The Moral Libertarian Horizon Wiki

Rawls in 1971. From Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons.

John Rawls (1921-2002) was a 20th century liberal political theorist, who provided several important contributions to liberal theory and philosophy.

His most famous contribution was his theory of 'justice as fairness'. Rawls fundamentally believed that people did not deserve to be born into a particular socio-economic class, race, gender, or other social group. Therefore, he believed that nobody should receive special favor because of these circumstances, and that everyone should have both guaranteed basic liberties and equal opportunity in life. Taking this further, Rawls believed that all social goods should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution is to everybody's advantage. There should also be a particular focus on improving conditions for the most disadvantaged.

Rawls is perhaps most well known for his thought experiment of the 'original position', also known as the 'veil of ignorance'. Thinking about things behind a 'veil of ignorance', where one does not know their social circumstances like wealth, race or gender, one logically would have to choose to maximize equality, because otherwise one would be at risk of harming their own life. Hence, thinking from this point of view, rational individuals would logically uphold civil rights, equal opportunity, and a safety net enough for a good quality of life for everyone. Rawls believed that, under the original position, people would logically support his principles in 'justice as fairness'.

Rawls also developed a 'liberal principle of legitimacy', to account for how one universal set of laws can be broadly agreed to be legitimate and hence acceptable, in a society where people hold diverse and conflicting views. Rawls argued that the exercise of political power needs to be in accordance with what all reasonable citizens would find acceptable. Also, those under the rule of the law must believe their fellow citizens can also accept the laws, and that all under the rule of the law must be able to agree to this arrangement freely, rather than under coercion or manipulation. Rawls believed this could be achieved only if laws were made according to 'public reason', i.e. reason that can be accepted by all reasonable citizens, as opposed to, for example, religious doctrines that are only accepted by its followers.

A Theory of Justice

In a related point, Rawls also articulated his idea of what 'reasonable citizens' are like. A reasonable citizen would want to cooperate with their fellow citizens on mutually acceptable terms. They each hold their own moral and religious views, but would not want to impose these views on others, because they understand that these are difficult questions in which people of good will can and will disagree.

Important Points for Moral Libertarians

  • The core Moral Libertarian principles are logically able to be derived from the Veil Of Ignorance position.
  • The Moral Libertarian principles also provide a sound basis for government under the 'liberal principle of legitimacy'.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy