How John Rawls Became the Liberal Philosopher of a Conservative Age

Katrina Forrester

With his 1971 book A Theory Of Justice, John Rawls became the most influential political philosopher of his time — just as the liberal agenda he supported was retreating under conservative fire. A close look at Rawls can help us understand the fate of contemporary liberalism.

John Rawls, 1971. (Alec Rawls / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

John Rawls (1921–2002) was the most important political philosopher of his age. His 1971 book A Theory of Justice, which offered a philosophical basis for liberal egalitarianism, also supplied the raw material for an entire “Rawlsian” school of thought. But the reputation of Rawls in the academic world grew just as conservative forces committed to fostering greater inequality were becoming dominant, especially in the Anglo-American countries where Rawlsian ideas were most influential.

Katrina Forrester is the author of an acclaimed study of John Rawls, In The Shadow Of Justice (2019). She spoke to Jacobin about the strengths and shortcomings of Rawlsian theory, the relationship between political philosophy and the politics of power, and the lessons socialists can learn from a critical engagement with liberalism.


For someone largely or entirely unfamiliar with John Rawls, how would you summarize his impact on political philosophy? Can you explain the concepts of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” as guides to political action?


In the mid-century, postwar United States, a particular form of liberalism became a dominant political ideology; John Rawls was its greatest philosopher. Rawls was best known for his work A Theory of Justice (1971), a book that transformed how political philosophy was done for a generation. His philosophical vision of a just society, which embodied the postwar liberal dream of a more perfect America, became the basis for a philosophy known as “liberal egalitarianism.”

The society Rawls described was pretty close to the United States in terms of its organization — it was a liberal society with legislatures, courts, a constitution, and so on — but he wanted to limit inequality. The most famous argument that Rawls provided to support this vision was his idea of the “original position,” where people meet behind a “veil of ignorance” (which denies them all sorts of information about themselves — gender, class, race) to choose the principles that will regulate society. The basic idea was to imagine what kind of society you would want to set up, if you didn’t know where you would end up in it, or who you would be.

Rawls said you would choose to set up social institutions in accordance with his two principles of justice — one of liberty and one of equality.  The point of Rawls’s theory, in this sense, was to provide standards for judging institutions: where a society’s institutions fell short of those principles and failed to provide the basis for egalitarian social relations, they did not meet the standards of justice — and they should be reformed.


How did the political context of the postwar decades shape the philosophy of Rawls, and how did the transformation of that context influence its reception?


Rawls’s philosophy was often seen as a product of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, but his political vision had origins in earlier debates — about planning, welfare, Keynesian stabilization, and pluralism — and in his engagement with the right wing of the British Labour Party, and their redefinition of socialism as the search for equality and social justice. Rawls was initially skeptical of government intervention and political control of the economy, but he gradually came to see that more state action would be necessary to secure distributive justice. He became more optimistic about the future of liberalism.

By the time A Theory of Justice was published in 1971, the postwar liberal settlement that Rawls’s theory legitimated — but also hoped to reform — was under pressure. In that context, his theory provided a kind of solace to liberals as that world was attacked. As politics moved to the right, Rawls’s theory was consolidated as the paradigmatic left-liberalism, a survivor from the mid-century — even though in that earlier period his ideas had a different political meaning to the one they later acquired.


You’ve identified an apparent paradox in the impact of Rawls. A Theory of Justice supplied arguments that could be used to justify welfare states, social democracy, or a robust left-liberalism. From the moment it appeared in 1971, it was a hugely influential work, and Rawls went on to become the dominant figure in Anglophone political philosophy — precisely at the moment when the political prospects for social democracy or left-liberalism were contracting, not least in Britain and the United States.

Does this discrepancy suggest that political philosophy is relatively powerless to influence the world of institutional power politics, or does it speak to shortcomings of Rawls’s own thinking?


Political philosophy isn’t always powerless: ideas can have enormous political effects, especially when they take on ideological force as part of political struggles. Many canonical works of political philosophy have been used as tools in power politics, to legitimize or challenge social and political arrangements, or to mobilize collective action. But liberal political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century gave up on some of those goals, and that’s in part to do with the dynamics of Rawls’s own theory.

During the Cold War, social scientists often played major roles in foreign policy thinking, but many political philosophers retreated into quietism. They studied Rawls’s ideas in increasingly technical terms, or took up the “moral point of view” and focused on what morality required of institutions, rather than on how power worked.

