John Rawls was a prominent philosopher of the 20th century who is best known for his work on political philosophy. One of his most significant contributions to the field is the development of a social contract theory that is widely regarded as one of the most influential in contemporary political thought. But is Rawls a social contract theorist in the traditional sense?

What is Social Contract Theory?

Social contract theory is a cornerstone of Western political thought that posits that individuals voluntarily agree to give up some of their freedoms in exchange for protection and security provided by the state. This agreement forms a social contract between citizens and their government, which sets out the terms of their relationship.

Rawls’ Social Contract Theory

Rawls’ social contract theory, as described in his seminal work “A Theory of Justice,” emphasizes principles such as fairness, justice, and equality. Rawls argues that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests and goals as long as they do not infringe on others’ rights or interests.

Rawls proposes two principles of justice:

These principles form the basis for his theory of justice, which he calls “justice as fairness.”

Is Rawls a Traditional Social Contract Theorist?

While Rawls’ theory shares some similarities with traditional social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, it differs in several significant ways. For one thing, Rawls does not believe that individuals enter into a social contract voluntarily. Instead, he argues that the principles he outlines would be agreed upon by rational people if they were negotiating from an original position behind what he calls a “veil of ignorance.”

Rawls’ theory also emphasizes the importance of equality and fairness, which are not always central to traditional social contract theory. Rawls believes that inequalities in society should be designed to benefit everyone, particularly those who are least advantaged. This is a departure from the traditional social contract idea that individuals willingly give up some of their freedoms to gain protection from the state.


In conclusion, while Rawls’ theory shares some similarities with traditional social contract theory, it differs significantly in its emphasis on justice, fairness, and equality. Rawls argues that individuals would agree to his principles if they were negotiating from behind a veil of ignorance, which is different from the voluntary agreement posited by traditional social contract theorists. Overall, Rawls’ social contract theory represents an important contribution to contemporary political thought and continues to influence political philosophy today.