Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • This chapter is unavailable for purchase
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: February 2013

3 - John Rawls: A Theory of Justice


In his classes, John Rawls routinely quoted R. G. Collingwood's remark that “the history of political theory is not the history of different answers to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it” (Rawls 2000b: xvi). To understand Rawls's own work, we would do well to understand the problem he took himself to be addressing. Fortunately, Rawls tells us what that problem is:

During much of modern moral philosophy the predominant systematic theory has been some form of utilitarianism. One reason for this is that it has been espoused by a long line of brilliant writers who have built up a body of thought truly impressive in its scope and refinement. … Those who criticized them often did so on a much narrower front. … [T]hey failed, I believe, to construct a workable and systematic moral conception to oppose it. The outcome is that we often seem forced to choose between utilitarianism and intuitionism. …

What I have attempted to do is to generalize and carry to a higher order of abstraction the traditional theory of the social contract. … [T]his theory seems to offer an alternative to the dominant utilitarianism of the tradition. … Of the traditional views, it is this conception, I believe, which best approximates our considered judgments of justice and constitutes the most appropriate moral basis for a democratic society.

(1999: xviii)