Justice as Fairness: A Restatement

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement


This book originated as lectures for a course on political philosophy that Rawls taught regularly at Harvard in the 1980s. In time the lectures became a restatement of his theory of justice as fairness, revised in light of his more recent papers and his treatise Political Liberalism (1993). As Rawls writes in the preface, the restatement presents "in one place an account of justice as fairness as I now see it, drawing on all [my previous] works." He offers a broad overview of his main lines of thought and also explores specific issues never before addressed in any of his writings.

Rawls is well aware that since the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, American society has moved farther away from the idea of justice as fairness. Yet his ideas retain their power and relevance to debates in a pluralistic society about the meaning and theoretical viability of liberalism. This book demonstrates that moral clarity can be achieved even when a collective commitment to justice is uncertain.


In A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls proposed a conception of justice that he called “justice as fairness.” According to justice as fairness, the most reasonable principles of justice are those that would be the object of mutual agreement by persons under fair conditions. Justice as fairness thus develops a theory of justice from the idea of a social contract. The principles it articulates affirm a broadly liberal conception of basic rights and liberties, and only permit inequalities in wealth and income that would be to the advantage of the least well off.

In “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical” (1985), Rawls began to develop the idea that an account of justice with liberal content is best understood as a political conception. A political conception of justice is justified by reference to political values and should not be presented as part of a more “comprehensive” moral, religious, or philosophical doctrine. This idea is central to Political Liberalism (1993). Under the political and social conditions of free institutions, we encounter a plurality of distinct and incompatible doctrines, many of which are not unreasonable. Political liberalism acknowledges and responds to this “fact of reasonable pluralism” by showing how a political conception can fit into various and even conflicting comprehensive doctrines: it is a possible object of an overlapping consensus between them.

1. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971; rev. ed., 1999).

2. “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14
(Summer 1985): 223–252.

3. Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

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