John Rawls (1921–2002) was one of the most important social and political philosophers of the last half of the twentieth century. In his most significant work, A Theory of Justice (1972), he promoted a political philosophy based on the concept of “justice as fairness” in which justice is necessarily linked to fairness.
In promoting his theory of the ideal state, Rawls relied somewhat upon the “social contract” theory of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in which people allegedly entered into a contract with each other to promote their own survival and good. But instead of speculating about what societal contract people actually entered into in the past, Rawls argued that we should focus on the type of contract we would want to enter into now. Thus, if we could somehow start from scratch and choose our ideal society, what standards and criteria would we choose to create this society? Rawls says we should begin with what he calls “The Veil of Ignorance.” The Veil of Ignorance assumes that no person will know who he or she will be in this new society. Before the society begins all factors such as race, gender, age, talents, intelligence, education, and parents are totally hidden. Under this Veil of Ignorance which type of society would the people choose? Rawls argues that most people would choose a society in which equality and fairness were the rule. After all, what sane person would want to take a chance on receiving unequal and unfair treatment in life. For example, a person probably would not choose a society in which slavery existed or women were given less rights if there was a chance that he could become a slave or a woman.
According to Rawls the ideal society would operate on two principles. First each person would have equal rights to the most basic liberties. This means that every person would be eligible to vote or run for office. Each person would have freedom of thought and speech. Each person also would have the right to own property and freedom from arbitrary arrest. Second, all people would have equal opportunities in regard to pursuing careers and economic opportunities. Rawls is not arguing for equal distribution of wealth as socialism does; instead, he states that all people should have equal access to all jobs and economic opportunities. By implication this would mean equal access to education that would lead to the best jobs and opportunities. Recognizing that people will have different talents and motivations, Rawls acknowledges that some will have more economic wealth than others. This is acceptable, though, as long as the economic inequalities will benefit society. For example, if because of hard work and intelligence a person obtains more wealth than others, this could be a good thing if the hard work and intelligence which led to that person’s wealth benefited society. Thus, Rawls’s society rewards excellence while offering benefits to all of society. Rawls also believed that society should have a safety net to ensure a decent quality of life for its members.
Rawls attended Princeton as a student and taught at the universities of Cornell and Harvard.