John Rawls (February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002) was a philosopher, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University and author of A Theory of Justice (1971), Political Liberalism , and The Law of Peoples .
John Borden (Bordley) Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the second of five sons to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump. Rawls only attended school in Baltimore for a short time before transferring to a renowned Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut called Kent. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls went on to Princeton University where he became interested in philosophy. In 1943, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and joined the Army. During this time (World War II), Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific where he toured New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan and witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After this experience, Rawls turned down the offer of becoming an officer and left the army as a private in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in moral philosophy. Rawls then married Margaret Fox, a Brown graduate, in 1949. Margaret and John had a shared interest in indexing - they spent their first holiday together writing the index for a book on Nietzsche, and Rawls wrote the index for A Theory of Justice himself. After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950, Rawls decided to teach there until 1952 when he received a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford University (Christ Church), where he was influenced by the liberal political theorist and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Next, he returned to the United States, serving first as an assistant and then associate professor at Cornell University. In 1962, he became a full professor of philosophy at Cornell, and soon achieved a tenured position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1964 he moved to Harvard University, where he remained for almost forty years. Rawls suffered the first of several strokes in 1995, which severely impeded his ability to continue working. Nonetheless, he was still able to complete a work entitled The Law of Peoples, which contains the most complete statement of his views on international justice.
Rawls's Contribution to Political and Moral Philosophy
Rawls is noted for his contributions to liberal political philosophy. Among the ideas from Rawls's work that have received wide attention are:
Many academic philosophers believe that Rawls has made an important and lasting contribution to political philosophy. Others find Rawls's work unpersuasive and disengaged from political praxis. There is general agreement, however, that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 led to a revival in the academic study of political philosophy. Rawls's work has crossed disciplinary lines, receiving serious attention from economists, legal scholars, political scientists, sociologists, and theologians. Rawls has the unique distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States.
A Theory of Justice
See A Theory of Justice.
Rawls's later work focused on the question of stability: could a society ordered by the two principles of justice endure? His answer to this question is contained in a collection of lectures titled Political Liberalism. In Political Liberalism, Rawls introduced the idea of an overlapping consensus—or agreement on justice as fairness between citizens who hold different religious and philosophical views (or conceptions of the good). Political Liberalism also introduced the idea of public reason—the common reason of all citizens.
In Political Liberalism Rawls addressed the most common criticism levelled at Theory—the criticism that the principles of justice were simply an alternative systematic conception of justice that was superior to utilitarianism or any other comprehensive theory.This meant that justice as fairness turned out to be simply another reasonable comprehensive doctrine that was incompatible with other reasonable doctrines. It failed to distinguish between a comprehensive moral theory which addressed the problem of justice, and that of a political conception of justice that was independent of any comprehensive theory.
The Political conception of justice that Rawls introduces in Political Liberalism is the view of justice that people with conflicting, but reasonable views, would agree on to regulate the basic structure of society (note the new limits on the scope of justice of fairness). As such the political conception of justice would be the overlapping consensus about justice.
Rawls also modified the principles of justice to become the following (with the first having priority over the second):
a) Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
b) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
These principles are subtly modified from the principles in Theory. The first principle now reads 'equal claim' instead of 'equal right', and he also replaces the phrase 'system of basic liberties' with 'a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties.'
- A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. The revised edition of 1999 incorporates changes that Rawls made for translated editions of A Theory of Justice. Some Rawls scholars use the abbreviation TJ to refer to this work.
- Political Liberalism. The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy, 4. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. The hardback edition published in 1993 is not identical. The paperback adds a valuable new introduction and an essay titled “Reply to Habermas.”
- The Law of Peoples: with “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. This slim book includes two works originally published elsewhere, an essay entitled “The Law of Peoples” and another entitled “Public Reason Revisited.”
- Collected Papers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. This collection of shorter papers was edited by Samuel Freeman. Two of the papers in this collection, “The Law of Peoples” and “Public Reason Revisited,” are available separately in the Law of Peoples monograph published the same year. One other essay, “Reply to Habermas,” was added to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism. Otherwise, this collection is comprehensive. However, one important unpublished work, Rawls's dissertation, is not included.
- Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2000. This collection of lectures was edited by Barbara Herman. It has an introduction on modern moral philosophy from 1600–1800 and then lectures on Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel.
- Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001. This shorter summary of the main arguments of Rawls's political philosophy was edited by Erin Kelly. Many versions of this were circulated in typescript and much of the material was delivered by Rawls in lectures when he taught courses covering his own work at Harvard University.
- “A Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge: Considered with Reference to Judgments on the Moral Worth of Character.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 1950.
- “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics.” Philosophical Review (April 1951), 60 (2): 177-197.
- “Two Concepts of Rules.” Philosophical Review (January 1955), 64 (1):3-32.
- “Justice as Fairness.” Journal of Philosophy (October 24, 1957), 54 (22): 653-662.
