John Rawls

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John Rawls (born February 21, 1921 in Baltimore , Maryland , † November 24, 2002 in Lexington , Massachusetts ) was an American philosopher who taught as a professor at Harvard University . His main work A Theory of Justice (1971) is considered one of the most influential works in political philosophy of the 20th century.


Rawls was the second of five children of attorney William Lee Rawls and his wife Anna Abell Stump. The death of two brothers overshadowed his youth. Both died of illnesses they had contracted from him: his brother Bobby (Robert Lee) from diphtheria in 1928 , his brother Tommy (Thomas Hamilton) from pneumonia a year later . Rawls studied from 1939 at Princeton University , where he became interested in philosophy. In 1943 he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and joined the army. During World War II Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific, where he was used in New Guinea , the Philippines and Japan . He visited Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped . This experience led him to turn down an officer career he was offered and to leave the army in the lowest rank of private in 1946.

After retiring from the army, Rawls returned to Princeton, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1950 with a thesis on the moral assessment of human character traits. After brief teaching at Princeton, Rawls received a Fulbright scholarship in 1952 for a one-year research stay at Oxford University , England , where he was influenced by Isaiah Berlin , Stuart Hampshire and, above all, HLA Hart . Upon his return to the United States, Rawls held professorships at Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . In 1962 he moved to Harvard University , where he taught for more than thirty years. In 1966 Rawls was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and 1974 to the American Philosophical Society . Since 1983 he has been a corresponding member of the British Academy . He was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize in 1972 for his book A Theory of Justice . In 1995 he suffered the first of several strokes that severely hampered his work. Nevertheless, he managed to complete his last work The Law of Peoples , in which he developed a liberal theory of international law . In 1999 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal .

Rawls, described as a downright unpretentious and humble person, died of heart failure on November 24, 2002 in his Lexington home. He left behind his wife Margaret Warfield Fox Rawls, to whom he had been married since 1949, and four children: Anne Warfield, Robert Lee, Alexander Emory and Elizabeth Fox. The Hamburg weekly newspaper Die Zeit published three obituaries for Rawls in one issue. The obituary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung was written by the Tübingen philosopher Otfried Höffe , the obituary in the Frankfurter Rundschau by the Frankfurt philosopher Rainer Forst . Clemens Sedmak , an Austrian theologian, wrote the obituary for the weekly newspaper Die Furche . The Aachen philosopher Wilfried Hinsch, who completed his habilitation on Rawls' theory of justice, wrote the obituary for the NZZ. In 2005 the asteroid (16561) Rawls was named after him.

The philosopher Susan Neiman , director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, was Rawl's student, did her doctorate with him and worked temporarily as his research assistant. In her main philosophical work she quotes him a. a. Regarding the motive to "design a model for a social system that creates justice by reducing chance in our lives":

“For as long as we have good reasons to believe that a self-sustaining and acceptably just political and social order is possible both internally and externally, we can reasonably hope that we or others will one day realize it somewhere; and then we can contribute anything to that realization. This alone is enough to banish the dangers of resignation and cynicism regardless of success or failure. "

Rawls' contribution to political and moral philosophy

Rawls is considered to be an essential representative of egalitarian liberalism . As the premise of his work, he sets justice as a decisive virtue of social institutions, which, however, must not violate the freedom of the individual:

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. "

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as is truth in systems of thought. A theory, however elegant and economical, must be dropped if it is not true; equally well-functioning and well-coordinated laws and institutions must be modified or abolished if they are unjust. Every human being has an inviolability that springs from justice and that cannot be undone in the name of the good of society as a whole. Hence, justice does not allow the loss of freedom for some to be made up for by greater good for others. "

- John Rawls : A Theory of Justice (1971), 1.

According to him, the task of principles of justice is to determine the basic structure of society, ie the institutional allocation of rights and duties and the distribution of goods. As can be seen from the designation of his theory ("justice as fairness") and his considerations on justification, his theory of justice is a theory of procedural justice .

