John Rawls was born on 21 February 1921 in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the second of five sons of William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump. Both of Rawls’s parents were interested in political affairs. Rawls’s father, a self-trained lawyer, was a friend of Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie, and his mother was once President of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Rawls graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1943, where his interest in philosophy developed under the influence of the Wittgensteinian philosopher Norman Malcolm . After enlisting in the army and serving as an infantryman in the Pacific theater during World War II, Rawls returned to Princeton in 1946 for his graduate work, earning his PhD in philosophy in 1950. His dissertation was titled “A Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge: Considered with Reference to Judgments on the Moral Worth of Character.” He spent a year at the University of Oxford as a Fulbright Fellow.
Rawls was an instructor in philosophy at Princeton from 1950 to 1952, an assistant and associate professor of philosophy at Cornell from 1953 to 1959, and professor of philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1960 to 1962. He joined the Harvard philosophy department in 1962 where he was later promoted to James Bryant Conant University Professor in 1979, holding that position until retiring in 1991. His first book, A Theory of Justice, which was completed while on fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study, was published in 1971. Political Liberalism appeared in 1993, two years after his retirement from Harvard. Both at Harvard and after his retirement, Rawls at times worked closely with his friend and colleague Burton Dreben , whose criticism and encouragement was especially important in the 1990s, as Rawls continued to refine the ideas of political liberalism despite his failing health. He refused numerous awards over the years, but accepted honorary degrees from Oxford, Princeton, and Harvard, which celebrated his life and work in a 2003 memorial service. He was President of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division in 1974–5. He also received the National Humanities Medal in 1999, in part for his mentorship of women in philosophy. Rawls died on 24 November 2002 in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Rawls is widely regarded as the most influential and important political philosopher of his time. It is often said that the publication of A Theory of Justice played a decisive role in the revival of Anglo-American moral and political philosophy, which, by the middle part of the twentieth century, had been relegated by many philosophers to the task of linguistic analysis, with a focus on an increasingly narrow set of moral and political concerns. By contrast, A Theory of Justice presents an ambitious and sweeping account of justice based on a distinctive approach to moral-political justification. The work takes as its starting point ideas from the great tradition of liberal political thought, for which Rawls had a deep and abiding appreciation. When the revised edition of Theory appeared in English toward the end of Rawls’s life, the book had already been translated into nearly two dozen languages, with an enormous impact worldwide in philosophy, law, and the social sciences. It quickly became a modern classic, joining, as Ronald Dworkin has observed, the list of works that a properly educated person ought to recognize.
Rawls’s career may be divided into two main periods. The first period is defined primarily by the development of his theory of justice, called “justice as fairness.” This period includes not only A Theory of Justice, but also Rawls’s early articles as well as his essays from the 1970s which build upon the principal themes of Theory and respond to some of the book’s many critics. A second period begins with the essays published throughout the 1980s which introduce ideas that later appear in Political Liberalism and which enable Rawls to recast justice as fairness as a “political conception of justice.” This period is defined primarily by the notion of “political liberalism” with its idea of “public reason.” The later period also includes Rawls’s philosophical exchange with Jürgen Habermas and his account of international law and justice in The Law of Peoples. While the two periods of Rawls’s work are by no means radically divergent, disagreement persists about the extent to which they are continuous or discontinuous.
