• Unit 4: John Rawls' Theory of Justice

    In the 1970s, John Rawls (1921–2002), the American moral and political philosopher, proposed what many consider to be the most important contemporary theory of justice. He updates the traditional social contract approach, but begins with the deceptively simple idea of fairness, rather than the natural rights of individuals. Who can disagree with the proposal that a just society should be fair?

    Rawls' theory is convincing and controversial. Thomas Hobbes, one of the most well-known proponents of social contract theory, believed that life before government and the social contract is "nasty, brutish and short" because human nature itself is selfish and cruel, especially when society lacks a government contract to maintain peace and punish those who break the contract.

    Rawls has a more positive view of human nature: he advocates political liberalism, and his political philosophy conflicts with several popular contemporary ideas and ideologies. He examines issues of equality in society and proposes redistributing certain social goods – such as income, education, and opportunity – to ensure fairness.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 10 hours.

    • 4.1: Social Contract Theory in Historical Focus: Thomas Hobbes

    • 4.2: Social Contract Theory without the Contract: John Rawls

    • 4.3: The Question of Distributive Justice

    • Unit 4 Discussion

    • Unit 4 Assessment