Rawls asks: Which principles of justice would free and reasonable people choose in their own interest in a fair and equal starting situation? He argues that two principles would be chosen, the content of which he ultimately formulated - after some changes and revisions compared to the original versions - as follows:

“(A) Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; and (b) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle). "

“A) Every person has the same indispensable right to a fully adequate system of the same fundamental freedoms, which is compatible with the same system of freedoms for all. b) Social and economic inequalities must meet two conditions: first, they must be associated with offices and positions that are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must bring the most benefit to the least favored members of society (principle of difference). "

- John Rawls : Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), §13

The first principle takes precedence over the second. The same applies to the two sub-points in the second principle: It is not allowed to curtail equal opportunities in order to make the difference principle more valid. In contrast to the utilitarianism criticized by him, he wants to use these rules of priority to prevent freedoms from being dispensed with in favor of the distribution of goods.

A large part of the criticism of Rawls' theses is based on this: In practice it is not unusual for people to forego freedoms in favor of material goods. First of all, a person must meet the basic conditions for wanting to defend his freedom as the highest principle at all : He must see his basic needs satisfied. The starving man is more likely to consent to slavery than to accept certain death. Even democratic participation rights and thus freedoms in the Rawlian sense do not enjoy the same status in every culture. In addition, because of physical limitations, people are not always able to fully utilize the formally granted freedoms.

Rawls puts the comprehensive doctrine of a secular “enlightened liberalism” itself close to a religious doctrine: There are many liberalisms with different, also culturally specific, interpretations of freedom, equality and justice, which could also be justified religiously. A constitutional democracy could also be founded on the basis of Sharia law.


  • Rawls does not demand formal equality of opportunity (equal legal right to advantageous social positions), but fair opportunities (people with similar skills should have similar life chances). Rawls postulates the same motivation as a prerequisite for this. Laziness forfeits the opportunities. This is based on the opinion that social or natural coincidences lead to different possibilities, e.g. B. to achieve training, qualifications and thus ultimately higher positions and offices. So there has to be a public system of rules that ensures that all people with the same talents have the same opportunities for advancement, and that - this is the crucial addition - regardless of their initial position in society. In relation to the education system, formal equality of opportunity simply implies that all people have the same right to attend university; there must therefore be no access restriction for people of a certain skin color or a certain class. The fair equality of opportunity accentuates this by demanding that, for example, a scholarship system is introduced that ensures that people can study who are gifted but cannot pay the tuition fees. Since Rawls also sees a contingency of nature in the distribution of natural talents, which the individual has neither caused nor earned, he introduces the principle of difference.
  • Difference principle instead of Pareto optimality or the utility principle of utilitarianism : According to this, social inequalities are only justified if and to the extent that they still lead to an “absolute” advantage (albeit possibly small) for the worst off member of society. It is only through this precaution that the less gifted are insured to a certain extent against injustices that are not their own fault.

In fact, in our society it is seen as unjust if someone falls through all social ranks because of a lack of talent, because the system, contrary to the principle of difference, creates inequalities to which the person feels powerless. Extreme examples could involve physically and mentally disabled people.

The original state

Rawls constructs a hypothetical original state in the form of a fair and equal negotiation situation that is intended to legitimize the principles of justice. In this purely theoretical situation, the social contract is concluded, which, unlike in earlier contract theories, does not regulate entry into a certain society, but only defines certain principles according to which justice can be realized. Assumptions:

  • Free and reasonable people who want to determine the basic structure of their society, their principles of justice together
  • Harmony of interests: Cooperation is desirable and possible
  • Conflicts of Interest: How are the fruits of the labor shared?
  • rational people who are concerned with fulfilling their own interests, but who are free from envy
  • the veil of ignorance :

People only have general knowledge (about basic social goods that everyone needs to realize their various interests, knowledge about social, political, economic and psychological relationships, the ability to assess consequences, etc.), but no knowledge about themselves, their own social ones Position, their interests, knowledge, talents, etc. as well as the future concrete political design of their rights and obligations.


  • unanimous and compulsory choice from a list of widespread notions of justice that satisfy the formal principles of generality, unlimitedness, publicity, ranking and finality

Why would people in their original state choose the two principles of justice?

