John Rawls was arguably the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century. He wrote a series of highly influential articles in the 1950s and ’60s that helped refocus Anglo-American moral and political philosophy on substantive problems about what we ought to do. His first book, A Theory of Justice [TJ] (1971), revitalized the social-contract tradition, using it to articulate and defend a detailed vision of egalitarian liberalism. In Political Liberalism [PL](1993), he recast the role of political philosophy, accommodating it to the effectively permanent “reasonable pluralism” of religious, philosophical, and other comprehensive doctrines or worldviews that characterize modern societies. He explains how philosophers can characterize public justification and the legitimate, democratic use of collective coercive power while accepting that pluralism.
Although most of this article will be devoted to TJ, the exposition of that work will take account ofPolitical Liberalism and other later works of Rawls. TJ sets out and defends the principles of Justice as Fairness. Rawls takes the basic structure of society as his subject matter and utilitarianism as his principal opponent. Part One of TJ designs a social-contract-type thought experiment, the Original Position (OP), and argues that parties in the OP will prefer Justice as Fairness to utilitarianism and various other views. In order to understand the argument from the OP, one must pay special attention to the motivation of the parties to the OP, which is philosophically stipulated and provided with a Kantian interpretation. Part Two of TJ checks the fit between the principles of Justice as Fairness and our more concrete considered views about just institutions, thereby helping move us towards a reflective equilibrium that supports those principles. Part Three of TJ addresses the stability of a society organized around Justice as Fairness, arguing that there will be an important congruence in such a society between people’s views about justice and what they value.