Kant and Rawls: Contrasting Conceptions of Moral Theory

  • Joseph M. Grcic


In his A Theory of Justice1 (henceforth: TJ), John Rawls claims his two principles of justice are an interpretation of Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative and that the Original Position is a procedural interpretation of Kantian autonomy. The thesis of this essay is that Rawls’ theory is Kantian only in its articulation or formulation, not in its foundation or justification. It will be argued that Rawls’ two principles are a plausible construal of Kant’s categorical imperative, but that Rawls’ foundation is really a synthesis of Kantian and Utilitarian principles. Let us briefly consider Kant’s theory.


Original Position Moral Theory Moral Rule Moral Worth Reflective Equilibrium 
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  1. 1.
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (New York: Bobbs-Merril (1959).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For Rawls’ earlier conception of moral theory, see his ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure in Ethics’, Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 177–97;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. for a comparative study of Rawls’ changing methodology see C. F. Delaney, ‘Rawls on Method’, in New Essays on Contract Theory, ed. K. Nielson and R. Shiner (Guelph: Canadian Association for Publishing in Philosophy, 1977).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Additional studies on the questions of Rawls’ method can be found in Norman Daniels (ed.), Reading Rawls (New York: Basic Books, 1975),Google Scholar
  6. especially by David Lyons and Ronald Dworkin; and Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    For a discussion of the nature of these social structures, see Joseph Grcic ‘Rawls and Socialism’, Philosophy and Social Criticism (Winter 1980).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    John Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, Journal of Philosophy (September 1980): 518.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    For illuminating analysis of Rawls’ use of ‘rationality’, see Edward Walter, ‘Personal Consent and Moral Obligation’, Journal of Value Inquiry 15 (1981): 19–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • Joseph M. Grcic

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