John Rawls (February 21, 1921 - November 24, 2002) was a philosopher, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University and author of A Theory of Justice (1971), Political Liberalism, and The Law of Peoples.
John Borden (Bordley) Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the second of five sons to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump. Rawls only attended school in Baltimore for a short time before transferring to a renowned Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut called Kent. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls went on to Princeton University where he became interested in philosophy. In 1943, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and joined the army. During this time (World War II), Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific where he toured New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan and witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After this experience, Rawls turned down the offer of becoming an officer and left the army as a private in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Princeton to write a doctorate in moral philosophy. Rawls then married Margaret Fox, a Brown graduate, in 1949. Margaret and John had a shared interest in indexing - they spent their first holiday together writing the index for a book on Nietzsche, and Rawls wrote the index for A Theory of Justice himself. After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950, Rawls decided to teach 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 of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Next, he returned to the United States, serving first as an assistant and then associate professor at Cornell University. Finally in 1962, he became a full professor of philosophy at Cornell. Another accomplishment made in the early 1960s was his achievement of a tenured position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, he moved to Harvard University two years later, where he remained for almost forty years. Unfortunately, Rawls suffered the first of several strokes in 1995, which severely impeded his ability to continue working. Nonetheless, he was still able to complete a work entitled, The Law of Peoples, which contains the most complete statement of his views on international justice.
Rawls's Contribution to Political and Moral Philosophy
Many academic philosophers believe that Rawls has made an important and lasting contribution to political philosophy. Others find Rawls's work unpersuasive and disengaged from political praxis. There is general agreement, however, that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 led to a revival in the academic study of political philosophy. Rawls's work has crossed disciplinary lines, receiving serious attention from economists, legal scholars, political scientists, sociologists, and theologians. Rawls has the unique distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States.
A Theory of Justice
Method: The Original Position and Reflective Equilibrium
In his most famous book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued for the two principles using the thought experiment of the original position, from which representatives would select principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. The original position is to be understood as a development of the social contract theories associated with Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and Immanuel Kant whose work is very crucial for him. Rawls argued that the representative parties in the original position would select justice as fairness, including the liberty principle and the difference principle, to govern the basic structure of society. In addition to the original position, Rawls relied on the notion of reflective equilibrium, which tests the results obtained from the original position against our considered judgments about particular cases.
The Two Principles of Justice: The Liberty Principle and the Difference Principle
The two principles of justice are the liberty principle and the difference principle. The two principles are intended to apply to the basic structure of society--the fundamental political and economic arrangements--as opposed to particular actions by governmental officials or individual statutes. The liberty principle requires that the basic structure provide each citizen with a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties--such as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and due process of law. The difference principle requires that inequalities in wealth and social position be arranged so as to the benefit the worst off group in the world. Rawls states that the two principles are lexically ordered, with the liberty principle taking precedence over the difference principle in the case of conflict.
Rawls revised the two principles over time. A Theory of Justice contains the first and most widely cited version of the principles, but Rawls modified them in Political Liberalism and Justice as Fairness. All three works should be consulted for a full appreciation of the content and meaning of the two principles. It also relates to right and wrong.
The original position and the veil of ignorance
The veil of ignorance is a concept used by Rawls to arrive at the two principles of justice. The veil of ignorance requires that when people decide on the principles of justice they are not aware of their specific set of circumstances. Since the principles that will emerge will not be designed to advantage/disadvantage individuals in particular sets of circumstances, the principles to emerge from behind the veil of ignorance can be characterized as fair.
Clearly we cannot in reality shield individuals from the knowledge of the particular set of circumstances that surround their lives. However, Rawls does not expect the veil of ignorance to be applied to individuals. Indeed Rawls concedes that the original conditions required are “unusual.” (pg. 16, A theory of justice, Belknap Press, revised edition.)
The aim of invoking the idea of the veil of ignorance is to use it as a test for the fairness of the principles of justice. Thus principles that would not emerge from behind a veil of ignorance, were it to exist, would not be acceptable.
Thus principles that would be proposed if ones unique circumstances were known, are ruled out. This is done by ensuring that only such information is taken into consideration as is necessary to conceive of principles of justice.
The initial condition therefore has two functions:
Criticism of A Theory of Justice
Rawls's work was (respectfully) contested by his libertarian Harvard colleague Robert Nozick, and today Rawls's A Theory of Justice and Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) are often read in conjunction with each other to examine the points of disagreement between social liberals and libertarians.
Philosophers who have attempted to improve or clarify A Theory of Justice include Martha Nussbaum, who has reinterpreted Rawls's arguments in terms of capabilities or 'substantial freedoms', a concept borrowed from Amartya Sen.
Rawls's later work focused on the question of stability: could a society ordered by the two principles of justice endure? His answer to this question is contained in a collection of lectures titled Political Liberalism. In Political Liberalism, Rawls introduced the idea of an overlapping consensus--or agreement on justice as fairness between citizens who hold different religious and philosophical views (or conceptions of the good). Political Liberalism also introduced the idea of public reason--the common reason of all citizens. vvcvcx
Works by Rawls
Selected Secondary Literature
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