That meant that political philosophy got stuck justifying incremental change from a baseline of postwar social liberalism. It didn’t adapt its tools to deal with its crisis. But that had actually started to happen before the 1970s — it wasn’t all a result of Rawls’s book and his influence, and Rawls can be read as a symptom as much as a cause. The divide between the postwar welfare state and Great Society, and the neoliberal era of the New Right, isn’t as stark as is sometimes suggested.

So the paradox of Rawls’s impact isn’t as paradoxical as it seems, either. There were a number of assumptions within Rawls’s theory (and within the ideological constellation of postwar liberalism, far beyond political philosophy) that made it amenable to the transformations of the neoliberal era. The anxiety about the coercive power of state and labor unions was particularly important, as was the Rawlsian liberal understanding of social change.

Many philosophical liberals started off with the assumption that we can and should reform the status quo, but had a rosy idea of what that status quo was, and saw reform as something that would require slow adaptation. They failed to recognize the severity of injustices, or to adapt (and to modify their theory of change) when things got worse.


One potential weakness of Rawlsian thinking when applied to social systems might be that it lacks specificity, in a way that’s reminiscent of religious ethical codes. For example, one person might say that Christian ethics require you to be a socialist of some variety, but someone who thinks free-market capitalism is the best possible system could argue instead that the Golden Rule requires them to pursue their own self-interest through the market; if everyone does the same, they believe, society as a whole will benefit.

They could also say that the poorest person in a capitalist society will still be better off than the average person in a socialist society, so from the standpoint of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance,” they would favor a free-market system. Does Rawls himself supply the necessary counterarguments to a position of that kind, or is it necessary to go beyond his philosophy to answer it?


You’re right that Rawls designed his theory to be capacious when it came to regime type. He thought a variety of economic systems might meet the standards of justice he laid out. But he was clear that some were preferable to others: liberal socialism would be satisfactory, while welfare-state capitalism would not.

That’s partly because Rawls’s famous “difference principle” — the idea that whatever inequalities exist in a society can only be justified if they work to benefit its least well-off members — is potentially very demanding (so much so that some socialist philosophers have argued that the principle can only be satisfied in a socialist political economy).

Rawls’s preferred regime was a property-owning democracy, but he changed his mind about what that meant. That concept has been used in a wide variety of ways, as part of both labor-republican producerism — that some see as crucial to the philosophy of Lincoln and his supporters — and right-wing anti-statism (of which Margaret Thatcher is probably the most famous proponent). Rawls was initially drawn to the idea because he was worried about state power and its overreach, but he deployed it in different ways over his lifetime.

In general, Rawls was reluctant to be pinned down: he wasn’t neutral, but he did want his theory to be flexible. And he wanted to accommodate every possible philosophical objection. So while he supplied plenty of resources for challenging free-market systems, different parts of Rawls’s theory could be used to justify all sorts of political arrangements.

That’s one reason why philosophers love Rawls’s theory, but it’s what makes it slippery in political terms. It’s also slippery in other ways: although it was designed to be as general and universal as possible, it was closely modeled on US institutions and political culture. Many aspects of American political and economic life were smuggled into the theory. As a result, it embodies a mix of the parochial and the universal — a mix that was itself a signal feature of postwar liberalism in the United States.


A Theory of Justice appeared at a moment when the struggle of African Americans for equality had taken center stage in US politics. The Women’s Liberation Movement was also beginning to gather momentum. Did his original theory account for racial or gender oppression? Did Rawls revise his theory in response to the challenge of these movements, or the intellectual currents they inspired?


Rawls was preoccupied with problems of inequality and disadvantage, so during the years of the Civil Rights Movement, he certainly thought about those problems in terms of the unfair benefits that accrued to white Americans and the disadvantages suffered by African Americans. In a handful of unpublished political writings in the 1960s, he tried to make sense of the concrete relationship of poverty and equality, race and class.

But his theory itself abstracted away from those concrete social relationships and institutions. It ended up offering something closer to a kind of anti-discrimination racial liberalism — one that sought political institutions to mitigate the effects of current inequality and prejudices, along universal (not group-specific) lines.

Rawls was optimistic that racial oppression — and, for that matter, class exploitation or gender oppression — could be overcome within a political framework that looked a lot like the postwar United States. In that respect, he was an adherent of the postwar ideology of the American liberal consensus — the faith that consensus was possible and agreement on the horizon within the American system. He never gave up on that faith, though he grew less optimistic.

