The politics of John Rawls
This is a political summary of the defects of John Rawls' contractarian liberalism. Rawls
Theory of Justice
(1971) is the most influential normative work of political philosophy of the last two
generations. In 1993 it was followed by a broader work on
Rawls later work
claims that his concerns are not metaphysical, but political: a stable and workable society in the
western liberal tradition. In reality, all his work is a justification of liberal societies against others.
Worse, it is a justification of the inequality and injustice in those societies, and a model for a
Rawls died on 24 November 2002. Last update 11 January 2003.
Objections to the Theory of Justice
The form of social contract described by John Rawls in
A Theory of Justice
can be called the
'fictive assembly' type. In another 1970's version, by Bruce Ackerman, the assembly is more explicit -
the inhabitants of a planet draw up a social contract on a spaceship (
Social justice in the Liberal
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980). In both cases, the social contract is the contract
which would be confirmed by the entire population, under ideal conditions, after perfect and
All contractarian theory rests on the principle of "as if", the contract is never real. Each
contractarian theorist has a different "as if", and a different claimed contract. Rawls does not use the
word 'assembly', but it is implicit in his model. Natural persons are removed from their real physical
existence, and converted into rational beings who can debate, discuss, agree and contract. (Rawls
ultimately choose heads of households as the 'persons', a choice criticised by feminists). The non-
physical beings agree a social contract - for Rawls that is essentially his minimum principles of
justice. Then they 'go back to earth', become real persons, and live in a society where these principles
apply. Rawls' innovation in the fictive assembly model is that the participants don't know who they
will be, when they come back to earth. They might be a powerful emperor, they might be a slave, so
the debate should take account of both possibilities. This is the 'veil of ignorance', which apparently
no contractarian had thought of before. Rawls assumes it will improve his model.
This whole approach is flawed, even if you accept the idea of a fictive social contract, entered
into by fictive rational agents. To be exact, it includes morally arbitrary choices, which are concealed
by Rawls style.
First, there is only one assembly. Why only one?
There is only one social contract. Why not different (multiple) versions?
There is an assumption of non-migration: if there were multiple social contracts, then some
people could live under different versions, in the course of their lives. If there were multiple
contracts and migration, then the migration can be voluntary. This introduces the element of real-
life voluntarism into contractarianism. Rawls simply prohibits voluntarism - by means of the specific