In this essay Christopher Wolfe presents the thought of John Rawls, one of the most influential American political philosophers of the twentieth century. Although Rawls himself proposed a philosophy that, as Wolfe argues, is a “minimalist” natural law theory, Rawls rejected the natural law tradition. Rawls alleged that natural law and similar theories proposed a controversial, “comprehensive view” of the human person that would lead political regimes to enforce an inhuman uniformity of behavior on society, or that would give rise to civil conflict in the face of other comprehensive views. However, Rawls’s primary concern was to steer political theory away from the utilitarianism that had predominated before him in favor of an approach similar to that of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Rawls first proposed a new theory of “justice as fairness” on which to base democratic society. He claimed that this basic notion of justice was acceptable to all people, preserved the freedom of citizens to pursue the life of their choosing, gave equal rights and opportunities to everyone, promoted social cooperation, and created a society that was most beneficial to the poor and weak compared to all other possible societies. He at first claimed that it was “purely political” and therefore did not entail a comprehensive notion of the good; though in the later part of his career he acknowledged that the theory was comprehensive enough that it could not be applied to a truly pluralistic society in all its aspects. However, Rawls continued to argue that all groups in society must defend their proposals for social order by appealing only to “public reason,” that is, moral claims that are “purely political.” Prof. Wolfe’s essay also presents objections that many have raised against Rawls’s ideas, including his characterization of natural law and similar views that he calls “comprehensive.”