Rawls was less preoccupied with gender oppression, and, as many generations of feminist scholars have shown, his theory is pretty saturated with patriarchal norms. He upheld the family as the crucial unit of social life, he described the participants in his “original position” thought experiment as “heads of households,” and many assumptions that he made reflected postwar domestic ideologies.

There’s little evidence that he paid much attention to the Women’s Liberation Movement, although later, when feminist philosophers objected to his theory and pushed it in liberal and egalitarian feminist directions, he did try to adapt — to show all of his critics that his theory was able to accommodate their concerns. But that’s largely because of Rawls’s fundamental commitment to developing a theory that could accommodate disagreement.

In making his theory so flexible, he wanted to accommodate both those who were skeptical toward claims of gender and racial oppression, and those who wanted to confront those forms of oppression. Rather than antagonize and struggle over issues of racial or gender oppression, he chose to abstract from them. That decision had all sorts of effects on the subsequent history of liberal philosophy, not least in the way that the claims of Black liberation movements were largely domesticated into a language of racial liberalism.


Does Rawls have a credible theory of class, or of social conflict in general? Did he engage in dialogue with the socialist and Marxist traditions and their contemporary advocates?


Rawls read Marx early in his intellectual development, and there’s some indication that this helped to shape his worries about consumer capitalism and the ethos it produced. But Rawls did not spend much time with Marxism, and he didn’t have a serious account of class or class conflict.

He has an account of classes in the sense of sociological groupings and their relations — he imagines society as being unequally divided by income, wealth, status, and so on — but little interest in a dynamic, Marxist theory of class. He doesn’t suggest that social divisions are themselves generative, nor does he have an account of capitalist development or a theory of political transformation that involves social divisions.

In the late 1970s, when the philosophical movement known as analytical Marxism took shape, a number of those philosophers engaged with Rawls as they developed their own version of egalitarianism. So then there was a cross-pollination between Rawlsian liberal egalitarianism and Marxism. But it often led to the Marxists becoming more Rawlsian, rather than the Rawlsians becoming more Marxist.

I sometimes think of Rawls’s theory as functioning like a blob: its flexibility and capaciousness made it appear to accommodate everything, and so even many theories that are Marxian in their account of social division end up succumbing to the pull of Rawlsian consensus.


What relationship did Rawls have to the revival of just war theory among political philosophers? Can the ideas of just war theory be applied to the ethics of revolution — conflict between classes rather than states? How does Rawls approach questions of legality, civil disobedience, and so on?


Rawls thought that civil disobedience was justified, particularly by oppressed minorities, and also when a government was leading its citizens into an unjust war abroad. That is to say, he formulated his theory to allow for the civil disobedience campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement during the Vietnam War. He even developed his own account of just war theory — of what made a particular war just or unjust — so as to support protests against the war.

Yet that theory — and Rawls’s account of civil disobedience — was filled with constraints, which meant that in many situations, lawbreaking would be deemed unjustifiable. The most striking condition he placed on the justifiability of civil disobedience was that it was justified when legal and political rights were violated, but not when economic rights were infringed, or as part of protests at unjust economic situations (against poverty, say, or a workplace injustice).

Rawls did think there were civil conflicts that could be understood as just civil wars. At one point in his unpublished lectures, he described the French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War as wars of social justice. By contrast, he saw the American Civil War as a war of secession by a minority; and he further distinguished between colonial wars of secession and wars of national liberation. But he didn’t speak of conflicts between classes in the framework of just war, or of ongoing civil wars of social justice.

In many respects, Rawls externalized conflict: conflict was, by and large, what happened abroad, between countries, and governed by international laws of war and peace. Conflicts at home, between classes or other groups, had to be diffused by institutions set up to accommodate disagreement. Recognizing domestic social conflict as being akin to war, or understanding social divisions as part of a transnational conflict that cut across state borders, was not something that Rawls was eager to do.


You’ve said that Rawls took the United States and other industrialized capitalist democracies as the implicit social framework for his theory. Did he engage in any substantial way with the experience of decolonization in the decades immediately preceding the publication of A Theory of Justice, or with the context of the Cold War?


