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John Rawls

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edit index John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls (21 Feb 1921 - 24 Nov 2002), a Harvard University professor, was a leading American figure in Moral Philosophy. Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971) is considered a primary text in political and ethical reasoning, and he earned a Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy, and a National Humanities Medal presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999, recognizing how Rawls "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in Democracy itself." A Theory of Justice, with its "Liberalist" idea of "Justice as Fairness", the idea of liberty and fair equality of opportunity working with the real differences brought about by the "Original Position", helped revive study of Philosophy in America during the 1970s and following. The work crossed disciplinary lines to earn serious attention from the viewpoints of Sociology, Economics, Law, Political Science, and Theology. Rawls holds unique distinction among contemporary philosophers in being regularly cited by Courts of Law and referred to in Politics.

Life and Works

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Rawls was second of five sons of William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump, and attended Kent Episcopal School in Connecticut and Princeton University, where he was elected to the The Ivy Club. After completing his BA degree, Rawls joined the US Army during World War II, serving as an infantryman in the Pacific, witnessing the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. He turned down an officer commission and returned to Princeton to pursue his doctorate in Philosophy, marrying Margaret Fox in 1949 and teaching there until 1952. A Fulbright Fellowship led him to Oxford University, where would be influenced by the liberal political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin and legal theorist H.L.A. Hart. Back in the United States, he became a professor at Cornell University, and eventually earned a tenured position at MIT, but by 1962, moved to Harvard University and went on to train younger philosophers including Thomas Nagel. Rawls suffered the first of several strokes in 1995, but continued working until his death in 2002.

In the 1971 A Theory of Justice, Rawls asked what principles of Justice we would agree to if we desired to cooperate with others. We are all rational and reasonable, he said, and we would naturally affirm a principle of equal basic liberties. Yet, whatever our station in society, liberties must also represent meaningful options for us. Such principles of Justice make up the "basic structure" of American social institutions, whether the Constitution, the Courts, or the marketplace. The resulting "Liberalism" is understood better as a focus on the stability of government and society, where he focused his attention in later works and in answering objections to his two principles. For Rawls, people with conflicting Metaphysics, Theology and Politics would rationally agree to regulate the basic structure of society using abstract principles when they realize they must live and work together.

This abstractness distinguishes Rawls from other notable philosophers in working to arrive at a consensus, without appealing to any particular metaphysical, theological, or political answers of his own. Rawls' Liberalism differs John Locke, especially from John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, all of whom promoted particular cultural values which societies should endorse, and the latter favouring social systems which enforced those values. Instead, Rawls argued the very legitimacy of national and international order is contingent on tolerating different views, peoples, and cultures, much the same way as Immanuel Kant had argued, describing a "Kingdom of Ends". No state, for Rawls, should violate "human rights" or behave aggressively toward other nations, and those who do are seen as "outlaw", "rogue" states. This is not an effort to achieve an eventual state of global equality or "utopia", but rather only to ensure that societies maintain reasonable institutions for political, economic, and ethical reasons of their own.

Further Reading

  • A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Revised 1999, incorporates translated edition changes.
  • Political Liberalism: The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy, 4. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • The Law of Peoples, with "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited." Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Collected Papers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001.
  • Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007.