A principal theme of both periods is justice; specifically, the justice of a society’s basic institutional framework. The guiding idea behind Rawls’s theory of justice is that our lives and projects should not be determined by pervasive inequalities that are rooted in contingent social and economic circumstances. How, then, should we arrange the institutional structure of society in order both to achieve a proper distribution of social benefits and burdens and to minimize arbitrary distinctions in the assigning of basic rights and opportunities? Rawls answers this question by means of two principles of justice, initially introduced in an early article, “Justice as Fairness” (1958), and expounded in detail in A Theory of Justice. According to the final statement of the two principles in Theory, each person, first, has an equal right to a system of equal basic liberties that includes rights to speech, conscience, integrity, legal protection, and political participation. Second, social and economic inequalities are permissible only if they satisfy two conditions. According to what Rawls calls “fair equality of opportunity,” these inequalities must (1) be attached to positions and offices that all have fair chance to attain. This means that persons who are similarly talented and motivated should have the same chances for success in the social system, regardless of their starting places in life. And, according to what he calls the “difference principle,” (2) social and economic inequalities must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
The two principles of justice strike a balance between liberty and equality. The first principle, which is presented as lexically prior to the second, protects the rights and freedoms celebrated by classical liberalism. However, while the first principle of justice recognizes a right to personal property, Rawls does not treat ownership of the means of production as a matter of basic liberty. Indeed the second principle of justice, with its ideas of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle, demonstrates a strong commitment to egalitarianism, thereby distinguishing Rawls’s conception of justice from classically liberal views which would permit far greater social and economic inequality. He does not attempt to work out all of the institutional implications of justice as fairness in Theory. Yet the second principle would seem to require a sharp reduction in existing inequalities in education, access to medical care, opportunities for political influence and income and wealth. He rejects the notion that, in the very institutional design of society, some persons might be sacrificed politically or economically for the greater welfare of others. In this sense, his theory of justice also stands in contrast to utilitarianism, with its focus on the greatest good for the greatest number. The problem with utilitarianism is that it cannot adequately explain our considered judgment that the rights and interests of each member of society must be protected. One of the main goals of Theory is to provide a systematic alternative to the utilitarian views that had long dominated modern moral and political philosophy.
This alternative consists not only of the two principles of justice, but also of an argument for their justification which connects justice as fairness to the social contract tradition. Rawls advances a procedural argument in support of the two principles, suggesting that principles of justice are valid insofar as they would be subject to agreement in a suitably constructed initial choice situation. In what Rawls calls the “original position,” we are to imagine rational and mutually disinterested agents who must choose the principles that will serve publicly as the basis of their social institutions and as the final court of appeal for settling disagreements over justice. Agents in the original position are, however, behind a “veil of ignorance,” deprived of specific information about their particular place in society. An agreement about justice must be reached without knowledge of anyone’s particular class, social status, natural assets and talents, and conception of the good life. Persons situated in the original position know only general facts about human beings and social life, and they know that they want “primary goods,” or goods that they would need in their status as fully cooperating, free, and equal citizens. Because of the constraints of the veil of ignorance, as well as additional formal constraints on the possible principles of justice, the original position is said to be a fair choice situation that reflects the moral equality of persons. Under these constraints and without the ability to bargain on the basis of existing social power, Rawls argues that agents in the original position would want to minimize the burdens associated with the lowest position in the social order. Given a list of various conceptions of justice, agents in the original position would reject utilitarianism and other competing views in favor of principles of justice which recognize the priority of basic rights and liberties and protect the least advantaged members of society.
A society is just insofar as it is organized in terms of Rawls’s two principles of justice. And the two principles of justice are valid because they would be chosen in the original position. But we might still ask: What justifies the original position as the starting point for seeking principles of justice? Rawls answers this question by relying on the nonfoundationalist notion of “reflective equilibrium.” Self-evident first principles are not necessary in order to begin the work of moral and political philosophy. Instead, some of our judgments, such as the wrongness of slavery, might serve as “provisional fixed points” for testing the adequacy of other ideas. In seeking reflective equilibrium, we compare alternate proposals to such “considered judgments” at all levels of generality, revising both our principles and judgments until we identify the conception of justice that most convincingly renders our judgments consistent with one another and with sound principles of justice. Thus the original position is based on ideals of freedom, equality, and fairness that we accept, or would accept on due reflection. As a procedural device that represents and further specifies these ideals, it is simply part of an overall theory that should fit together coherently and best explain our considered judgments about justice.
In the decades after its publication, A Theory of Justice has been the focus of leading debates in moral and political philosophy, inspiring both liberal philosophers and legions of critics. Three varieties of criticism are especially noteworthy. First, libertarians reject the egalitarianism of justice as fairness, particularly the redistributive implications of the difference principle. According to Robert Nozick and other libertarian philosophers, the difference principle would violate individual liberty by interfering with the property rights and choices of persons who are said to be entitled to goods acquired through free and fair individual transactions. Second, feminist critics target numerous alleged biases and blind spots in Rawls’s theory. Perhaps the most serious criticisms have been raised by Susan Moller Okin, who has argued that Rawls does not sufficiently address the problem of injustice within the gendered family, where the attitudes and moral psychology of future citizens are shaped in significant ways. Finally, communitarians criticize the liberal individualism of Rawls’s theory of justice. Michael Sandel, for example, suggests that, especially in its reliance on the original position, Rawls’s theory presents an untenable conception of the person as an “unencumbered self,” disconnected from community and the constitutive ends and attachments that are necessary for moral reasoning.
