I just listened to a lecture on ethics and justice, and John Rawls' "a theory of justice" was presented as the most significant work of political philosophy in recent times. The lecturer then went on to explain his two principles of liberty and equality.

The two struck me as blatant capitalism apologetics, with no real philosophical depth to them, more like a formal version of the so called "compassionate conservatism" that some republicans claim to espouse than any truly insightful philosophical principle.

Ayn Rand basically says the rich should be free to get as rich as they want to, while Rawls says the rich should be free to get as rich as they want to, as long as the poor get to pick up of a few crumbs here and there. His theory of justice seemed like it was just "Objectivism Light".

What am I missing in Rawls's theory of justice and why is he taken more seriously as a political philosopher by academics than Rand?

  • 3
    You need to cite the principles you are referring to. The argument from the "Veil of Ignorance" and the intense criticism of widening income disparities that is its natural corollary, is hardly consistent with "capitalism apologetics". Your oblique reference, obviously at odds with the writer's reputation, does not allow the question to be answered directly.
    – user9166
    Jan 9, 2016 at 4:22
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    @SwamiVishwananda I'm not saying anyone should. I'm saying the way Rawls's principles were presented in the lecture, they seemed to me just as simplistic as Rand's ideas. Jan 9, 2016 at 17:36
  • 3
    Rawls told certain people (like lefty academic philosophers) stuff along the lines of what they already believed, while Rand disagreed and criticized. FYI Rawls is a lefty anti-capitalist who was apologizing for collectivism, he's in a totally different camp than Rand (who wrote strong criticism of Rawls in her book philosophy who needs it).
    – curi
    Jun 11, 2016 at 10:47
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    "lecture on ethics and justice" - there is no way such a lecture won't be full of outright propaganda for the political/ideological side the lecturer belongs to. It's almost like countries calling themselves "people's democratic republics", you can tell from their name what they really are. While in your case the lecturer defends "blatant capitalism apologetics", most examples I've seen or heard about, using the same title, are blatant communism apologetics. Why can't such lectures be about merely presenting the theories instead of engaging in partisanship?
    – vsz
    Aug 19, 2020 at 5:45
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    @AlexanderSKing : Actually, I like honest debates/examinations even about positions I strongly disagree with. And if your example is really like this, than it's a rare gem. I've seen and heard about too many liberal arts college professors who thought their classes were solely for their personal propaganda, and graded students based on how much they agreed with them.
    – vsz
    Aug 19, 2020 at 13:21

4 Answers 4


First, I have read only secondary works on Rawls and have not read "Theory of Justice" itself, but it is on my list. Unlike Rand, Rawls was an analytic philosopher with a distinguished background, and was among the first to propose ways in which the Anglo-American tradition could revisit "value" questions such as justice, which had long been proscribed by the logicians and specialists.

The book is supposed to be quite rich in itself, full of philosophical excursions, not just a simple plan. His main target is utilitarianism, and I would agree there are many reasons to find utilitarianism unsatisfactory. He attempts to recover something of Kant, without the idealism.

I'm not sure, but I would not call him necessarily capitalist or "objectivist light." His "veil of ignorance" is, I feel, an excellent way to update elements of the Kantian categorical imperative and the "state of nature." His "difference principle" allows for social inequality and hierarchy, only to the extent that it can be shown to benefit the least empowered stratum of society, as in the training of doctors, for example.

So while it is pragmatic, it is fundamentally egalitarian, closer to Habbermas than Rand. The work is complex enough that it might to read and applied in different ways. The Marxist Koji Karatani claims that Rawls did move closer to socialism in his later years and in the introduction to later editions.

I have only read a bit of Rand and secondary texts, so can offer only an "opinion," as some committed Objectivists have hotly reminded me on this site. But as far as I know, Rand did not really engage with other philosophers in any professional capacity. I don't think there is any Rand commentary on Wittgenstein, Frege, Fichte, possibly not even on Kant. It is unclear how much philosophy she read, and I have no idea of she read beloved classics in the original or in translations only.

