John Rawls’ Political Theory: How Can We Change Society?

John Rawls' view of what constitutes legitimate theoretical politics and society continues to define the discipline to this day.

Nov 8, 2022By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
john rawls political theory society
Photograph of John Rawls


Whenever people write about John Rawls, they tend to begin by emphasizing just how important or influential his work has been. One reason for this is that Rawls’ work has dominated Anglophonic political theory for over half a century, in a way which no political theorist (or indeed, any theorist who could claim values as their object of enquiry, rather than language, reality, mind and so forth).


It is important not to present an overly pessimistic picture of the discipline: not every Anglophone political theorist is a Rawlsian as such. Rather, almost every aspect of his way of conceiving of politics has influenced debates about political theory ever since, and it is difficult for even his most strident critics to ignore him. Doubtless this has much to do with his own single-minded focus on refining his political theory after his most explicit and extensive statement of it, A Theory of Justice, was published.


The Systematicity of John Rawls

pieter gaal justice
Justice by Pieter Gaal, 1802, via Rijksmuseum.


Surprisingly few people who call themselves ‘political philosophers’ or ‘political theorists’ are trying to offer a coherent alternative vision for how politics and society in general should be organized. Systematic political theorists are, at least on one account of the history of the discipline, a dying breed.


There are several reasons for this; the philosopher John Dunn suggests that no one person could have the requisite expertise to offer such a wide-ranging treatment of our social world, which would require a thorough understanding of philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, psychology, sociology and various branches of the natural sciences. How else, one might think, could one have sufficient knowledge of all the variables which constitute our social existence so that a plausible alternative could be plotted?


john dunn photograph
A photograph of John Dunn, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Instead of offering a systematic solution, one may try to see the political or social world not as a coherent whole at all, admitting perhaps that one cannot view a social world “from above”, but only from one’s own perspective. Perhaps, what we call the ‘political’ realm, or the ‘social’ realm imposes a convenient fantasy of coherence on a hodge-podge of incoherent practices.


John Rawls, unusually, does explicitly attempt to offer a broad, alternative conception of politics. It is broad because his theory offers a rationale which can be applied to various dimensions of the political, to national and international politics, to high politics and local politics, to a wide range of political institutions and established practices. Nonetheless, Rawls’ focus is squarely on institutions. He is not a theorist who conflates the social and political worlds or aims to draw out the political elements of our social world.


Idealism in Political Theory

theory of justice first edition
A first edition cover of ‘A Theory of Justice’ , via Raptis Rare Books.


One of the most pertinent features of Rawls’ theoretical approach lies in its idealism. The Western philosophical tradition begins its treatment of politics with an ideal theory, namely that which Plato sets out in The Republic. The basic elements of this approach have not substantially changed since antiquity. That is, John Rawls begins by considering the preconditions for the possibility of political change and imagining the most fertile possible ground for a new political consensus (and consensus is the operative word). For theorists like Rawls, the model for a political theory is a blueprint or some other architectural schematic.


One might recognize, even as one draws this plan up, that due to unfriendly geological features, imperfect materials or imperfect craftsmanship, this blueprint will never be recreated perfectly. That isn’t the point of a blueprint – indeed, the blueprint which is most directly realizable is not necessarily that which is most useful for the purpose of building well. A blueprint is an abstract communicative structure – it is a general way of communicating specific priorities to those who are actually building a structure. Each line, each measurement, each boundary or limit constitutes an imperative to those who will build.


The Role of Deliberation and Action

plato herm statue marble
A marble bust of Plato, via Wikimedia Commons.


This vision of the ideal theory is, in many ways, appealing. It is intuitive to distinguish some deliberative or contemplative engagement with the political from the chaotic and uncertain world of actual politics. Yet there are a number of flaws with this model, one of which centers on a central notion for Rawls’ political theory – that of consensus.


Rawls’ model for politics is one which derives the structure of political institutions from an ideal form of deliberation – one in which hypothetical deliberations are made without knowledge of the deliberators’ particular standing within the society which they choose. The notion that politics can, at least ideally, proceed from consensus first and foremost risks eliding the difference between the ideal and non-ideal spheres of politics, and ignoring the reality of non-compliance or non-coherence within a polity.


Rule Following

john michael wright hobbes portrait
John Michael Wright’s portrait of Thomas Hobbes, 1866, via the National Portrait Gallery.


It’s also far from clear that a general theory of rule following can be generated. Do people follow the rules ceteris paribus (that is, all things being equal)? Perhaps, and John Rawls certainly seems to think so. What if, given a relatively large degree of freedom, people don’t behave this way at all? What if only a limited set of things represent a sufficiently powerful common interest such that people co-operate with one another? What if the nature of these things is such that, rather than mutual co-operation, people will be most concerned with co-operating with a sovereign?