According to Rawls, the changes to his view in the 1980s, beginning with “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory” (1980), were not based on these or other external criticisms. Rawls instead became increasingly concerned with a problem internal to his own theory. The third and final part of A Theory of Justice is devoted to the question of stability, namely, the question of whether and how citizens living in a society governed by the two principles of justice would acquire an adequate sense of justice as well as the requisite motivation to maintain just institutions. A major component of Rawls’s treatment of the stability question is an argument for the congruence of the right and the good, that is, an argument about why citizens should understand acting justly to be part of the human good. The problem, however, is that under the very political institutions recommended by the two principles of justice free human beings will inevitably affirm a number of reasonable conceptions of the good life, many of which will be incompatible with the Kantian commitments of Rawls’s own congruence argument. It is this “fact of reasonable pluralism” that led Rawls to introduce a number of new ideas over the course of the next decade in an effort to modify and correct his account of how a just society could also be stable over time. The recently published Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001) presents a unified account that includes many of these new ideas along with other important changes to the Rawlsian theory of justice.
In Political Liberalism these new ideas take center stage. In this work and the essays leading up to it, justice as fairness is interpreted as a strictly political conception of justice. A political conception of justice can be worked out in terms of the fundamental ideas of a democracy’s public political culture and is intended to apply only to the basic institutional structure of society. It should also be possible to express a political conception as freestanding, separate from the comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines which provide answers to questions concerning God, matters of first philosophy, non-political values and the meaning of human life. Rawls includes under the category of “comprehensive doctrine” not only traditional religious views, but also the moral doctrines of philosophical liberals such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The idea of a political conception of justice must be understood as in principle independent from all such doctrines and, along with the notion of “overlapping consensus,” it enables Rawls to provide an account of stability which is consistent with the fact of reasonable pluralism. In attempting to reach overlapping consensus, citizens accept a political conception of justice not as a mere compromise or modus vivendi, but on the basis of their comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines. A political conception is thus morally embedded in the comprehensive doctrines of citizens. Ideally each citizen in an overlapping consensus would understand that all other citizens are committed to a reasonable political conception of justice, albeit on the basis of different, underlying comprehensive grounds.
One goal of political liberalism is the reinterpretation of justice as fairness. But, from the perspective of political liberalism, justice as fairness must be understood as simply one member of a family of reasonable political conceptions of justice. Indeed, the theory of political liberalism is also designed to address its own distinctive questions, brought about by the recognition of the fact of reasonable pluralism. How can a diverse group of citizens, especially citizens with deep and abiding religious convictions, also endorse a political conception of justice that supports a constitutional democracy? In light of persistent disagreement about doctrinal matters, the common good and even justice itself, how can we understand democratic decisions as politically legitimate? Rawls answers this latter question by means of a “liberal principle of legitimacy” based on a “criterion of reciprocity.” According to this criterion, citizens and officials must offer justifications for the exercise of political power which they reasonably think other citizens might reasonably accept. Thus a key term in the theory of political liberalism is reasonableness, which is applied to political conceptions of justice, comprehensive doctrines, forms of disagreement and other ideas. While the meaning of reasonableness depends in part on the subject matter to which the term is applied, it is the notion of a reasonable citizen that seems to support many of the other claims of political liberalism. A reasonable citizen is prepared to offer and abide by fair terms of cooperation and to treat others as politically free and equal, capable of and interested in exercising their basic moral powers. Reasonable citizens also acknowledge the burdens of judgment, or the idea that failure to reach agreement in important matters might be due to the difficulties in reasoning and judgment encountered by even sincere and conscientious deliberators.