Journal Articles

  • "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): 177-197.
  • "Two Concepts of Rules." Philosophical Review (January 1955), 64 (1):3-32.
  • "Justice as Fairness." Journal of Philosophy (October 24, 1957), 54 (22): 653-662.
  • "Justice as Fairness." Philosophical Review (April 1958), 67 (2): 164-194.
  • "The Sense of Justice." Philosophical Review (July 1963), 72 (3): 281-305.
  • "Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice" Nomos VI (1963) (in the notes to the second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek refers to this article to show that Rawls agreed with the Lockean conception that what could be just or unjust was the way competition was carried on, not its results)
  • "Distributive Justice: Some Addenda." Natural Law Forum (1968), 13: 51-71.
  • "Reply to Lyons and Teitelman." Journal of Philosophy (October 5, 1972), 69 (18): 556-557.
  • "Reply to Alexander and Musgrave." Quarterly Journal of Economics (November 1974), 88 (4): 633-655.
  • "Some Reasons for the Maximin Criterion." American Economic Review (May 1974), 64 (2): 141-146.
  • "Fairness to Goodness." Philosophical Review (October 1975), 84 (4): 536-554.
  • "The Independence of Moral Theory." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association (November 1975), 48: 5-22.
  • "A Kantian Conception of Equality." Cambridge Review (February 1975), 96 (2225): 94-99.
  • "The Basic Structure as Subject." American Philosophical Quarterly (April 1977), 14 (2): 159-165.
  • "Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory." Journal of Philosophy (September 1980), 77 (9): 515-572.
  • "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical." Philosophy & Public Affairs (Summer 1985), 14 (3): 223-251.
  • "The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus." Oxford Journal for Legal Studies (Spring 1987), 7 (1): 1-25.
  • "The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good." Philosophy & Public Affairs (Fall 1988), 17 (4): 251-276.
  • "The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus." New York University Law Review (May 1989), 64 (2): 233-255.
  • "Roderick Firth: His Life and Work." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (March 1991), 51 (1): 109-118.
  • "The Law of Peoples." Critical Inquiry (Fall 1993), 20 (1): 36-68.
  • "Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason." Journal of Philosophy (March 1995), 92 (3):132-180.
  • "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," Chicago Law Review (1997), 64 (3): 765-807. [PRR]


Chapters in Collected Books

  • "Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice." In Carl J. Friedrich and John W. Chapman, eds., Nomos, VI: Justice, pp. 98-125. Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy. New York: Atherton Press, 1963.
  • "Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play." In Sidney Hook, ed., Law and Philosophy: A Symposium, pp. 3-18. New York: New York University Press, 1964. Proceedings of the 6th Annual New York University Institute of Philosophy.
  • "Distributive Justice." In Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, eds., Philosophy, Politics, and Society. Third Series, pp. 58-82. London: Blackwell; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
  • "The Justification of Civil Disobedience." In Hugo Adam Bedau, ed., Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice, pp. 240-255. New York: Pegasus Books, 1969.
  • "Justice as Reciprocity." In Samuel Gorovitz, ed., Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill: With Critical Essays, pp. 242-268. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
  • "Author's Note." In Thomas Schwartz, ed., Freedom and Authority: An Introduction to Social and Political Philosophy, p. 260. Encino & Belmont, California: Dickenson, 1973.
  • "Distributive Justice." In Edmund S. Phelps, ed., Economic Justice: Selected Readings, pp. 319-362. Penguin Modern Economics Readings. Harmondsworth & Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • "Personal Communication, January 31, 1976." In Thomas Nagel's "The Justification of Equality." Critica (April 1978), 10 (28): 9n4.
  • "The Basic Liberties and Their Priority." In Sterling M. McMurrin, ed., The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, III (1982), pp. 1-87. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • "Social Unity and Primary Goods." In Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond, pp. 159-185. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1982.
  • "Themes in Kant's Moral Philosophy." In Eckhart Forster, ed., Kant's Transcendental Deductions: The Three Critiques and the Opus postumum, pp. 81-113, 253-256. Stanford Series in Philosophy. Studies in Kant and German Idealism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1989.


Secondary Literature

  • Axel Hagerstrom's Inquiries into the Nature of Law and Morals (C.D. Broad, tr.). Mind (July 1955), 64 (255):421-422.
  • Stephen Toulmin's An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics (1950). Philosophical Review (October 1951), 60 (4): 572-580.
  • A. Vilhelm Lundstedt's Legal Thinking Revised. Cornell Law Quarterly (1959), 44: 169.
  • Raymond Klibansky, ed., Philosophy in Mid-Century: A Survey. Philosophical Review (January 1961), 70 (1): 131-132.
  • Richard B. Brandt, ed., Social Justice (1962). Philosophical Review (July 1965), 74(3): 406-409.


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Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article John Rawls under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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