John Bordley Rawls (//; February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002) was an American moral and political philosopher in the liberal tradition. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University and the Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Oxford. Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of how Rawls's work "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself."
In his 1990 introduction to the field, Will Kymlicka wrote that "it is generally accepted that the recent rebirth of normative political philosophy began with the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971." Rawls has often been described as the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. He has the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referred to by practising politicians in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Rawls's theory of "justice as fairness" recommends equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society. Rawls's argument for these principles of social justice uses a thought experiment called the "original position", in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy. In his later work Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls turned to the question of how political power could be made legitimate given reasonable disagreement about the nature of the good life.
John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the second of five sons of William Lee Rawls, "one of the most prominent attorneys in Baltimore", and Anna Abell Stump Rawls. Tragedy struck Rawls at a young age:
Two of his brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him.... In 1928, the seven-year-old Rawls contracted diphtheria. His brother Bobby, younger by 20 months, visited him in his room and was fatally infected. The next winter, Rawls contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died.
Rawls attended the Calvert School in Baltimore for six years, before transferring to the Kent School, an Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls attended Princeton University where he graduated summa cum laude and was accepted into The Ivy Club and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. During his last two years at Princeton, he "became deeply concerned with theology and its doctrines." He considered attending a seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood and wrote an "intensely religious senior thesis (BI)." At Princeton, Rawls was influenced by Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein's student.
During World War II, Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific, where he toured New Guinea and was awarded a Bronze Star; and the Philippines, where he endured intensive trench warfare and witnessed horrific scenes such as seeing a soldier remove his helmet and take a bullet to the head, rather than continue with the war. There, he lost his Christian faith.
Following the surrender of Japan, Rawls became part of General MacArthur's occupying army and was promoted to Sergeant. But he became disillusioned with the military when he saw the aftermath of the atomic blast in Hiroshima. Rawls then disobeyed an order to discipline a fellow soldier, believing no punishment was justified, and was demoted back to private. Disenchanted, he left the military in January 1946. After his military service, Rawls became an atheist.
In early 1946, Rawls returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in moral philosophy.
After earning his PhD from Princeton in 1950, Rawls taught 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 Isaiah Berlin and the legal theorist H. L. A. Hart. After returning to the United States he served 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 MIT. That same year he moved to Harvard University, where he taught for almost forty years and where he trained some of the leading contemporary figures in moral and political philosophy, including Thomas Nagel, Allan Gibbard, Onora O'Neill, Adrian Piper, Elizabeth S. Anderson, Christine Korsgaard, Susan Neiman, Claudia Card, Thomas Pogge, T.M. Scanlon, Barbara Herman, Joshua Cohen, Thomas E. Hill, Jr., Gurcharan Das, Andreas Teuber, Samuel Freeman and Paul Weithman.
Rawls seldom gave interviews and, having both a stutter and a "bat-like horror of the limelight", did not become a public intellectual despite his fame. He instead remained committed mainly to his academic and family life.
In 1995 he suffered the first of several strokes, severely impeding his ability to continue to work. He was nevertheless able to complete a book titled The Law of Peoples, the most complete statement of his views on international justice, and shortly before his death in November 2002 published Justice As Fairness: A Restatement, a response to criticisms of A Theory of Justice.
Rawls died on 24 November 2002 and is buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts.
Rawls published three main books. The first, A Theory of Justice, focused on distributive justice and attempted to reconcile the competing claims of the values of freedom and equality. The second, Political Liberalism, addressed the question of how citizens divided by intractable religious and philosophical disagreements could come to endorse a constitutional democratic regime. The third, The Law of Peoples, focused on the issue of global justice.
Rawls's first work, published in 1971, aimed to resolve the seemingly competing claims of freedom and equality. The shape Rawls's resolution took, however, was not that of a balancing act that compromised or weakened the moral claim of one value compared with the other. Rather, his intent was to show that notions of freedom and equality could be integrated into a seamless unity he called justice as fairness. By explaining the proper perspective we should take when thinking about justice, Rawls hoped to show the supposed conflict between freedom and equality to be illusory.
Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971) includes a thought experiment he called the "original position". The intuition motivating its employment is this: the enterprise of political philosophy will be greatly benefited by a specification of the correct standpoint a person should take in his or her thinking about justice. When we think about what it would mean for a just state of affairs to obtain between persons, we eliminate certain features (such as hair or eye color, height, race, etc.) and fixate upon others. Rawls's original position is meant to encode all of our intuitions about which features are relevant, and which irrelevant, for the purposes of deliberating well about justice.
The original position is Rawls' hypothetical scenario in which a group of persons is set the task of reaching an agreement about the kind of political and economic structure they want for a society, which they will then occupy. Each individual, however, deliberates behind a "veil of ignorance": each lacks knowledge, for example, of his or her gender, race, age, intelligence, wealth, skills, education and religion. The only thing that a given member knows about themselves is that they are in possession of the basic capacities necessary to fully and willfully participate in an enduring system of mutual cooperation; each knows they can be a member of the society.
Rawls posits two basic capacities that the individuals would know themselves to possess. First individuals know that they have the capacity to form, pursue, and revise a conception of the good, or life plan. Exactly what sort of conception of the good this is, however, the individual does not yet know. It may be, for example, religious or secular, but at the start, the individual in the original position does not know which. Second, each individual understands him or herself to have the capacity to develop a sense of justice and a generally effective desire to abide by it. Knowing only these two features of themselves, the group will deliberate in order to design a social structure, during which each person will seek his or her maximal advantage. The idea is that proposals that we would ordinarily think of as unjust – such as that blacks or women should not be allowed to hold public office – will not be proposed, in this Rawls' original position, because it would be irrational to propose them, the reason is simple, one does not know whether he himself would be a woman or a black person. This position is expressed in the Maximin principle, according to which in a system of ignorance about one's status, one would strive to improve the position of the worst off, because he might find himself in that position.
Rawls develops his original position by modeling it, in certain respects at least, after the "initial situations" of various social contract thinkers who came before him, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (Each social contractarian constructs his/her initial situation somewhat differently, having in mind a unique political morality s/he intends the thought experiment to generate.) Iain King has suggested the original position draws on Rawls' experiences in post-war Japan, where the US Army was challenged with designing new social and political authorities for the country, while "imagining away all that had gone before."
In social justice processes, each person early on makes decisions about which features of persons to consider and which to ignore. Rawls's aspiration is to have created a thought experiment whereby a version of that process is carried to its completion, illuminating the correct standpoint a person should take in his or her thinking about justice. If he has succeeded, then the original position thought experiment may function as a full specification of the moral standpoint we should attempt to achieve when deliberating about social justice.
In setting out his theory, Rawls described his method as one of "reflective equilibrium", a concept which has since been used in other areas of philosophy. Reflective equilibrium is achieved by mutually adjusting one's general principles and one's considered judgements on particular cases, to bring the two into line with one another.
Rawls derives two principles of justice from the original position. The first of these is the Liberty Principle, which establishes equal basic liberties for all citizens. 'Basic' liberty entails the (familiar in the liberal tradition) freedoms of conscience, association and expression as well as democratic rights; Rawls also includes a personal property right, but this is defended in terms of moral capacities and self-respect, rather than an appeal to a natural right of self-ownership (this distinguishes Rawls's account from the classical liberalism of John Locke and the libertarianism of Robert Nozick).
Rawls argues that a second principle of equality would be agreed upon to guarantee liberties that represent meaningful options for all in society and ensure distributive justice. For example, formal guarantees of political voice and freedom of assembly are of little real worth to the desperately poor and marginalized in society. Demanding that everyone have exactly the same effective opportunities in life would almost certainly offend the very liberties that are supposedly being equalized. Nonetheless, we would want to ensure at least the "fair worth" of our liberties: wherever one ends up in society, one wants life to be worth living, with enough effective freedom to pursue personal goals. Thus participants would be moved to affirm a two-part second principle comprising Fair Equality of Opportunity and the famous (and controversial) difference principle. This second principle ensures that those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged.
Rawls held that these principles of justice apply to the "basic structure" of fundamental social institutions (such as the judiciary, the economic structure and the political constitution), a qualification that has been the source of some controversy and constructive debate (see the work of Gerald Cohen).
