• Unit 4: John Rawls' Theory of Justice

    In the 1970s, John Rawls put forward what is widely considered to be the most important contemporary theory of justice. Rawls' theory is an update of the traditional social contract approach, but its starting point, rather than the natural rights of individuals, is the deceptively simple idea of fairness. Who would disagree with the proposal that a just society should be a fair one?

    As we shall see in this unit, Rawls' theory is both convincing and controversial. We will begin with Thomas Hobbes, one of the most well-known proponents of social contract theory in the history of philosophy. For Hobbes, life before the social contract, or life before government, is "nasty, brutish, and short". Hobbes makes this claim, because he finds that human nature itself tends towards selfishness and cruel treatment of others, especially without a contract with a government that keeps the peace and punishes those who break contracts.

    Rawls has a somewhat more positive view of human nature: he is an advocate of political liberalism, and his political philosophy conflicts with many popular contemporary ideas and ideologies. Therefore, we will be looking at issues of equality in society and the questions of whether certain social goods - such as income, education, and opportunity - should be redistributed in order to ensure fairness.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 9 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