Study Questions for
John Rawls, "The Law of Peoples"

Study questions composed by Dr. Jan Garrett

Copyright © by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revision: January 13, 2003
The study questions are keyed to the version of "The Law of Peoples" found at (which cuts off before the end)

and in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, eds., Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley (New York: Basic Books, 1993)

In the parentheses included with the questions, the first number refers to the page in my print-out, using Netscape, of the online version of the text; the number following the semicolon refers to the page in the Shute and Hurley anthology.

For a discussion of Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness as it applies to a single nation-state, see my web article based on his book Political Liberalism, Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice. In particular, pay attention to his notions of the original position, political conception of justice, and comprehensive views or doctrines. These ideas form part of the background of this article on the Law of Peoples.


1. What is the “further aim” of this lecture, “in particular”? What analogy does Rawls plan to use? Why does he believe it to be important? (1, second para.; 42-43)

Section I

2. If we could not extend the law of peoples to nonliberal peoples, what would conclusion would we have to draw? (2; 44)

3. How is the universality of justice in Leibniz and Locke justified? How is universality justified in “most familiar philosophical doctrines”? (2; 45)

4. How does a constructivist procedure (like Rawls’) operate? (2-3; 46) When would a constructivist liberal doctrine be universal in its reach? (3; 46)

Section II

5. What two parts of justice as fairness does Rawls distinguish? (3; 48) (They correspond roughly to the national and the international level.)

6. Is the government (as the political organization of its people) “the author of its own power”? Why does Rawls hold this view? What “rights” that have been part of the “classical states system” does Rawls say we must get rid of? (4; 49)

7. How has the understanding of international law shifted since WW II? What is essential, according to Rawls? (4; 49)

8. What “second preliminary matter” does Rawls mention? (4; 50) The approach he is leaving aside is the cosmopolitan approach advocated by semi-Rawlsians such as Darrel Moellendorf and Patrick Hayden. What “further reason” does Rawls give for proceeding as he does? (4; 50) Is this an accommodation to the status quo?

9. What (hypothetical) circumstance provides an “apt starting point” for the extension of justice as fairness to the law of peoples? (4-5) (The phrase is “suitable starting point” in Shute and Hurley.)

10. How does Rawls distinguish what he calls the law of peoples and the law of nations (aka international law)? How are the two related in his view? (5; 50-51)

Section III

11. What three elements are contained in the ideas of justice as extended to the law of peoples? (5; 51) How does justice as fairness (the political conception of justice as applied to the domestic case of a Rawlsian liberal democracy) differ from a just international situation? (5; 51)

12. What does Rawls mean by ideal theory? (5; 52)

13. Note that Rawls’ ideal theory has room for both liberal societies and what he calls well-ordered (sometimes “decent”) hierarchical societies. How does he seem to distinguish between them? (5, 3rd para after III; 52)

14. To what circumstances would non-ideal theory apply? (5-6; 52-53)

15. What does Rawls tell us about the first use of the original position? (6; 53) [This is the original position as one might be familiar with it from Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or his Political Liberalism.]

16. At the second level, the parties in the (2nd level) original position represent what? How are they situated? What interests do they bear in mind? What kind of veil of ignorance do they stand behind? (6; 53-54)

17. In what way does Rawls follow Kant’s lead in Perpetual Peace? (6-7; 54-55) What kind of organizations above the national level does Rawls envisage? (7; 55)

18. Among the principles Rawls believes will be arrived at in the second-level original position (for liberal democratic peoples), what right to peoples have in place of a "right to war"? (7, #3; 55) In what cases will #4 have to be modified? (7; 56) What limits on the right to self-determination does Rawls envisage? (7; 56)

19. Will liberal democratic societies endorse rules of mutual assistance? (7; 56)

20. How does Rawls use arguments originally developed to defend the institution of private property to explain the responsibilities of states ("the people themselves as politically organized")? (7-8; 56-57)