Rawls further argued that these principles were to be 'lexically ordered' to award priority to basic liberties over the more equality-oriented demands of the second principle. This has also been a topic of much debate among moral and political philosophers.
Finally, Rawls took his approach as applying in the first instance to what he called a "well-ordered society ... designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice". In this respect, he understood justice as fairness as a contribution to "ideal theory", the determination of "principles that characterize a well-ordered society under favorable circumstances". Much recent work in political philosophy has asked what justice as fairness might dictate (or indeed, whether it is very useful at all) for problems of "partial compliance" under "nonideal theory".
In Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls turned towards the question of political legitimacy in the context of intractable philosophical, religious, and moral disagreement amongst citizens regarding the human good. Such disagreement, he insisted, was reasonable – the result of the free exercise of human rationality under the conditions of open enquiry and free conscience that the liberal state is designed to safeguard. The question of legitimacy in the face of reasonable disagreement was urgent for Rawls because his own justification of Justice as Fairness relied upon a Kantian conception of the human good that can be reasonably rejected. If the political conception offered in A Theory of Justice can only be shown to be good by invoking a controversial conception of human flourishing, it is unclear how a liberal state ordered according to it could possibly be legitimate.
The intuition animating this seemingly new concern is actually no different from the guiding idea of A Theory of Justice, namely that the fundamental charter of a society must rely only on principles, arguments and reasons that cannot be reasonably rejected by the citizens whose lives will be limited by its social, legal, and political circumscriptions. In other words, the legitimacy of a law is contingent upon its justification being impossible to reasonably reject. This old insight took on a new shape, however, when Rawls realized that its application must extend to the deep justification of Justice as Fairness itself, which he had presented in terms of a reasonably rejectable (Kantian) conception of human flourishing as the free development of autonomous moral agency.
The core of Political Liberalism, accordingly, is its insistence that, in order to retain its legitimacy, the liberal state must commit itself to the "ideal of public reason". This roughly means that citizens in their public capacity must engage one another only in terms of reasons whose status as reasons is shared between them. Political reasoning, then, is to proceed purely in terms of "public reasons". For example: a Supreme Court justice deliberating on whether or not the denial to homosexuals of the ability to marry constitutes a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause may not advert to his religious convictions on the matter, but he may take into account the argument that a same-sex household provides sub-optimal conditions for a child's development. This is because reasons based upon the interpretation of sacred text are non-public (their force as reasons relies upon faith commitments that can be reasonably rejected), whereas reasons that rely upon the value of providing children with environments in which they may develop optimally are public reasons – their status as reasons draws upon no deep, controversial conception of human flourishing.
Rawls held that the duty of civility – the duty of citizens to offer one another reasons that are mutually understood as reasons – applies within what he called the "public political forum". This forum extends from the upper reaches of government – for example the supreme legislative and judicial bodies of the society – all the way down to the deliberations of a citizen deciding for whom to vote in state legislatures or how to vote in public referenda. Campaigning politicians should also, he believed, refrain from pandering to the non-public religious or moral convictions of their constituencies.
The ideal of public reason secures the dominance of the public political values – freedom, equality, and fairness – that serve as the foundation of the liberal state. But what about the justification of these values? Since any such justification would necessarily draw upon deep (religious or moral) metaphysical commitments which would be reasonably rejectable, Rawls held that the public political values may only be justified privately by individual citizens. The public liberal political conception and its attendant values may and will be affirmed publicly (in judicial opinions and presidential addresses, for example) but its deep justifications will not. The task of justification falls to what Rawls called the "reasonable comprehensive doctrines" and the citizens who subscribe to them. A reasonable Catholic will justify the liberal values one way, a reasonable Muslim another, and a reasonable secular citizen yet another way. One may illustrate Rawls's idea using a Venn diagram: the public political values will be the shared space upon which overlap numerous reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Rawls's account of stability presented in A Theory of Justice is a detailed portrait of the compatibility of one – Kantian – comprehensive doctrine with justice as fairness. His hope is that similar accounts may be presented for many other comprehensive doctrines. This is Rawls's famous notion of an "overlapping consensus".