This seems implausible at first, but if the common interest concerns one’s safety or a fear of death, as Thomas Hobbes thinks, then this far more authoritarian conception of human nature and compliance begins to make some sense. The Hobbesian retort to Rawls’ approach to consensus also flags up a whole range of separate issues for ideal theory. Notably, it should be determined what role a coherent theory of human nature should play in the plausibility of an ideal theory, and the difficulty of arguing for such a theory preceding social and political conditions.


Adverse Social Conditions: How Do They Affect Political Theory?

hobbes leviathan cover
The front cover of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’


Inhospitable social conditions of other kinds can have an equally deleterious effect on political possibility. If a society just has enough resources to feed its inhabitants, you will never be able to derive the natural consequences of such uncontroversial political aims as ‘everyone should have high quality healthcare’ or ‘we should build a new hospital’. In other words, if the distance from one’s political ideals to the non-ideal world is sufficiently vast, then ideal theories of politics will cease to make much sense.


This doesn’t just apply to the poorest countries. There might be societies which do have the resources available to do things like build hospitals, but the social structure manufactures forms of scarcity and inequality that mean – no matter the total resources possessed by a society – there will always be people struggling to feed themselves, and the organizations or institutions which might otherwise drive social progress will always be focused on helping the poorest get by.


Vague Assumptions in Political Theories

marco liberi allegory truth justice innocence
Marco Liberi’s ‘Allegory of Truth, Love and Justice’ , 1660-1700, via Sotheby’s.


A further critique of idealism in political theory centers on the notion of vagueness. Specifically, the vagueness which comes with failing to specify the political assumptions – that is, on one account, one’s disposition to the non-ideal elements of politics – which clarify the upshot of a theory of politics. This isn’t a criticism of ideal theory as such, but it does suggest that ideal theories of politics don’t necessarily mean all that much without the requisite engagement with actual politics.


This critique is offered in detail by Lorna Finlayson. Rawls’s theory can be read as a ‘de-politicization’ of theory itself. It isn’t that Rawls’ theory is bad, that it is incoherent, that it is ethically misguided or abhorrent – it is just that it is ambiguous how Rawls’s values cash out in actual institutions or social practices until you input a further set of political assumptions.


john ballator contemporary justice and man
‘Contemporary Justice and Man’, by John Ballator, 1937, via the Library of Congress.


Finalyson puts the point this way, using Rawls’ first principle of justice – the defense of certain basic liberties within a constitutional framework – as an example. “Take the ‘equal basic liberties principle’. We might broadly agree with the notion—do as you like, as long as you don’t harm others or stop them doing as they like—which recurs in various forms across political difference…depending on how we understand ‘liberty’ and its conditions, we again get wildly different results.


For example, liberal philosophers have not traditionally understood freedom as something that might come into conflict with the enforcement of rights of private property. But as Rawls’s ‘analytical Marxist’ contemporary G. A. Cohen pointed out, private property does impinge on freedom, even in the narrow or ‘negative’ sense of the latter as the absence of coercive interference: try getting on a train or entering a concert without a ticket. Property, or the lack of it, determines what we are free to do and where we are free to go.”


Precision and Meaninglessness in John Rawls’s Philosophy

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The Sienese School’s ‘Allegory of Justice’, 1560, via Wikimedia Commons.


Obviously, Rawls does speak about certain specific institutional arrangements he prefers, and even if his theory remains abstract, that’s no reason why other philosophers or academics couldn’t fill in a set of political commitments while retaining Rawls’ framework. Yet Finlayson’s argument runs deeper than that. She is arguing that Rawls’ theory might purport, as it does at times, to be an argument for an egalitarian society or a redistributive society. But it makes a number of ideal commitments, none of which need to be reconciled at an abstract level of enquiry, allowing Rawls’ theory to operate as something of a shapeshifter.


Finlayson’s argument, and it is a persuasive one, suggests that Rawls’ idealism and abstractness, or its a-historicity and distance from the political conditions of the here and now, isn’t just an intellectual weakness; it belies a severe inauthenticity. “The politician who mouths the platitude that every child should be supported to fulfil their potential, for example, is in a way proposing a stark alternative to current reality…If, however, this politician has little or nothing to say about the concrete political conditions and changes that would need to be brought about… [then] what he or she is really peddling is the comforting but plainly ludicrous idea that the goal can be realized with only a tweak here and there to the system as we know it.”

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.