of
natural rights, the rights that justice as fairness protects  [c].
To determine what is just he
says we must first distance ourselves behind what he calls the 'veil of ignorance' 
from the advantages we possess in society as it actually is and from our own
particular conceptions of the good, so as to ascertain what primary goods are
essential for a minimal, tolerable existence. What would we as free and
rational persons then choose in this hypothetical situation? In his later work he replaces the hypothetical contract by an actual
social contract 'determined collectively' in the context of a pluralistic
society. Rawls here places great
emphasis on the social
nature of mankind [d]. This is because it is through "social union
founded upon the needs and potentialities of its members that each person can
participate in the total sum of the realized natural assets of the others"
. This leads us, he says, to the
notion of the community of humankind, the members of which enjoy one another's
excellences and individuality elicited by free institutions, They also recognize each other's good as an
element in the complete activity the whole scheme they consent to and which
gives pleasure to them all. 
He sets out his argument
as a series of principles
which he thinks people would agree on regardless of their individual personal
and economic circumstances [see 11-13, 39, 45]. These principles are
'lexically ordered', by which he means that a particular principle does not
come into play until those previous to it are either fully met or are shown not
to apply. There are two key principles: (1) The first provides that each person's liberties should be
maximized consistent with the provision of equal liberty for every other
person. Liberty is thus an essential
aspect of Rawls' theory of justice.
(2) According to the second
principle social and
economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (a) they benefit everyone,
the primary concern being to bring about the greatest benefit for the worst
off; and (b) offices and positions are open to all there should be equality of opportunity. It follows that for him no advantage can be
morally acceptable if it does not benefit those members of society who are the
most disadvantaged. This is called the difference principle. Rawls assumes his two principles to fall under the heading of
'egalitarianism' [e] (although he notes that there are many forms of equality, and
egalitarianism admits of degrees) .
What if the
democratically elected governments fails to implement the contracted principles
of justice? According to Rawls, civil disobedience which results from an intention to get the law or government policies
changed is permissible but subject to
a number of conditions [f]. Acts of disobedience, he says, must be public
and non-violent, and there must be a willingness on the part of the objectors
to accept the legal and penal consequences. Disobedience must also be based on the political principles underlying
the constitution and not on personal or party interests. Civil disobedience for Rawls thus falls
between legal protest on the one side and conscientious resistance on the other
(which is usually based on moral or religious convictions).
Rawls' moral and political philosophy has
had a considerable impact on 'liberal' intellectual life in America. As a result of his 'thought experiment' to
identify the fundamental principles which would guarantee a minimal tolerable
social existence for all citizens, he argues for a fair distribution of goods
as constituting justice, the maximization of individual liberty compatible with
the freedom of others, equality of opportunity, and qualified legitimacy of
civil disobedience. His thesis, however,
has proved to be highly controversial.
(1) It has been objected that it is not
possible to hide completely behind the 'veil of ignorance'; we cannot start
from an 'empty' position. The concept is
formalistic. It would seem to follow
that we do not have a 'rational' choice in Rawls' sense; or, if we do, other
procedures, for example, risk-taking, might be equally rational.
(2) Rawls regards property as grounding his theory
of rights. Some critics argue that the
right to property is antecedent to a Rawlsian society by virtue of tacit
agreements, contracts, and the like; and redistribution would in fact
constitute an injustice. Moreover, happiness, or freedom, rather than redistribution of property
'goods' could be taken as the proper foundation for justice.
(3) Rawls seems to subordinate liberty to
justice. Some critics are not happy with
the perceived consequence that citizens might be compelled to act in accordance
with the principles, notwithstanding their acceptance of the social contract.
Rawls: A Theory of Justice (1971; revd edn 1991) Harvard; Political
Liberalism (1991; revd edn 1996). See further: Collected Papers, ed. S. Freeman.
Freeman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rawls.
Note: Rawls's account
of man's social nature also owes something to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)
cf. also Mill [4a b].