From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books by Rawls, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on Rawls. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or read Rawls for yourself.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by John Rawls in no particular order.
Rawls: An Introduction – Sebastiano Maffettone
Publisher description: Rawls: An Introduction is a uniquely comprehensive introduction to the work of the American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), who transformed contemporary political philosophy. In the 1950s and 1960s, political philosophy seemed to have reached a dead end characterized by a loose predominance of utilitarian theses. Rawls’s conception of liberalism placed civil liberties and social justice at its core, and his extraordinary influence has only been confirmed by the extent of the criticism he has provoked.
The book is divided into three parts which correspond to Rawls’s three major books. The first concentrates on A Theory of Justice (1971) and examines the way in which Rawls’s general vision of social justice is presented. Maffettone also includes here a discussion of some of the most important critiques of Rawls. The second part of the book highlights Political Liberalism (1993-6), with a chapter dedicated to the “passage” from Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism. Finally, the third part provides a discussion of The Law of Peoples (1999).
This work is a comprehensive examination of these three major texts by a renowned Rawls scholar and will appeal to all philosophers and social scientists for whom it is essential to understand the key theories of this most influential of political philosophers.
Rawls – Samuel Freeman
Publisher description: In this superb introduction, Samuel Freeman introduces and assesses the main topics of Rawls’ philosophy. Starting with a brief biography and charting the influences on Rawls’ early thinking, he goes on to discuss the heart of Rawls’s philosophy: his principles of justice and their practical application to society.
Subsequent chapters discuss Rawls’s theories of liberty, political and economic justice, democratic institutions, goodness as rationality, moral psychology, political liberalism, and international justice and a concluding chapter considers Rawls’ legacy.
Clearly setting out the ideas in Rawls’ masterwork, A Theory of Justice, Samuel Freeman also considers Rawls’ other key works, including Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples. An invaluable introduction to this deeply influential philosopher, Rawls is essential reading for anyone coming to his work for the first time.
The Cambridge Companion to Rawls – Samuel Freeman
Publisher description: Each volume of this series of companions to major philosophers contains specially commissioned essays by an international team of scholars and will serve as a reference work for students and nonspecialists. John Rawls is the most significant and influential philosopher and moral philosopher of the twentieth century. His work has profoundly shaped contemporary discussions of social, political and economic justice in philosophy, law, political science, economics and other social disciplines. In this exciting collection of essays, many of the world’s leading political and moral theorists discuss the full range of Rawls’s contribution to the concepts of political and economic justice, democracy, liberalism, constitutionalism, and international justice. There are also assessments of Rawls’s controversial relationships with feminism, utilitarianism and communitarianism. New readers will find this to be an accessible guide to Rawls. Advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of developments in the interpretation of Rawls.
A Theory of Justice – John Rawls
Publisher description: Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book.
Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition–justice as fairness–and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons. “Each person,” writes Rawls, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Advancing the ideas of Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Lincoln, Rawls’s theory is as powerful today as it was when first published.
Justice as Fairness – John Rawls
Publisher description: This book originated as lectures for a course on political philosophy that Rawls taught regularly at Harvard in the 1980s. In time the lectures became a restatement of his theory of justice as fairness, revised in light of his more recent papers and his treatise Political Liberalism (1993). As Rawls writes in the preface, the restatement presents “in one place an account of justice as fairness as I now see it, drawing on all [my previous] works.” He offers a broad overview of his main lines of thought and also explores specific issues never before addressed in any of his writings.
Rawls is well aware that since the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, American society has moved farther away from the idea of justice as fairness. Yet his ideas retain their power and relevance to debates in a pluralistic society about the meaning and theoretical viability of liberalism. This book demonstrates that moral clarity can be achieved even when a collective commitment to justice is uncertain.
Political Liberalism – John Rawls
Publisher description: This book continues and revises the ideas of justice as fairness that John Rawls presented in A Theory of Justice but changes its philosophical interpretation in a fundamental way. That previous work assumed what Rawls calls a “well-ordered society,” one that is stable and relatively homogenous in its basic moral beliefs and in which there is broad agreement about what constitutes the good life. Yet in modern democratic society a plurality of incompatible and irreconcilable doctrines―religious, philosophical, and moral―coexist within the framework of democratic institutions. Recognizing this as a permanent condition of democracy, Rawls asks how a stable and just society of free and equal citizens can live in concord when divided by reasonable but incompatible doctrines?
This edition includes the essay “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” which outlines Rawls’ plans to revise Political Liberalism, which were cut short by his death.
The Law of Peoples – John Rawls
Publisher description: This book consists of two parts: the essay “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” first published in 1997, and “The Law of Peoples,” a major reworking of a much shorter article by the same name published in 1993. Taken together, they are the culmination of more than fifty years of reflection on liberalism and on some of the most pressing problems of our times by John Rawls.
“The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” explains why the constraints of public reason, a concept first discussed in Political Liberalism (1993), are ones that holders of both religious and non-religious comprehensive views can reasonably endorse. It is Rawls’s most detailed account of how a modern constitutional democracy, based on a liberal political conception, could and would be viewed as legitimate by reasonable citizens who on religious, philosophical, or moral grounds do not themselves accept a liberal comprehensive doctrine–such as that of Kant, or Mill, or Rawls’s own “Justice as Fairness,” presented in A Theory of Justice (1971)….
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Philosophy of John Rawls – PHIL 521 | University of Virginia
- The Philosophy of John Rawls – PHIL 535 | University of Louisville
- Rawls and His Critics – Philosophy 400 | The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on John Rawls
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on John Rawls
- Introductions to John Rawls?
- I want to start reading A Theory of Justice by Rawls. Is there any book or article I should read beforehand to prepare me for it?
- Which Rawls text?
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on the History of Philosophy
- The Best Introductory Books on Political Philosophy
- The Best Philosophy Books on Justice
Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.
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