Political Liberalism by John Rawls – Book Review ( Summary )

Abstract: This book was written by John Rawls, which was published in 1993 (subsequently, in 2005, an expanded edition of this book, named “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”,  came out). This book is considered to be an update of his “A Theory of Justice”, published in 1971, where Rawls revised and continued his ideas of ‘justice as fairness’, by instilling certain changes in its philosophical interpretation by adopting a fundamental manner. In other words, he wrote this book to make up for the limitations that he identified in his “A Theory of Justice”, and also as a response to some critics. Basically, in this book, Rawls offered certain new points while elaborating the political conception of justice. The main objective of political liberalism is to resolve how a pluralistic society (comprising of opposing universal doctrines) can manage to be stable.

Introduction: In this book, Rawls tried to uphold that his theory of justice cannot be labelled as ‘comprehensive conception of the good’. Instead of that, it is better suited with the liberal notion of the role that is played by justice – the government has to be impartial and take a neutral stand when there rise differing conceptions of good. In his former book, he talked about a well-ordered society, which can be characterized as ‘homogeneous’. However, in today’s modern democratic society the existence of conflicting doctrines within the structure of democratic institutions is almost inevitable. Rawls put forward the question of how a society consisting of free and fair individuals manages to live in harmony in spite of the existence of incompatible, though reasonable, doctrines.

His 2 principles of justice, Rawls highlights, establish a theory of the right’ (instead of ‘the theory of the good’) which Is likely to receive support from every reasonable person including in the situation of reasonable pluralism. He presents the concept of ‘overlapping consensus’ in this respect. He also offers his idea of public reason.

What does Political Liberalism book say?

In this book, Rawls distinguished between ‘moral’ and ‘political’. His concept was ‘political liberalism. The people are likely to have different perspectives on the idea of ‘good’ and in the political sphere, there cannot exist any common conception of ‘good’. In modern democratic societies, there is a coexistence of many conflicting, comprehensive doctrines.

According to Rawls, the objective of Political Liberalism is the management of the pluralistic coexistence of all the comprehensive doctrines. The establishment of justice in a political sense is sought. In this context, the concept of ‘overlapping consensus’ is mentioned. Thus, at the base of political liberalism, there lies the political idea of justice as fairness. The political conception of justice as fairness confirms pluralism and freedom of choice regarding one’s own idea of good. Rawls was curious about “How is it possible that there is a well-ordered and stable society that makes pluralism of different opposing comprehensive doctrines?”.

While analyzing this issue, Rawls states that every citizen is considered to be free based on 2 moral powers: ‘sense of justice’ and ‘specific conception of the good’. Regarding the first moral power, Rawls had in mind the political conception of justice as fairness based on which citizens can identify society as a setup for social cooperation among all the citizens with differing ideas on what is ‘good’. The most essential virtue of an individual and the conception of justice has to be the idea of ‘reasonable’, as asserted by free citizens.

Reasonable versus Rational

‘Reasonable’ typically means an impartial system of social cooperation between equal and free individuals who were also required to follow all the rules of interrelationships according to the political concept of justice. ‘Rational’, on the other hand, have to do with citizens as autonomous beings. Rational covers private spheres of life, and reasonable highlights the public and political spheres of life.

Public domain has to be necessarily free from impacts of comprehensive doctrines- it has to be a home for numerous comprehensive doctrines without anyone such doctrine being superior to others. A fair system of cooperation, which refers to the congruence between Rational and Reasonable, should be prevailing. Comprehensive doctrines has to be reasonable and inclusive of the principle of pluralism and fair cooperation. Overlapping consensus plays a very significant role in preventing any kind of conflict between the comprehensive doctrines.

Overlapping Consensus

This is a very significant conception, which was developed by Rawls in Political Liberalism. This typically refers to the way in which the believers or supporters of various comprehensive doctrines arrive at a consensus over a particular principle of justice that ratifies a political community’s main institutions of society. According to Rawls, an overlapping consensus on certain principles of justice can be arrived at, even if there exists ‘considerable differences in citizens’ conceptions of justice provided that these conceptions lead to similar political judgments”. This overlapping consensus can be arrived at by avoiding any political or public disagreement on fundamental issues concerning religion and philosophy. Rawls highlights that the presence of an overlapping consensus on ideas of justice between various groups having different (but reasonable) comprehensive doctrines is quite a characteristic feature of Political Liberalism. He says that overlapping consensus on principles of justice can be labelled as a moral conception which is backed up by moral reasoning. However, one should know that since the support comes from people who hold differing comprehensive doctrines which is why the fundamental basis of the support may differ.

