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A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice Characters

The main characters in A Theory of Justice include John Rawls, Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.

  • John Rawls, the author, was an American political philosopher, Harvard professor, and recipient of the National Humanities Medal. The book collects his influential ideas on the theory of justice as fairness.
  • Thomas Aquinas was a medieval Christian philosopher and monk. Rawls refers to his writings in part 2, where he refutes Aquinas’s statements about heresy and the death penalty.
  • Aristotle was an Ancient Greek philosopher. Rawls references his ideas throughout the book, particularly the Aristotelian principle of goodness as rationality.

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John Rawls

John Rawls (1921–2002) was a recipient of the National Humanities Medal and the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy in 1999, and his medal citation credited him for helping a whole generation of learned Americans “revive their faith in democracy.” Rawls was influenced at Princeton by Norman Malcolm, a student of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1943 and briefly considered studying for the priesthood. Instead, he joined the army, serving in New Guinea and the Philippines from 1943 to 1946. His wartime experience of wanton destruction and bloodshed caused him to lose his faith and become an atheist.

Rawls completed his PhD at Princeton in 1950. In 1952, he went to Oxford University. When he returned to the United States, he took up his first faculty position at Cornell in 1953 and worked there until 1959. In 1959 and 1960, he was a visiting professor at Harvard, and from 1960 to 1962, he was a professor at MIT. He joined the philosophy department faculty at Harvard in 1962 and was a permanent member of this department until his retirement in 1991.

A Theory of Justice (1971) is one of three important books that further the liberal tradition in philosophy. John Rawls brought together in this book papers and lectures that he had written over two decades and that he was presenting for the first time as a philosophical conception of “justice as fairness.” The book presented many important ideas that have influenced our ideas of a stable and just constitutional democracy. It considers how we can better fulfill our roles as citizens by furthering and supporting just institutions and providing the checks and balances that can keep majority rule aligned with the interests of all.

Rawls later went on to write Political Liberalism (1993), in which he examines what political power means in a democracy. The Law of Peoples (1999) describes the creation of a peaceful and tolerant international order.  

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was a thirteenth-century Dominican monk. He is a central figure in the theology of the Catholic Church, as well as in philosophy, for his writing on the Christian revelation and his comments on the works of Aristotle, which speak of the relation between faith and reason. Rawls invokes Aquinas in part 2 of A Theory of Justice, which focuses on institutions. Aquinas is referred to in the context of toleration and the common interest. Rawls mentions that Aquinas had justified the death penalty to be handed out to heretics “on the ground that it is a far graver matter to corrupt the faith, which is the life of the soul, than to counterfeit money which sustains life.” Rawls disagrees with such a recommendation and asserts that freedom of thought, belief, and religious practice are very much a part of the argument for justice as fairness and its promotion of a liberty of conscience.


Considered to be among the greatest philosophers in world history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) has an abiding influence on the discipline even today. He wrote on a great variety of topics, including logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind, ethics, political theory, aesthetics, and rhetoric. This leads to his being invoked at many points in Rawls’s book. At the very beginning, Rawls makes reference to the idea of justice from Aristotle’s definition that it is to be understood as “of refraining from pleonexia, that is, from gaining some advantage for oneself by seizing what belongs to another.” He also refers to the Aristotelian principle when he considers goodness as rationality in chapter 7. Aristotle affirmed that many kinds of happiness and pleasure arise when we exercise our faculties and that the exercise of our natural powers is a leading human good.

Friedrich Nietzsche

A German philosopher and cultural critic, Nietzsche (1844–1900) wrote extensively criticizing the religious and moral traditions of Europe in the two decades from 1870 to 1890. When he looks closely at utilitarianism, Rawls makes mention of Nietzsche’s teleological doctrine of perfectionism, or human excellence, in various forms of culture being considered good.