  • Securing the basic good of freedom for all through the first principle
  • Procedure according to the Maximin rule : ensuring the acceptability of the worst possible position
  • general recognition as everyone benefits from it. This also makes the system stable
  • promotes self-respect, since every person is seen as an end in itself and not as a means

The sense of justice

Condition of the stability of a concept of justice:

  • When the basic structure and institutions of a society are just, its members acquire a sense of justice, i. H. the desire to act justly and to uphold them.
  • Development of the sense of justice through social, moral learning, feelings of friendship, trust and guilt → Sense of justice as an elementary component of humanity.


Utilitarians , representatives of political liberalism , libertarians and communitarians are particularly critical of Rawls' work.

Utilitarians are not convinced of the sharp juxtaposition of contract-theoretical and utilitarian justifications for justice. Even before Rawls, John Harsanyi described the mind game of a choice of principles behind a veil of ignorance . Understood as a rational decision under risk conditions, this leads to the maximization of the average benefit and thus to the Bayesian criterion. If the difference between Rawls' contract theory and Harsanyi's utilitarianism could actually be traced back to the question of whether Bayesian or Maximin's principle should be chosen under the conditions of the veil of ignorance, then it would be a rather marginal decision-making controversy act (→ risk ethics # possible decision criteria , equal probability model ).

Libertarians see a curtailment of individual freedom, especially in Rawls' principle of difference. Every appropriation and every transfer of goods is legitimate as long as it comes about without coercion and violation of fundamental rights. State corrective interventions to correct unequal distributions, on the other hand, are not permitted. In contrast to Rawls, libertarianism draws a social model of interaction based on a market and not on distributive justice. Only three years after the publication of A Theory of Justice formulated Robert Nozick with Anarchy, State, and Utopia one individual rights tory to the center libertarian counter-model. For him, only a minimal system of rules of coexistence can be legitimized, which results from the possible gain and the protection of the individual rights of all.

Michael Sandel criticizes Rawls in the context of communitarianism. He criticizes the characterization of people in their original state as being too individualistic. With such a criticism, Sandel tries to question Rawls' theory as a whole. Moreover, the whole body of liberal theories is based on that conception of man in question. Sandel's criticism starts with the conception of the original state. The self conceived by Rawls is unreal because it is not shaped by communal ties, but rather decides in isolation from society. This conception of the person used in theory implies an anthropology that contradicts the observable moral values ​​of real persons.

Jürgen Habermas criticizes the fact that Rawls' concept of justice, derived from contract theory, is not subjected to any public scrutiny. Wolfgang Kersting shares this criticism as well as Nozick's and postulates that democratically constituted societies do not need a moral business basis that goes beyond the constitution and a divided political culture. People who allow their whole life to be determined by religious ethics cannot be expected to ignore their religious convictions when dealing with central social issues and only to present reasons that are generally accepted in a secular and pluralistic society. Here Thomas Hobbes' conception of granting basic rights on the basis of general compliance with the law is sufficient.



  • John Rawls: A theory of justice (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft . Volume 271 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 978-3-518-27871-0 (English: A Theory of Justice, 1971/5 . Translated by Hermann Vetter).
  • Wilfried Hinsch (ed.): The idea of ​​political liberalism. Articles 1978 - 1989 (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft . Volume 1123 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-518-28723-0 .
  • John Rawls: Political Liberalism (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft . Volume 1642 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 978-3-518-29242-6 (English: Political Liberalism, 1993/5 . Translated by Wilfried Hinsch).
  • John Rawls: The Right of the Peoples . Contains: “Again. The Idea of ​​Public Reason ”. de Gruyter, Berlin, New York 2002, ISBN 3-11-016935-5 (English: The Law of Peoples, 1999. Translated by Wilfried Hinsch).
  • Erin Kelly (Ed.): Justice as Fairness. A new draft (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft . Volume 1804 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 978-3-518-29404-8 (English: Justice as Fairness. A Restatement, 2001. Translated by Joachim Schulte).
  • Samuel Freeman (Ed.): Collected Papers . Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2001, ISBN 978-0-674-00569-3 .
  • Barbara Herman (ed.): History of moral philosophy. Hume - Leibniz - Kant - Hegel (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft . Volume 1726 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-518-29326-5 (English: Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, 2000. Translated by Joachim Schulte).
  • Samuel Freeman (ed.): History of political philosophy . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-58508-5 (English: Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 2007. Translated by Joachim Schulte).
  • Thomas Nagel (Ed.): About sin, faith and religion . Commented by Thomas Nagel, Joshua Cohen, Robert Merrihew Adams and Jürgen Habermas. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2010, ISBN 978-3-518-58545-0 (English: A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith. With “On My Religion” . Translated by Sebastian Schwark).