Decolonization is one of the more telling absences of Rawls’s work. In A Theory of Justice, he envisaged international politics not in terms of empires and hierarchy, but in terms of a Westphalian society of nation-states governed by minimal standards of international law. He did not describe an integrated world, a system in which states are highly interconnected by past and present constellations or networks of power.

On the other hand, Rawls was not much of a “Cold War thinker” either, except tacitly: his early liberalism was structured by the Cold War imaginary of totalitarianism, but it wasn’t a theory of liberalism against communism, and he said little about Cold War geopolitics. He was very much a liberal of the postwar modernization and development moment: on the brief occasions when Rawls did imagine the global, he tended to assume linear progress (with bumps along the way).

It fell to the next generation of his students, coming of age in the era of the New International Economic Order, to engage with decolonization movements and turn to the problem of global — rather than domestic — justice. For a long time, political philosophers saw the focus on the nation-state as a necessary simplification (when dealing with abstractions and idealizations from reality, some choices have to be made). But it’s now become much more common to see this decision on Rawls’s part as ideological and obfuscating, with massive implications for his domestic theory, too: it’s an illustration of the point that politics cannot be thought of in national terms alone.


You’ve suggested that the greatest political impact of Rawls was felt among lawyers and in the field of legal theory. That’s something quite specific to the US context as well — the idea of social progress being advanced through the courts. Do Rawls or any of his followers address the arguments made by Marxists and others about the class character of the judiciary and the legal system?


Yes, it’s extremely specific to the US context, and it’s one of the specificities that makes his theory feel as much local as universal. I’ve come to see the implicit significance of the US legal system for Rawls’s theory as one of the reasons why it lacks a substantial theory of change: it’s almost assumed that change is something that happens through the courts. I don’t think Rawls spent much effort dealing with those kinds of critiques of the judiciary.

He was not as optimistic as some of his contemporaries about the role of judges (in his later work, he placed significant constraints on the kinds of decisions they could make). And he didn’t think that constitutional law was the key to politics (although he influenced a generation of constitutional lawyers who did).

However, while Rawls did worry about concentrations of power, and inevitably saw ways of restricting such concentrations as being key to maintaining the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, he never came close to anything like a Marxist critique of law. He was a firm believer in the rule of law and the defense of constitutions as foundational elements of liberal democracy.


How would you distinguish between liberalism as an organized current in politics and the media, and liberalism as a political philosophy? Do you think socialists have something important to learn from the latter, even if their stance toward the former is rather antagonistic?


There are many useful ideas within liberal egalitarianism that socialists already use in practice — about redistribution, equality, and social justice — and the tradition of liberal political philosophy includes a variety of discrete theories which express and interrogate socialist values and belief systems in compelling ways. Socialists have long developed their ideas in collaboration or conversation with social liberals, particularly in eras of history defined by class compromises. So yes, I do think socialists can learn from liberal political philosophy (I certainly have).

But, equally, what is missing in liberal political theories is also instructive — particularly their lack of a theory of strategy and change, their lack of an account of how ideas become political forces. And there is also much to be said for reading liberal philosophy to understand where lines of antagonism should be drawn — where to object, what to concede, and who to fight.


Your next project is about feminist theories of work. Could you say a little about that? What shortcomings did feminists identify in traditional socialist thinking about work and the working class? Has that challenge been answered, or is it still a notable gap?


The 1970s saw a massive effort by Marxist thinkers to develop new accounts of class and work, to cope with transformations of labor and deindustrialization. I’m interested in feminist contributions to that effort.

Socialist feminists wanted to redefine class so that it was seen not only in terms of industrial productive labor, but could accommodate other forms of labor (and dependents). They also wanted to think about the emancipatory potential of people who had not been included in traditional identities of the worker. They developed a variety of analytical frameworks and imaginative devices to do so, and updated older socialist concepts and theories — for instance, of surplus populations and domestic labour.

Some of these ideas are very familiar to us — both because feminists were successful in forcing socialists to adapt, but also because material circumstances proved them right. Today, social reproduction theory is widely used to understand service and domestic work, and the rise of the health and care sector as the largest sector of working-class employment.

What I’m particularly interested in right now is how their diagnoses also generated labor actions of new kinds, which sought to reorganize and transcend relations of home and work — from the demand for wages for housework to socialist theories of sexual harassment. When it comes to imagining what we want from work and from life, there is no better tradition to think with, through their successes and their failures.