In part 2 of the book, where he discusses ideas of distributive justice, Rawls mentions that the Nietzschean approach of giving more value to the life of someone like Socrates or Goethe over the life of an ordinary person is a form of perfectionism that is a curtailment of liberty for some and a greater liberty for others.

Jeremy Bentham

Bentham (1748–1832) was a British jurist and social reformer who wrote An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1780. He is one of the important figures cited by Rawls as he extensively discusses the ideas and concepts of utilitarianism. Rawls speaks about the conduct of individuals guided by their rational plans, which are the best ones from the standpoint of social justice. Bentham called this coordination the artificial identification of interests. Rawls also makes reference to Bentham in his discussion of utilitarian assumptions for the framing of legislation for distributive justice.

John Stuart Mill

As the author of On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1861), Mill (1806–1873) became the best-known English philosopher of the nineteenth century. Rawls mentions Mill in arguments concerning liberty, for plural voting, on the value of self-government, on moral learning, and on balancing precepts of justice. Mill is also mentioned in describing the issue of priority, when weight has to be assigned to competing principles of justice, and in describing how a certain hierarchy of interests may operate when people are deciding which needs and material wants they must satisfy before moving on to “higher-order interests.”  

Henry Sidgwick

Sidgwick (1838–1900) was a classical utilitarian who exercised a great deal of influence on ethical philosophy during the Victorian era through his work The Methods of Ethics (1874). Rawls compares the relative priority of justice and the rights derived from its principles in the classical utilitarianism of Bentham and Sidgwick and his own “justice as fairness.” He takes Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics as the summary of the development of utilitarian moral theory and describes formal justice as Sidgwick saw it as “the impartial and consistent administration of laws and institutions.”  

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes (1588–1679) was the author of Leviathan. A thinker, political philosopher, and translator who was known for experiments in physics and mathematics, besides being a materialist and empiricist, he is mentioned by Rawls in the context of the coercive powers of government and penal machinery. He also makes reference to the role of promises and the obligation they carry in a well-ordered society by saying they are analogous to Hobbes’s role of the sovereign in social cooperation.

Immanuel Kant

Kant (1724–1804) was a German philosopher and the author of The Critique of Pure Reason (1781,1787), The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790). His towering influence is felt throughout A Theory of Justice, as he is repeatedly invoked by Rawls to examine the concept of the social contract and interpret “justice as fairness.” John Rawls says that his hypothetical “veil of ignorance” is an implicit part of Kant’s reasoning. He makes reference to Kant in the context of the theory of the good, of treating persons as ends, on oral learning, in explaining moral shame, in seeing principles of justice as moral imperatives, and at many other places.

John Locke

Locke (1632–1704) was a philosopher and medical researcher who defended modern empiricism in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and laid the foundation for modern secularism in his Letter Concerning Toleration. He is mentioned in the context of the social contract. Locke also appears in discussions about equal rights, obligations of a citizen to laws, moral authority of principles of justice, and limitations placed on liberty for their evident consequences on public order.

Sigmund Freud

Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian neurologist who is most famous as the founder of psychoanalysis. He is referred to in part 3 of the book, when Rawls is looking at moral psychology. He describes Freud seeing the need for justice: “The sense of justice is a reaction-formation: what was originally jealousy and envy is transformed into a social feeling, the sense of justice that insists upon equality for all.”

David Hume

Hume (1711–1776) was an influential philosopher from the eighteenth century. Author of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740), Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and Enquiries Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Hume has been referred to by Rawls for his description of the objective and subjective circumstances of justice. He is also referred to in the context of the comparison of classical utilitarianism with Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness.

F. Y. Edgeworth

Edgeworth (1845–1926) was a philosopher and political economist who was a student of Henry Sidgwick at Cambridge and later went on to make valuable contributions to economics and statistical methods. Rawls makes critical reference to Edgeworth’s reasonable assumptions, under which he thought it “would be rational for self-interested parties to agree to the standard of utility as a political principle to assess social policies.”

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