Along with liberal legitimacy and reasonableness, with its supporting conceptions of the person as a free and equal citizen and society as a fair system of cooperation, the “idea of public reason” is also a core idea in Rawlsian political liberalism. Public reason expresses an ideal of democratic citizenship. As a moral “duty of civility,” it provides guidance to citizens and officials in their political deliberation and decision-making. While the idea of public reason is not intended to govern the “background culture” of civil society, it does apply to the official “public political forum” of courts, legislatures, campaigns and voting booths, at least with respect to fundamental political questions, that is, constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice. When these questions are at stake, citizens and officials honor public reason by conducting their deliberation and decision-making in terms of the criterion of reciprocity and by turning to the values of a reasonable political conception of justice. The idea of public reason thus requires that citizens and officials avoid relying solely on comprehensive justifications, whether religious or secular, in setting the fundamental terms of their political association.
In steering clear of the claims of comprehensive doctrines, Rawls suggests that political liberalism is simply applying “the principle of toleration to philosophy itself.” Yet it is this feature of political liberalism that has provoked the most controversy. One set of questions in the secondary literature has focused on Rawls’s unwillingness to appeal to truth-claims in defending a political conception of justice or the other main ideas of political liberalism. Even some liberal philosophers who admire Rawls’s theory of justice reject what Joseph Raz has called the “epistemic abstinence” of his later writings. Indeed, Jürgen Habermas, in his exchange with Rawls, argues that notions of consensus and reasonableness are an insufficient basis for establishing the moral validity of the political values of political liberalism. Moreover, while some critics have examined the status of claims to truth or moral validity in Rawlsian theory construction, others have raised questions about the status of these claims in Rawlsian public reason, which instructs citizens and officials sometimes to restrain their appeal to the whole truth of their comprehensive doctrines. Concerns that these restraints are unnecessary, unfair or even counterproductive are especially widespread among philosophers, political theorists and legal scholars who are interested in the role of religion in the public square. In “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (1997), Rawls responds to some of these concerns by advancing a “wide view” of public reason that is even more permissive of religious discourse and argument than the interpretation of public reason originally presented in Political Liberalism.
A final component of Rawls’s political philosophy is his attempt to extend a contractarian account of justice to the field of international law and relations. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls follows Kant in first assuming the standpoint of a liberal democracy before attempting to locate, from that standpoint, principles of justice that would hold between different societies, or “peoples.” The set of principles proposed by Rawls – the so-called “Law of Peoples” – not only specifies just relations between liberal peoples, but also supports the claim that a liberal people’s foreign policy should reflect toleration of nonliberal peoples that are still “decent.” According to Rawls’s model, a decent society is nonaggressive and organized in terms of a consultation hierarchy which, among other features, secures for all members of society some role in decision-making as well as basic human rights to life, liberty, personal property, and formal equality. Basic human rights are not equivalent to liberal constitutional rights. So while a decent people must recognize liberty of conscience and protect members of minority religions, it might also refuse to incorporate the separation of church and state into its political organization. In this and other ways, a decent people would fall short of satisfying the conditions of liberal justice. Nevertheless, in contrast to aggressive, “outlaw states,” peoples that meet the minimal normative criteria associated with decency are to be tolerated and acknowledged as members of a “Society of Peoples.” In addition to these important distinctions between types of peoples, The Law of Peoples also addresses other pressing issues of foreign policy and global justice, including just war doctrine, distributive justice among peoples, and the duties of well-ordered societies to assist societies that are burdened with unfavorable social conditions, such as a lack of resources, knowledge or political tradition.
Along with the other works published toward the end of his life, The Law of Peoples also provides insight into Rawls’s general understanding of the nature and purpose of philosophy. Students of moral and political philosophy might turn to his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, based on his lecture course at Harvard, in order to consider Rawls’s approach to teaching the history of philosophy and his influence on the many philosophers who studied with him. And students might turn to The Law of Peoples for his account of political philosophy as “realistic utopia.” A realistically utopian political philosophy, which follows Rousseau in taking human beings as they are and laws as they ought to be, extends the limits of what seems possible in political life. By enabling us to imagine the real possibility of just institutions, a realistic utopia, Rawls argues, gives meaning to our political projects and reconciles us to the social world.
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