Liberalism and Justice: An Introduction to John Rawls

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research
May 2021

Welcome to "Liberalism and Justice." I'm looking forward to reading and discussing works by and about American political philosopher John Rawls. If you're curious, you can learn more about me here.

On this page, you'll find the course schedule. Please consult the email that I've shared with you for a link to the Google Drive folder that contains .pdfs of the course readings. Feel free to acquire a paper copy of Rawls's A Theory of Justice, the work on which we'll spend the majority of our time during the course. The page numbers refer to the revised edition of the text.

Brooklyn Institute Course Description

For each week, I've included a brief description of the core ideas that we've discussed, and some readings. For the list of readings, you'll see that I've offered two options for readings from works by Rawls. The "Core" readings are the shortest in length, and dwell on some of the central ideas. I know that the readings can be challenging, and that people have different amounts of time available to complete them, so I wanted to present this option for those who are interested in focusing their efforts. I've tried to keep the "Core" readings ~60 pp. per week. For each week, you'll also find a list of "Expanded" readings, which include the core readings, and additional material from Rawls. Finally, I've provided two critical perspectives for each week's readings. These are primarily academic articles from critics of Rawls that appeared during his lifetime (though with a few exceptions).

Week 1: Justice, the Social Contract, and the Basic Liberties

We begin with a discussion of the core ideas in Rawls's A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971. (The text available in the Google Drive folder and whose page numbers I provide below, is the revised edition, published in 1989.) We shall see that Rawls aims to articulate principles of social justice by reviving a central idea from the social contract tradition in political philosophy, according to which the principles governing the basic structure of a just society are those that would be chosen in a situation that is fair. We will consider Rawls's account of the "original position," from which such principles are chosen, and see which principles he believes would emerge from it. This week, we will devote some significant attention to the first principle of justice that is to guarantee the equality of what Rawls calls the "basic liberties."


Core: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Rev. Ed.), pp. 3-19, 52-57, 86-93, 171-176, 180-186, 214-221

Expanded: Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 3-19, 52-57, 78-93, 102-144, 171-194, 214-227

Critical: Michael Sandel, "The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self," pp. 81-96
Annette Baier, "The Need for More than Justice," pp. 18-32

Week 2: Equality and the Difference Principle

This week, we'll focus on the second principle of justice, which is to govern the distribution of those goods that do not count as basic liberties. We will see that, while Rawls defends a generally egalitarian view of justice, he also thinks that certain social and economic inequalities will actually be just, namely when they improve the condition of the least well-off. At the same time, he also presents an argument for the need for fair equality of opportunity. We will consider these two aspects of the second principle, and their relation to the first principle.

Core: Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 57-58, 61-65, 67-70, 71-81, 242-251
Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, pp. 135-152, 158-162

Expanded: Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 57-81, 228-251
Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, pp. 135-152, 158-162

Critical: G. A. Cohen, "Where the Action Is: On the Site of Distributive Justice," pp. 3-32 (3-25 esp.)
Philippe van Parijs, "Why Surfers Should be Fed: The Liberal Case for an Unconditional Basic Income," pp. 101-131

Week 3: The Goodness of Justice

Our final set of readings from A Theory of Justice focus on the argument that Rawls advances in the book's final part that the society that adopts his principles is not only just, but also good, so that individuals have reason to affirm the obligations that come along with justice as parts of their own conception of the good. We will conclude our discussion by considering some broader criticisms of the view that Rawls has outlined.

Core: Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 347-350, 386-392, 397-405, 441-464, 491-506

Expanded: Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 347-350, 386-405, 441-456, 491-506

Critical: Charles Mills, "Rawls on Race/Race in Rawls," pp. 161-184
Raymond Geuss, "Liberalism and its Discontents," pp. 320-338

Week 4: Political Liberalism

In our final week, we will consider the new conception of justice that Rawls came to endorse following the publication of A Theory of Justice, most notably in his book Political Liberalism. There, Rawls argues that it is unreasonable to expect complete agreement in liberal societies on fundamental questions about what is of value in life. To address this concern, Rawls draws a distinction between moral conceptions of justice, which are rooted in a "comprehensive doctrine," a global conception of what is of value in life, and a distinctively political conception of justice. Such a political conception of justice claims not to be grounded in a single conception of what is good, but rather seeks to find distinctive justifications from among a range of different comprehensive doctrines. We will consider the distinctiveness of this later approach to understanding justice.

Core: Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," pp. 223-251
Rawls, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," pp. 765-794

Expanded: Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. xiii-xxx
Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," pp. 223-251
Rawls, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," pp. 765-807

Critical: Jürgen Habermas, "'Reasonable' versus 'True': Or the Morality of Worldviews," pp. 92-113
Susan Moller Okin, "Political Liberalism, Justice, and Gender," pp. 23-43