March 01-03, 2007

Initially isolated in a world of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice is now a staple of undergraduate curriculums, studied by philosophers, economists, political scientists, and legal scholars alike. Since it was published in 1971, Rawls's major work has sold over 300,000 copies and been translated into over two-dozen languages. It is often credited with single-handedly revitalizing political philosophy as an academic study in the English-speaking world, renewing the sense that it is possible to engage in rigorous and meaningful debate about moral and political questions. When Rawls died in 2001, his contribution to moral and political philosophy was heralded "the largest achievement in the English-speaking world since John Stuart Mill's."

Rawls begins A Theory of Justice by departing from the dominant (utilitarian) tradition of twentieth-century liberal thought, to assert the inviolability of the individual's basic rights and freedoms. Crucially, he goes on to identify justice with the reconciliation of individual liberty and social equality, concepts understood to be at odds throughout much of the century. As he proceeds to elaborate what a society based upon his idea of "justice as fairness" would look like, Rawls reimagines the social contract as an "initial situation" shaped by a set of procedural constraints. A law or principle is just if it can pass Rawls's procedural test, which asks: "Would the best-off accept particular social or economic arrangements if they believed, at any moment, they might find themselves in the position of the worst-off?"

To this day, A Theory of Justice remains our most influential critique both of utilitarian ethics and of radically egalitarian theories of justice, and as such, it has generated extensive commentary and also controversy. Bringing together the principles of social and economic equality associated with European socialism and the principles of personal freedom and pluralistic toleration associated with American liberalism, Rawls's work has been criticized from all sides. It is either insufficiently or overly egalitarian, or, it focuses too much on wealth as an index of social welfare. For some, Rawls's insistence on the priority of the abstract individual fails to take community seriously. For others, his emphasis on a fundamental, formal equality risks effacing potentially intractable asymmetries in human life (in the experience and needs of infancy, old age, disease, or disability). In this seminar, we will take up such critiques, considering as well how Rawls revised or corrected his own work. What are the problems in A Theory of Justice that Rawls seek to address in his later work?

In 1977, Rawls's colleague and adversary, Robert Nozick, wrote that "political philosophers now must either work within Rawls's theory or explain why not." This seminar begins from Nozick's claim that Rawls has crucially shaped the realm within which political philosophy now takes place. We will draw on the expertise of Rawls's former students, as well as of other readers of his work, in order to assess the contributions that A Theory of Justice has made to liberal and to democratic thought, and to evaluate the continuing usefulness of its ideas. Rawls's central concernsÑwith issues of rights, pluralism and toleration, and social inequalityÑremain topical and urgent; yet his thought is often bound up with a political topography that has undergone major change. How might we refigure or extend Rawls's approach or key concepts, in order to address questions of justice outside of frame of the nation-state: issues of family or of international justice, for example? In a world increasingly shaped by complex political and economic networks rather than the relation between national government and citizen, how do we continue to pursue political philosophy in a Rawlsian way?

Participants include: Daniel Brudney (Philosophy); Anthony Laden (Philosophy, University of Illinois at Chicago); Paul Weithman (Philosophy, University of Notre Dame).


  • Samuel Freeman, "Congruence and the Good of Justice," in The Cambridge Companion to Rawls (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003) 277-315 [Download]
    • In this essay, Freeman concentrates on Rawls's discussion of "stability" in Theory of Justice, looking in particular at Kant's influence on Rawls's conception of the congruence between the right and the good. Freeman goes on to suggest how problems with the Kantian congruence argument led Rawls to recast the justification for justice as fairness in Political Liberalism.
  • John Rawls, "The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus" in Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia UP, 2005) 133-72. [Download]
    • In this fourth lecture of Political Liberalism, Rawls develops the idea of an overlapping consensus of reasonable doctrines, one of the basic components of his political conception of justice, in order to see how a well-ordered society can be unified and stable.
  • John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical" Philosophy and Public Affairs 14.3 (1995) 223-51. [Download]
    • In this article, Rawls sets out how he now understands the idea of "justice as fairness" as a form of political liberalism: that is, as a conception that does not depend on metaphysical claims.
  • Anthony Simon Laden, "John Rawls A Theory of Justice" in Central Works of Philosophy Volume 5 The Twentieth Century: Quine and After, ed. John Shand (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2006), 64-84 [Download]