21. What does Rawls mean when he says that the "society of [well-ordered] democratic peoples is stable in the right way"? Note that by "society of . . . peoples" here he means, roughly, the global collection of states whose basic structure is governed by the two Rawlsian principles of justice. The question is about stability of this "society." (8; 57-58)

22. What does the historical record suggest, according to Rawls? (8; 58)

23. Does Rawls claim that established democracies do not intervene in smaller countries whose democracies are insecure? (What is the relevance of Chile, Iran, and Nicaragua here?) (8-9; 59)

Section IV

24. What is the task of the second step of ideal theory? (9; 60)

25. What are the first requirement that Rawls attributes to a well-ordered (decent) hierarchical society? (WHS or DHS) (9; 61)

26. In the second fundamental requirement, a "common good conception of justice" is important. What does this term mean? (9-10; 61)

27. What does Rawls seem to mean when he says that the political institutions of a WHS "constitute a reasonable consultation hierarchy"? In what ways does such a society fall short of a liberal democratic order? (10; 62)

28. What minimum rights are guaranteed in a WHS? (10; 62-63) [This appears to be the third fundamental requirement of a WHS; see Shute and Hurley 1993, 79.]

29. What happens to religious toleration and freedom of conscience in a WHS? (10-11; 63) [Note that Rawls says that the state religion in a WHS is "not unreasonable," even though it does not endorse treating adherents of diverse reasonable comprehensive views equally with itself. This appears to conflict with Rawls' account of the mutual toleration of reasonable comprehensive views in Political Liberalism, roughly contemporary with his "Law of Peoples."]

30. Who do the representatives represent in the "appropriate original position" that Rawls mentions now? What principles of international justice would they adopt in his view? (11; 64)

31. What difference between (1) the relationship of individuals in a WHS and (2) the relationship of societies that representatives of WH societies would endorse does Rawls note (and set aside)? (11; 65)

32. What difference between the first-level (domestic) original position and the second-level (international or "law of peoples"-generating) original position does Rawls note? Why is this important for his project? (11-12; 65)

33. In what way is Rawls' working out of the law of peoples relevantly similar to the way justice as fairness is worked out in the domestic case in A Theory of Justice? (12, end of online article; 67-68)

Section V

34. What kind of justification of human rights is Rawls trying to avoid? (68)

35. How does Rawls define basic human rights? (68)

36. How does associationism respect human rights while rejecting the principle of one-man one-vote? (69)

37. What three roles do human rights play in Rawls view? (71)

Section VI

38. What does nonideal theory ask? Look for? Presuppose? (71)

39. What is the problem that noncompliance theory tries to resolve? (72) What can law-abiding societies do at best in relationship to such regimes? (73) What is the "only legitimate ground" of the right to war against such regimes? (73)

40. What long-run aim do "well-ordered peoples" (liberal peoples and WHSes) have? How can they promote this aim? (73-74)

41. What does Rawls mean by "unfavorable conditions"? How does societies in unfavorable conditions differ from those that are the subject of noncompliance theory? (74-75)

42. What is the goal for this case? (75)

The difference principle holds that in a social structure inequalities are to be permitted only if they are to the advantage of the least advantaged sector of society. Cosmopolitans influenced by Rawls often advocate a global difference principle, which would require arrangements to continuously improve the situation of the least advantaged members of the global community, compatible with establishing and preserving the basic liberties endorsed by Rawlsian justice.

Why does Rawls reject making such a difference principle part of the law of peoples? (75-76)

43. What level of global equality does Rawls say should be reached "in due course"? (76)

44. What, according to Rawls, are the great social evils in poorer societies? (77) Does he underplay the role of wealthier societies in helping to create some of these social evils?


45. What happens whenever the scope of toleration is extended? (78)

46. For what does the law of peoples provide the basis? (79)

47. How does Rawls reply to the objection that his law of peoples is merely a Western theory? (79-80)