Individual evidence

  1. ^ Thomas Pogge: John Rawls . Munich: Beck 1994.
  2. Johannes J. Frühbauer: Thinking Justice. John Rawls' political philosophy from a socio-ethical perspective . Dissertation. Tübingen 2004, p. 20 .
  3. ^ Member History: John Rawls. American Philosophical Society, accessed January 24, 2019 .
  4. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed July 23, 2020 .
  5. Harvard entry on Rawls
  6. Susan Neiman : Alarm Bells for the Outcasts. In. Friday No. 22, May 21, 2004
  7. Axel Honneth : Liberal and normative. Obituary for John Rawls. In: Die Zeit No. 49, 2002; Thomas W. Pogge: Magic of the green book. Obituary for John Rawls. In: Die Zeit No. 49, 2002; Hauke ​​Brunkhorst : Same as siblings. Obituary for John Rawls. In: Die Zeit No. 49, 2002.
  8. Otfried Höffe : What people owe each other. Justice demands a theory that will stand up to the world: On the death of the philosopher John Rawls. In: SZ, November 27, 2002.
  9. ^ Rainer Forst : Justice as fairness. New founder of political philosophy: John Rawls died at the age of 81. In: FR, November 27, 2002.
  10. Clemens Sedmak : Realistic Utopian. John Rawls, philosopher and philanthropist, died in Boston at the age of 81. His “Theory of Justice” is one of the most discussed contributions to the political ethics of modern society. In: Die Furche No. 49, 2002.
  11. Wilfried Hinsch: Realistic Utopia of Liberalism . On the death of the philosopher John Rawls. In: NZZ, November 26, 2002.
  12. Minor Planet Circ. 54176
  13. ^ John Rawls: The Law of the Peoples. Cambridge, Massachusetts 1999, p. 162. Quoted from Susan Neiman: Thinking Evil. Another story of philosophy. Frankfurt am Main 2004, p. 456.
  14. John Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Revised Edition . Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1999, ISBN 978-0-674-00078-0 , pp. 3 . John Rawls: A Theory of Justice . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 978-3-518-27871-0 , pp. 19th f .
  15. John Rawls: Justice as Fairness. A restatement . Ed .: Erin Kelly. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2001, ISBN 978-0-674-00511-2 , pp. 42 f . John Rawls: Justice as Fairness. A new design . Ed .: Erin Kelly. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 978-3-518-29404-8 , pp. 78 .
  16. Carsten Dethlefs: Social Justice in Germany - A historical analysis of the contractualist understanding of justice broke Rawls in German science and politics (=  university publications ). Metropolis, Marburg 2013, ISBN 978-3-7316-1025-0 , pp. 52 ff .
  17. ^ John Rawls: The Idea of ​​Public Reason Revisited , in: John Rawls: The Law of Peoples. Harvard University Press, 1939, pp. 131-180.
  18. See Dethlefs, p. 80 ff.
  19. Carsten Dethlefs: Social Justice in Germany - A Historical Analysis of the Contractualist understanding of justice in German science and politics (=  university publications ). Metropolis, Marburg 2013, ISBN 978-3-7316-1025-0 , pp. 61 ff .
  20. ^ John Charles Harsanyi: Ethics in Terms of Hypothetical Imperatives . In: Min . tape 67 , no. 267 , 1958, pp. 305-316 .
  21. ^ Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia . Basic Books, New York 1974, ISBN 0-465-09720-0 . Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, Utopia . Olzog, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-7892-8099-3 .
  22. Wolfgang Kersting: Justice and public reason: About John Rawls' political liberalism . Mentis, Paderborn 2006, ISBN 978-3-89785-535-9 .

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