Overlapping consensus reflects the political concept of justice which can be applicable to everyone which is why it cannot be called a comprehensive doctrine. One can see that while overlapping consensus is known to be value neutral, it recognizes different values, providing that every fair rule that is based on the concept of justice must be obeyed.

The establishment of social stability and a well-ordered society is not connected to pure compromise (or as Rawls calls it : Modus Vivendi) among different comprehensive doctrines. Modus Vivendi (meaning ‘way of life’) is distinct from overlapping consensus. It covers more than that. From modus vivendi, overlapping consensus can be attained; however, overlapping consensus should be able to make a society stable, even if any external change occurs.

Rawls, in his Theory of Justice, gave recognition to comprehensive doctrines by accepting 2 principles of justice. However, in Political Liberalism, Rawls rejected this view and gives recognition to the political conception of justice which is inclusive of pluralism of different (but reasonable) comprehensive doctrines.

Political Liberalism which upholds a political conception of justice that is guaranteed by the overlapping consensus, has an essential element of ‘public reason’.

Public Reason

Public reason is considered to be very significant for political liberalism, as this gives certain guidelines and rules and through these, the evaluation criteria of the principles of justice are observed and analyzed. Public Reason throws light on the free citizens who all can freely and publicly debate along the lines set by the political conception of justice. The guarantee of constitutional principles is offered by public reason, which provides legitimacy to a social order which involves civil and political rights.

Public reason has to make sure that it does not neglect comprehensive doctrines but rejects all those doctrines that cannot go with a democratic society. The concept of public reason can be considered to be complementary to those of political liberalism and overlapping consensus.

Rawls ensures a clear-cut distinction between ‘political liberalism’ and ‘comprehensive liberalism’ which is linked with classical liberals like Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill. They and other classical liberals dealt with the ideas of autonomy and tolerance. These 2 are considered to be social values of the highest standard that are suggested to be adopted by all the citizens. Rawls, on the contrary, acknowledges the existence of people or groups who do not have any desire to be autonomous. They are at peace with the moral, religious or philosophical doctrines as endowed upon them by the good. They do not intend to question or reject it.

Rawls says that political liberalism has its base on equal freedoms and rights that are given to every citizen. He argues that freedom cannot be linked to autonomy as this would lead to the rejection of some citizens’ or groups’ rights to not accept autonomy related to their individual identities. Basically, Rawls had rejected the social conception of good which propagated that every individual should be liberal.

The reduced political liberalism answers the criticisms offered by the communitarians – that liberal autonomy is detrimental to the unity and values of a group within the circumference of society. Rawls retorted by stating that many groups and individuals do not have any respect for autonomy.

Communitarians also criticized Rawls by saying that the well-ordered society mentioned by Rawls in Theory of Justice is not historical and is out of context. In Political Liberalism, Rawls retorted by highlighting that the principles of justice were developed from the political culture that was present in societies that were democratic in nature.

Rawls’s idea of a well-ordered society that is based on political liberalism, discarded the concept of political community

Political Liberalism is now is nearing classical republicanism.


Rawls had in mind a democratic society characterized by a stable constitutional regime which can get legitimacy by means of the political principle of justice and whatever accompanies it, while he was writing this book. The elements of justice should be accepted in order to surpass the problem of differing comprehensive doctrines. The elements of justice receive stimuli as a result of the presence of overlapping consensus and use of public reason. The confidence regarding the existence of pluralism of reasonable comprehensive doctrines among which none can overpower the rest, is established.

Also Read: Legal Pluralism





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I am a student pursuing Masters in Political Science from the University of Calcutta and I graduated from the same university (Scottish Church College). I have participated and won various creative writing contests, held online. I have also worked as a journalist in an E newspaper. My works have been published in various anthologies available on Flipkart and Amazon. I am an aspiring writer.