This is one reason why she is "not taken seriously." Among professionals Nozick was most sympathetic to her and even he didn't find her credible as a philosopher. Certainly, it does not help her case that she wrote capitalist bodice-rippers, purveyed "elitism for the masses," made a habit of rather vile "provocative" remarks in the limelight, and cast a such wide spell over impressionable American minds as the anti-liberal "contrarian" and Nietzschean she-devil of the Chamber of Commerce. But I digress...

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    "even he did find her credible as a philosopher." You mean "didn't find her credible"? Jan 9, 2016 at 17:40

You ask "What am I missing in Rawls's theory of justice?" after having said that "Rawls says the rich should be free to get as rich as they want to, as long as the poor get to pick up of a few crumbs here and there."

What you are missing is that this is not true at all for Rawls.

It's quite simple; you seem to be misunderstanding the second principle of justice, also known as the Difference Principle. It says roughly that inequalities are to be arranged so that they maximize the position of the least well off, subject to the provisions of the first principle. One must look at all feasible ways of doing this and choose the best one. People are not allowed to get rich just because letting them do so improves the situation of the least well off; that improvement must be the best possible of all improvements.

So, for example, as long as progressive taxation with a very strong safety net does not violate the provisions of the first principle (which pretty clearly it does not) it would produce a situation where the least well off are better than the situation you describe, so the situation you describe would be disallowed.

I wrote this up because I could not see any longer answer which directly addressed what you appeared to be missing, based on what claims you actually attributed to Rawls.

  • Did you mean people ARE allowed to get rich?
    – Gordon
    Oct 12, 2017 at 0:38
  • @Gordon: oops no, but I meant "people are not allowed to get rich JUST BECAUSE". I hope that is clearer now. Thanks. Oct 12, 2017 at 23:34
  • good answer, which should be accepted imho. if we call rawls a capitalist apologetic, or something a little more progressive, is just going to be opinion
    – user28660
    Oct 13, 2017 at 2:13

Two points:

  • First, Rawls's view is very different than Rand's. Rawls thinks that inequalities are only tolerable as they lead to the best result for the least advantaged.

On Rand's view there's no reason to think of inequality as bad in any way--whether inequality is to the benefit or detriment of the least advantages is utterly immaterial.

  • Second, Rawls's view are take more seriously than Rand's because Rawls was actually a competent philosopher, unlike Rand.

Rawls has a reasonably good argument for his position. He is saying: "Look, let's just assume that everybody is a self-interested individual who wants to get as many goods and liberties for himself as he can; even granting that assumption, I can still show you that it's is rational to believe in equality before the law, a social welfare system, progressive taxation, bans against various kinds of discrimination, and so on." The argument from behind the veil of ignorance is a clever way of trying to justify center-left political policy starting from a kind of center-right conception of individualism. (This is not to say that I agree with Rawls.)

By contrast, Rand is a joke. There is a list of response to Rand available in the comments on Brian Leiter's post here.


Objectivism Lite

Rand differs from Rawls' Theory of Justice in a very fundamental way on this. In fact I would argue so different as to be opposed. Rawls is essentially presenting a justification for wealth redistribution for the purpose of achieving "greater equality" and using an ethical argument to get there, while Rand presented arguments opposed to welfare statism. Her viewpoint was that ensuring individual rights were protect was the only way to achieve equality. She wrote in "Virtue of Selfishness" that "In a fully free society, taxation—or, to be exact, payment for governmental services—would be voluntary." Doesn't sound much like Rawls does it?

The stark divergence comes in their opposing fundamental principles. Either you believe in private property (based on self-ownership) or you don't. Either you believe theft is wrong or you don't. Either you believe the government is exempt from ethical wrongdoing (like theft) or you don't. Rawls' viewpoint was that sufficient human suffering (via poverty, income inequality or some vague natural level of social injustice) justifies theft, and Rand had the opposite viewpoint... that no amount of human suffering could make any theft justifiable. She wrote in Sept. 1969 of "The Objectivist", "suffering is not a claim check, and its relief is not the goal of existence."

Why is Rawls taken more seriously?

