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Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue: The Philosopher of Rational Liberalism

The Rigorous Compassion of John Rawls
Douglas Martin, The New York Times 26.November.2002  

John Rawls, the American political theorist whose work gave new meaning and resonance to the concepts of justice and liberalism, died on Sunday.

The publication of his book "A Theory of Justice" in 1971 was perceived as a watershed moment in modern philosophy and came at a time of furious national debate over the Vietnam War and the fight for racial equality. Not only did it veer from the main current of philosophical thought, which was then logic and linguistic analysis, it also stimulated a revival of attention to moral philosophy. Dr. Rawls made a sophisticated argument for a new concept of justice, based on simple fairness.

Before Dr. Rawls, the concept of utilitarianism, meaning that a society ought to work for the greatest good of the greatest number of people, held sway as the standard for social justice. He wrote that this approach could ride roughshod over the rights of minorities. Moreover, the liberty of an individual is of only secondary importance compared with the majority's interests.

His new theory began with two principles. The first was that each individual has a right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the same liberty for others. The second was that social and economic inequalities are just only to the extent that they serve to promote the well-being of the least advantaged.

But how could people agree to structure a society in accordance with these two principles? Dr. Rawls's response was to revive the concept of the social contract developed earlier by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

For people to make the necessary decisions to arrive at the social contract, Dr. Rawls introduced the concept of a "veil of ignorance." This meant that each person must select rules to live by without knowing whether he will be prosperous or destitute in the society governed by the rules he chooses. He called this the "original position."

An individual in the "original position" will choose the society in which the worst possible position — which, for all he knows, will be his — is better than the worst possible position in any other system.

The result, Dr. Rawls argued, was that the least fortunate would be best protected. The lowest rung of society would be higher. Though inequalities would not be abolished by favoring the neediest, they would be minimized, he argued.


In later works, Dr. Rawls expanded his arguments to suggest how a pluralistic society can be just to all its members. His idea was that the public could reason things out, provided comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrines are avoided. Dr. Rawls, like Kant, whom he revered, believed that as liberal democracies capable of such reasonableness spread, wars would be avoided.

Dr. Rawls's impact is suggested by the 5,000 books or articles that took up the discussion. Many who bought Dr. Rawls's book — which sold 200,000 copies, a huge number for an academic work — were dazzled by his intellectual dexterity and moral clarity. Ben Rogers wrote in 1999 in The New Statesman that "Rawls has been recognized as the most important English-speaking philosopher of his generation." Mr. Rogers went on to say that Dr. Rawls "through a mixture of bold thought experiment, conceptual rigor and historical imagination, more or less invented analytic political thought."

John Bordley Rawls was born the second of five sons in Baltimore on Feb. 21, 1921. His father, William Lee Rawls, did not attend law school but through a clerkship at a law firm learned enough to become a lawyer and argue cases before the Supreme Court. His mother's advocacy of voting rights for women, among other issues, greatly influenced his own political and moral development.

He graduated from the Kent School in Connecticut and from Princeton University, and planned to become a minister. But after serving as a combat infantryman in the South Pacific in World War II, he gave up his aspiration without explaining why, his wife said.

He returned to Princeton and earned a doctorate in philosophy, a decision he always explained by joking that he was not good enough in music or math. His interest in developing a theory of justice began in graduate school.

He taught at Oxford, Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before settling at Harvard, where his final position was James Bryant Conant university professor emeritus. His books included "Political Liberalism" (Columbia, 1993); Collected Papers (Harvard, 1999); "The Law of Peoples; with, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" (Harvard, 1999) and "Justice as Fairness, a Restatement" (Harvard, 2001).

A modest, tweedy man, he turned down hundreds of honorary degrees, and accepted them only from universities with which he was associated (Oxford, Princeton, Harvard). In 1999, he won a National Humanities Medal, with the citation noting his success in helping women enter the ranks of a male-dominated field.

Dr. Rawls's concern for justice and individual happiness is seen in a story from Harvard. When a candidate was defending his dissertation, Dr. Rawls noticed the sun shining in his eyes. He positioned himself between the candidate and the sunlight for the rest of the session.