- “Justice as Fairness.” Philosophical Review (April 1958), 67 (2): 164-194.
- “The Sense of Justice.” Philosophical Review (July 1963), 72 (3): 281-305.
- “Distributive Justice: Some Addenda.” Natural Law Forum (1968), 13: 51-71.
- “Reply to Lyons and Teitelman.” Journal of Philosophy (October 5, 1972), 69 (18): 556-557.
- “Reply to Alexander and Musgrave.” Quarterly Journal of Economics (November 1974), 88 (4): 633-655.
- “Some Reasons for the Maximin Criterion.” American Economic Review (May 1974), 64 (2): 141-146.
- “Fairness to Goodness.” Philosophical Review (October 1975), 84 (4): 536-554.
- “The Independence of Moral Theory.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association (November 1975), 48: 5-22.
- “A Kantian Conception of Equality.” Cambridge Review (February 1975), 96 (2225): 94-99.
- “The Basic Structure as Subject.” American Philosophical Quarterly (April 1977), 14 (2): 159-165.
- “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory.” Journal of Philosophy (September 1980), 77 (9): 515-572.
- “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.” Philosophy & Public Affairs (Summer 1985), 14 (3): 223-251.
- “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus.” Oxford Journal for Legal Studies (Spring 1987), 7 (1): 1-25.
- “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good.” Philosophy & Public Affairs (Fall 1988), 17 (4): 251-276.
- “The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus.” New York University Law Review (May 1989), 64 (2): 233-255.
- “Roderick Firth: His Life and Work.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (March 1991), 51 (1): 109-118.
- “The Law of Peoples.” Critical Inquiry (Fall 1993), 20 (1): 36-68.
- “Reconcilation through the Public Use of Reason.” Journal of Philosophy (March 1995), 92 (3):132-180.
- “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice.” In Carl J. Friedrich and John W. Chapman, eds., Nomos, VI: Justice, pp. 98-125. Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy. New York: Atherton Press, 1963.
- “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play.” In Sidney Hook, ed., Law and Philosophy: A Symposium, pp. 3-18. New York: New York University Press, 1964. Proceedings of the 6th Annual New York University Institute of Philosophy.
- “Distributive Justice.” In Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, eds., Philosophy, Politics, and Society. Third Series, pp. 58-82. London: Blackwell; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
- “The Justification of Civil Disobedience.” In Hugo A. Bedau, ed., Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice, pp. 240-255. New York: Pegasus Books, 1969.
- “Justice as Reciprocity.” In Samuel Gorovitz, ed., Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill: With Critical Essays, pp. 242-268. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
- “Author's Note.” In Thomas Schwartz, ed., Freedom and Authority: An Introduction to Social and Political Philosophy, p. 260. Encino & Belmont, California: Dickenson, 1973.
- “Distributive Justice.” In Edmund S. Phelps, ed., Economic Justice: Selected Readings, pp. 319-362. Penguin Modern Economics Readings. Harmondsworth & Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973.
- “Personal Communication, January 31, 1976.” In Thomas Nagel's “The Justification of Equality.” Critica (April 1978), 10 (28): 9n4.
- “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority.” In Sterling M. McMurrin, ed., The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, III (1982), pp. 1-87. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- “Social Unity and Primary Goods.” In Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond, pp. 159-185. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1982.
- “Themes in Kant's Moral Philosophy.” In Eckhart Forster, ed., Kant's Transcendental Deductions: The Three Critiques and the Opus postumum, pp. 81-113, 253-256. Stanford Series in Philosophy. Studies in Kant and German Idealism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1989.
- Review of Axel Hägerstrom's Inquiries into the Nature of Law and Morals (C.D. Broad, tr.). Mind (July 1955), 64 (255):421-422.
- Review of Stephen Toulmin's An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics (1950). Philosophical Review (October 1951), 60 (4): 572-580.
- Review of A. Vilhelm Lundstedt's Legal Thinking Revised. Cornell Law Quarterly (1959), 44: 169.
- Review of Raymond Klibansky, ed., Philosophy in Mid-Century: A Survey. Philosophical Review (January 1961), 70 (1): 131-132.
- Review of Richard B. Brandt, ed., Social Justice (1962). Philosophical Review (July 1965), 74(3): 406-409.
Selected Secondary Literature
- Norman Daniels ed., Reading Rawls: Critical Studies of A Theory of Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1974. This anthology collects many of the important early reactions to A Theory of Justice, including a famous essay by H. L. A. Hart.
- Chandran Kukathas & Philip Petit, Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. This is a short study of Rawls's work and critical reactions. Philip Petit is a prominent political philosopher in his own right.
- Samuel Freeman ed., Cambridge Companion to Rawls. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. This anthology includes essays by prominent philosophers, including Thomas Nagel, T.M. Scanlon, Onora O'Neil, and Martha Nussbaum.