John Rawls' philosophy of justice

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Asked to describe John Rawls, his old friend and fellow philosopher, Rogers Albritton said, "My principle sense of Jack is of a man who has an incredibly fine moral sense in his dealings with other human beings. He is not just the author of a great book; he is a very admirable man. He is the best of us."

John Rawls's "A Theory of Justice" published in 1971 has been described as a watershed moment in modern political philosophy, restoring it as an important area for philosophical concern. It is also one of the most comprehensive and influential works of modern liberalism. More than 200,000 copies have been sold worldwide, and more than 5,000 books or articles have discussed it. This is especially noteworthy because "A Theory of Justice" is such a serious, theoretical, and dense work.


In his books and articles, Rawls keeps famously private about his life except to lavish credit on others for their help and ideas. He refuses most interviews, has only accepted honorary degrees from universities with which he has personal ties (Oxford, Princeton, Harvard), and has long since removed himself from "Who's Who." Rawls's adult life has been almost exclusively devoted to thinking, teaching, and writing about the problems of social justice, cooperation and individual rights.


John Bordley Rawls was born in 1921, the second of five sons in a well-to-do and well-respected Baltimore family. He went to Kent prep school in Connecticut and took both his undergraduate and doctoral philosophy degrees from Princeton University, entering as a freshman in 1939.

After college and before graduate school, Rawls joined the Army. He served with the 32nd Infantry Division during World War II in New Guinea, and the Philippines in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and was with the occupation army in Japan.

After teaching at Oxford, Cornell and MIT, Rawls settled at Harvard, where he is now James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus, living in Lexington, Mass. He has spent time as a visiting scholar at Oxford, Stanford's Institute for advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the University of Michigan and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He has received numerous awards for his work, the most recent being the National Humanities Award presented by President Clinton and the Rolf Schock Prize in Philosophy from the Royal Swedish Academy -- both in 1999.

Rawls holds civil and political rights at the center of his philosophy. He takes our freedom to choose our own ends to be the distinctive feature of human nature. His opus on justice revived what was a neglected liberal tradition of the rights based social contract. In this work he rejects utilitarianism, which advocates the maximization of the aggregate well-being of a society, as not sufficiently respecting the rights of individuals. In the spirit of Kant, whom he admires greatly, Rawls insists that people ought to be treated as ends, not as means. Rawls also criticizes libertarianism, which advocates that an individual's rights ought never be infringed upon, by arguing that taking rights seriously implies taking social equality seriously. He feels that it is not enough to avoid having civil and political rights infringed, one must have the meaningful use of these rights in a society.


Famously, Rawls developed the idea of the "original position," a thought experiment in which people are placed behind what he calls the "veil of ignorance." They are denied all knowledge about everything that makes them who they are: wealth, age, talents, race, religion, skill, sex and any conception of the good life. Rawls believes that what people in this position would choose for their society could be considered the principles of justice. He argues that in this position people would choose a low-risk strategy in which liberties and the highest minimum levels of wealth, opportunity and power are promoted even at the expense of lowering average levels of one or another. Rawls's related idea, the "difference principle," is perhaps his most controversial and often challenged argument. Here he argues that social and economic differences are acceptable only if these differences benefit the least advantaged in society.

Throughout Rawls's career he has dedicated himself to writing articles and giving lectures, elaborating his theory of justice and responding to the numerous criticisms raised by others. He is famous not only for illuminating the misunderstandings of his critics but also for being willing to rethink his arguments and incorporate changes.

In 1993 he published his second book, "Political Liberalism," which is his most comprehensive response to more than 30 years of critics. When the paperback edition came out in 1996, it contained an important second introduction and included a "Reply to Hagerman," making it, in effect, a second edition of this work. Despite suffering from several strokes, the first in 1995, which affected his ability to work, Rawls completed his "Law of Peoples" in 1998 -- perhaps his most emotionally explicit work. This was published together with "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" in 1999. Most recently, in 2001, after decades of work, he has published "Justice as Fairness: A Restatement," about which he speaks in our interview. In this short volume, edited by Erin Kelly, he attempts to reformulate and put in compact form his lifelong work on justice. His "Collected Papers," edited by Samuel Freedman, was published in 1999, and his "Lectured on the History of Moral Philosophy," edited by Barbara Herman appeared in 2000.


A story still repeated about Rawls among philosophy students in Emerson Hall at Harvard University seems particularly telling. Once, when attending a dissertation defense, Rawls noticed that the sun was shining in the eyes of the candidate. He rose and positioned himself, standing uncomfortably, between the candidate and the sunlight for the rest of the session. Shining through Rawls's work, ideas and life, despite his inclination towards privacy, is the image of a man who cares intensely about justice, social welfare and individual happiness.


(Prepared by The Harvard Review of Philosophy and edited by S. Phineas Upham.)

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