Such a consensus would necessarily exclude some doctrines, namely, those that are "unreasonable", and so one may wonder what Rawls has to say about such doctrines. An unreasonable comprehensive doctrine is unreasonable in the sense that it is incompatible with the duty of civility. This is simply another way of saying that an unreasonable doctrine is incompatible with the fundamental political values a liberal theory of justice is designed to safeguard – freedom, equality and fairness. So one answer to the question of what Rawls has to say about such doctrines is – nothing. For one thing, the liberal state cannot justify itself to individuals (such as religious fundamentalists) who hold to such doctrines, because any such justification would – as has been noted – proceed in terms of controversial moral or religious commitments that are excluded from the public political forum. But, more importantly, the goal of the Rawlsian project is primarily to determine whether or not the liberal conception of political legitimacy is internally coherent, and this project is carried out by the specification of what sorts of reasons persons committed to liberal values are permitted to use in their dialogue, deliberations and arguments with one another about political matters. The Rawlsian project has this goal to the exclusion of concern with justifying liberal values to those not already committed – or at least open – to them. Rawls's concern is with whether or not the idea of political legitimacy fleshed out in terms of the duty of civility and mutual justification can serve as a viable form of public discourse in the face of the religious and moral pluralism of modern democratic society, not with justifying this conception of political legitimacy in the first place.
Rawls also modified the principles of justice as follows (with the first principle having priority over the second, and the first half of the second having priority over the latter half):
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". The two parts of the second principle are also switched, so that the difference principle becomes the latter of the three.
Although there were passing comments on international affairs in A Theory of Justice, it wasn't until late in his career that Rawls formulated a comprehensive theory of international politics with the publication of The Law of Peoples. He claimed there that "well-ordered" peoples could be either "liberal" or "decent". Rawls argued that the legitimacy of a liberal international order is contingent on tolerating decent peoples, which differ from liberal peoples, among other ways, in that they might have state religions and deny adherents of minority faiths the right to hold positions of power within the state, and might organize political participation via consultation hierarchies rather than elections. However, no well-ordered peoples may violate human rights or behave in an externally aggressive manner. Peoples that fail to meet the criteria of "liberal" or "decent" peoples are referred to as "outlaw states", "societies burdened by unfavourable conditions" or "benevolent absolutisms" depending on their particular failings. Such peoples do not have the right to mutual respect and toleration possessed by liberal and decent peoples.
Rawls's views on global distributive justice as they were expressed in this work surprised many of his fellow egalitarian liberals. For example, Charles Beitz had previously written a study that argued for the application of Rawls's Difference Principles globally. Rawls denied that his principles should be so applied, partly on the grounds that states, unlike citizens, were self-sufficient in the cooperative enterprises that constitute domestic societies. Although Rawls recognized that aid should be given to governments which are unable to protect human rights for economic reasons, he claimed that the purpose for this aid is not to achieve an eventual state of global equality, but rather only to ensure that these societies could maintain liberal or decent political institutions. He argued, among other things, that continuing to give aid indefinitely would see nations with industrious populations subsidize those with idle populations and would create a moral hazard problem where governments could spend irresponsibly in the knowledge that they will be bailed out by those nations who had spent responsibly.
Rawls's discussion of "non-ideal" theory, on the other hand, included a condemnation of bombing civilians and of the American bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War II, as well as discussions of immigration and nuclear proliferation. He also detailed here the ideal of the statesman, a political leader who looks to the next generation and promotes international harmony, even in the face of significant domestic pressure to act otherwise. Rawls also controversially claimed that violations of human rights can legitimize military intervention in the violating states, though he also expressed the hope that such societies could be induced to reform peacefully by the good example of liberal and decent peoples.
John Rawls is also the subject of A Theory of Justice: The Musical!, an award-nominated musical billed as an 'all-singing, all-dancing romp through 2,500 years of political philosophy'. The musical premiered at Oxford in 2013 and was revived for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Religious beliefs, argues John Rawls—a Harvard philosopher and self- identifying atheist—can be so divisive in a pluralistic culture that they subvert the stability of a society.
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