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Liberal bias in academia
John Bordley Rawls (/rɔːlz/; February 21, 1921 – November 24,
2002) was an American moral and political philosopher in the liberal
tradition. He held the
James Bryant Conant
James Bryant Conant University
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
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
1.1 Early life
1.2 Military service, 1943–46
1.3 Academic career
1.4 Later life
2 Philosophical thought
2.1 A Theory of Justice
2.1.1 Principles of justice
2.2 Political Liberalism
Law of Peoples
3 Awards and honors
4 In popular culture
5.3 Book chapters
6 See also
9 External links
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.
Thomas Pogge calls the loss of the brothers the
"most important events in John's childhood".
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
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.
He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1943, and enlisted in the
Army in February of that year.
Military service, 1943–46
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
In early 1946, Rawls returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate
in moral philosophy.
He married Margaret Fox, a
Brown University graduate, in 1949.
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
Peoples, focused on the issue of global justice.
A Theory of 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
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
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
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.
Principles of justice
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
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
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
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
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):
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.
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". The two
parts of the second principle are also switched, so that the
difference principle becomes the latter of the three.
Law of Peoples
Main article: The
Law of Peoples
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
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
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.
Awards and honors
Bronze Star for radio work behind enemy lines in World
Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy (1999)
National Humanities Medal
National Humanities Medal (1999)
16561 Rawls is named in his honor
In popular culture
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.
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". Some Rawls
scholars use the abbreviation PL to refer to this work.
Law of Peoples: with "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited".
Harvard University Press, 1999. This slim
book includes two works; a further development of his essay entitled
Law of Peoples" and another entitled "Public Reason Revisited",
both published earlier in his career.
Collected Papers. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press,
1999. This collection of shorter papers was edited by Samuel Freeman.
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 to 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
Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. Cambridge,
Harvard University Press, 2007. Collection of lectures
on Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Joseph Butler, J.J. Rousseau, David
J.S. Mill and Karl Marx, edited by Samuel Freeman.
A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith. Cambridge,
Harvard University Press, 2010. With introduction and
commentary by Thomas Nagel, Joshua Cohen and Robert Merrihew Adams.
Senior thesis, Princeton, 1942. This volume includes a brief late
essay by Rawls entitled On My Religion.
"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): 177–97.
"Two Concepts of Rules." Philosophical Review (January 1955), 64
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"Distributive Justice: Some Addenda." Natural
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"Reply to Lyons and Teitelman." Journal of Philosophy (October 5,
1972), 69 (18): 556–57.
"Reply to Alexander and Musgrave." Quarterly Journal of Economics
(November 1974), 88 (4): 633–55.
"Some Reasons for the Maximin Criterion." American Economic Review
(May 1974), 64 (2): 141–46.
"Fairness to Goodness." Philosophical Review (October 1975), 84 (4):
"The Independence of Moral Theory." Proceedings and Addresses of the
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"A Kantian Conception of Equality." Cambridge Review (February 1975),
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"The Basic Structure as Subject." American Philosophical Quarterly
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"Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory." Journal of Philosophy
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Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical." Philosophy &
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"The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus." Oxford Journal for Legal
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"The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good." Philosophy & Public
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"The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus." New York
Law Review (May 1989), 64 (2): 233–55.
"Roderick Firth: His Life and Work." Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research (March 1991), 51 (1): 109–18.
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List of liberal theorists
Philosophy of economics
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whole experience was 'particularly terrible'..." From an article by
Iain King, titled Thinker at War: Rawls, published in Military History
Monthly, 13 June 2014, accessed 20 November 2014.
^ a b From article by Iain King, titled Thinker at War: Rawls,
published in Military History Monthly, 13 June 2014, accessed 20
^ "The total obliteration of physical infrastructure, and the even
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destruction had been deliberately inflicted by his own side, was
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^ From an article by Iain King, titled Thinker at War: Rawls,
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Tampio, N. (2011) "A Defense of Political Constructivism"
(Contemporary Political Theory, (subscription required))
Wenar, Leif (2008) "John Rawls" (The Stanford Encyclopedia of
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