Rawls, John Bordley

Also found in: Encyclopedia.

Rawls, John Bordley

John Bordley Rawls was one of the major moral and political philosophers of the twentieth century. His work embraced liberalism and egalitarianism, while rejecting Utilitarianism and more radical political ideas. His most important work, A Theory of Justice (1971), discusses the idea of "justice as fairness."

Rawls was born on February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, Maryland. He earned his bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1943 and his doctorate from Princeton in 1950. Rawls was an instructor at Princeton between 1950 and 1952, before attending Oxford University in England as a Fulbright Fellow. Upon his return to the United States in 1953, he served as a professor at Cornell University (1953–59) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960–62).

In 1962, Rawls was appointed professor of philosophy at Harvard University, an institution he served until his retirement in 1991. He continued as a professor emeritus at Harvard, however, in the late 1990s.

Rawls developed his ideas on justice in scholarly articles in the 1950s and 1960s. The publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 was the culmination of this work. The book received widespread praise for its application of analytic techniques to the substantive (rather than the methodological) issues in morality.

Rawls's theory of justice is premised on two fundamental principles of justice that, he believed, would guarantee a just and morally acceptable society. The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty that is compatible with the liberty of others. The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be to everyone's advantage and open to all.

One central concern for Rawls was to show how such principles would be universally adopted. Working from these principles, Rawls developed in detail a simple, but powerful, idea that he called "justice as fairness." This idea proposes that the rules of a group are fair to the extent that a person would agree to be bound by them when ignorant ("the veil of ignorance") of his own possession of characteristics that the rules of the system reward or penalize. In this "original position," a person would not agree to unfair rules because there would be the possibility that he or she would be disadvantaged by them. Thus, the original position forces a person to make moral conclusions and to adopt a generalized point of view in making a social contract.

"Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override."
—John Rawls

Rawls published Political Liberalism in 1993 (updated in 1996), partly in response to criticism of A Theory of Justice. His Collected Papers were published in 1999, as was The Law of Peoples; with, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited. In 2000, his lectures while a professor at Harvard were edited and collected as Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Harvard University Press published more essays the following year as Justice as Fairness, a Restatement. Rawls died on November 24, 2002, at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Further readings

Bullock, Alan, and R.B. Woodings, eds. 1983. 20th Century Culture: A Biographical Companion. New York: Harper & Row.

Kukathas, Chandran, ed. 2003. John Rawls: Critical Assessments of Leading Political Philosophers. New York: Routledge.

Rawls, John. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.

——. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.

Talisse, Robert B. 2001. On Rawls. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.


Jurisprudence; Moral Law.

References in classic literature ?
I leaned forward in my seat to scrutinize the female--hoping against hope that she might prove to be another than Dian the Beautiful.
His novels seem to many readers cynical, because he scrutinizes almost every character and every group with impartial vigor, dragging forth every fault and every weakness into the light.
These two began presently to scrutinize the characters of the several young girls who lived in any of those houses, and at last fixed their strongest suspicion on one Jenny Jones, who, they both agreed, was the likeliest person to have committed this fact.
Excuse me," he added, taking an opera glass out of her hand, and proceeding to scrutinize, over her bare shoulder, the row of boxes facing them.