This is a harder question to answer, but I would offer a few reasons that I think are certainly true... there are other great reasons as well. I think it boils down to understanding cultural ebb and flow of the time and how power centers gravitate toward views that confirm their behavior. The first being that political elites like being told they can do unethical things (in this case theft, in some cases, drone strikes on American Citizens or using the IRS to target "enemies of the state", or conducting mass surveillance for "national security"). The second is that when they can market their unethical actions as "promoting equality" it feeds their narcissism and enables them to feel good about their unethical actions. Equality isn't something a lot of people argue against.

It makes political elites feel good about themselves.

Since Rand's viewpoint is entirely opposed to the ruling political elite who pride themselves on how much they can expand their budgets every year, what committees, programs, and special interests they can fund... which lobbyists they can pay off. They don't like being told that they are morally wrong for stealing from their citizens (politicians tend to be a tender, vengeful, bunch... and generally awful disingenuous people). So you have an environment across the country (federal, state, and private interests) where vast numbers of people are trying to co-opt government power centers to force agendas through the political system (they don't want to limit the power, they want to harness it), and you have megalomaniacs in power who love wielding it. When someone is saying "don't steal" is it any wonder they are completely ignored?

In order to redistribute wealth they know they first need to confiscate it (steal it), and they are more than thrilled that Rawls gave them yet another moral justification to do so. Things that political power brokers tend to like seem to be encouraged throughout history, regardless of how bad they are for the citizenry. An example would be Just War Theory, which basically boils down to "if we say so for any reason whatsoever." I'm reminded of Wesley Clark, in his now famous confession demonstrating exactly how Just War Theory works in practice after 9/11. Other examples that could be argued which fall into the category of "pro-government blank-check theories" are things like "independent" (yet appointed) Central Bankers which support "the regime" that appointed them via monetary policy. The entire body of Keynesian Economic theory (and what it has evolved into) of deficit spending and stimulus (which of course is working out great for us now...). Turns out politicians like being told they can just print infinite money, who would have thought?


Historically and culturally, a suffocating egalitarian shrink wrapping has been encircling the United States throughout the 20th century, and found anxious supporters in media and on college campuses hungry to champion causes and correct injustices (It's no different today). As political Marxism died out in the U.S.S.R., Cultural Marxism flourished in the United States through the sexual revolution, feminism, the founding of the NAACP, and the passing of Civil Rights (all of these things Rand was opposed to, but that is beside the point).

The culture of "promoting equality" in the United States steadily shifted away from a 19th century emphasis on equality through asserting and defending individual rights / individual liberty, to the 20th century of ensuring equality of outcomes (New Deal, Great Society, Federal Reserve mission of price stability) regardless of the circumstances that contribute to those outcomes (some being deserved, others not). It's known that Marx was influential on Rawls because he lectured extensively on Marx, but not on his economics. Rawls lectured on Marx's philosophical anthropology. His lectures generally took a full two weeks out of twelve, on Marx. By the time Rawls published in 1971 an explosion of interest in Marx's writings was underway, and Rawls was popularized because he is an ideological descendant (heavily influenced by) Marx. He wrote on achieving greater social justice, which folded in nicely with the cultural and academic trends preceding the 1970s. So, sad truth is Rawls was paid more attention because it was trendy, and most viewed notions of equality being achieved by individualism as "outdated."

Also, last quick note. Here is a good podcast on John Rawl's by Columbia PhD Historian Tom Woods.

  • 1
    Actually, I'll give that an up vote. Though I myself tend towards non doctrinaire, Kantian Marxism, this is a good enough, if rather opinionated articulation from the Randian viewpoint. I only object to your idea that Rand is dismissed only because she isn't "trendy" and the "elites" conspire against freedom. Rand was not a professional philosopher, as far as I know. Nothing wrong with that per se. Unless you are assessing her "as a philosopher." What I mean is someone who can read Aristotle in the Greek, lecture on Wittgenstein, Frege, Husserl, Carnap, etc. She was a popular writer. Jan 9, 2016 at 17:05
  • That isn't the "only" reason I listed, and it's a fact that in the 70's there was a resurgence of study on Marx. People that provided commentary on trending topics get paid attention (that's how academic circle-jerks work, its the basis of why Twitter is a success). If you want a broader reply on why Rand is dismissed by academics, I encourage you to read the question on that topic. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/1668/…
    – Lucretius
    Jan 9, 2016 at 17:56

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