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John Rawls


John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland.  Rawls attended school in Baltimore for a short time before transferring to Kent School, an Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls attended Princeton University, where he became interested in philosophy, and was elected to the The Ivy Club. In 1943, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and joined the Army. During World War II, Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific, where he toured New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan; There, he witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After this experience, Rawls turned down an offer to become an officer and left the army as a private in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in moral philosophy. Rawls received 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 thought "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself."

After earning his Ph.D. 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. In 1964 he moved to Harvard University, where he taught for almost forty years, and where he trained many of the leading contemporary figures in moral and political philosophy, including Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Thomas Hill, Joshua Cohen, Christine Korsgaard, Susan Neiman, Thomas Pogge, Elizabeth S. Anderson, Barbara Herman, and Paul Weithman.

Rawls is noted for his contributions to liberal political philosophy. Among the ideas from Rawls' work that have received wide attention are:

Justice as Fairness, which consists of the liberty principle, fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle.

The original position.

Reflective equilibrium.

Overlapping consensus.

Public reason.

There is general agreement in academia that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 was important (some would say vital) to a revival, during the 1960s and 1970s, in the academic study of political philosophy. His 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 and referred to by practicing politicians in the United States and United Kingdom.


A Theory of Justice

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to reconcile liberty and equality in a principled way, offering an account of "justice as fairness." Central to this effort is his famous approach to the seemingly intractable problem of distributive justice.

Rawls appeals to the social contract. What principles of justice would we agree to if we desired to cooperate with others, but would also prefer more of the benefits, and less of the burdens, associated with cooperation? Justice as fairness is thus offered to people who are neither saintly altruists nor greedy egoists. Human beings are, as Rawls puts it, both rational and reasonable. Because we are rational we have ends we want to achieve, but we are reasonable insofar as we are happy to achieve these ends together if we can, in accord with mutually acceptable regulative principles. But given how different our needs and aspirations often are, how can we find principles that are acceptable to each of us? Rawls gives us a model of a fair situation for making this choice (his argument from the original position and the famous veil of ignorance), and he argues that two principles of justice would be especially attractive.

We would, Rawls argues, affirm a principle of equal basic liberties, thus protecting the familiar liberal freedoms of conscience, association, expression, and the like (included here is a right to hold and use personal property, but Rawls defends that right in terms of our moral capacities and self-respect,  not by appeal to a natural right of self-ownership, thus distinguishing his account from the classical liberalism of John Locke, and the libertarian stance of Robert Nozick). But we would also want to ensure that, whatever our station in society, liberties represent meaningful options for us. 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 is a non-starter: achieving this 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 we would be moved to affirm a second principle requiring fair equality of opportunity, paired with 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 (courts, markets, the constitution, etc), a qualification that has been the source of some controversy and constructive debate (see, for instance, the important work of Gerald Cohen). Rawls further argued that these principles were to be lexically ordered, thus giving 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," working "out 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." Does Rawls's theory tell us much that is useful about what we should do in societies already characterized by profound injustices, deep distrust, material deprivation, and the like?

Political Liberalism

Rawls' 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.

In Political Liberalism Rawls addressed the most common criticism leveled at A Theory of Justice — the criticism that the principles of justice were simply an alternative systematic conception of justice that was superior to utilitarianism or any other comprehensive theory. This meant that justice as fairness turned out to be simply another reasonable comprehensive doctrine that was incompatible with other reasonable doctrines. It failed to distinguish between a comprehensive moral theory which addressed the problem of justice and that of a political conception of justice that was independent of any comprehensive theory.

The political conception of justice that Rawls introduces in Political Liberalism is the view of justice that people with conflicting, but reasonable, metaphysical and/or religious views would agree to regulate the basic structure of society. What distinguishes Rawls' account from previous conceptions of liberalism is that it seeks to arrive at a consensus without appealing to any one metaphysical source of his own. Hence the idea of "political liberalism", contrary to John Locke or John Stuart Mill, who promote a more robust cultural and metaphysical liberal philosophy, Rawls' account is an attempt to secure the possibility of a liberal consensus regardless of the "deep" religious or metaphysical values that the parties endorse (so long as these remain open to compromise, i.e., "reasonable"). The ideal result is therefore conceived as an "overlapping consensus" because different and often conflicting accounts of morality, nature, etc., are intended to "overlap" with each other on the question of governance.

Rawls also modified the principles of justice to become the following :

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 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 the latter, which differ from liberal peoples, among other ways, in that they might have state religions and deny adherents of minority faiths to hold positions of power within the state, and 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. States that do so are referred to as "outlaw states," "societies burdened by unfavourable conditions" and "benevolent absolutisms", and do not have the right to mutual respect and toleration possessed by liberal and decent peoples.

Rawls' views on global distributive justice as they were expressed in this work surprised many of his fellow egalitarian liberals. Charles Beitz, for instance, had previously written a study that argued for the application of Rawls' Difference Principles globally. Rawls denied that his principles should be so applied, partly on the grounds that states were self-sufficient, unlike citizens, in the cooperative enterprises that constitute domestic societies. Although Rawls recognized that aid should be given to governments who 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' 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. Rawls also detailed here the ideal of the statesmen, a political leader who looks to the next generation, promotes international harmony, even in the face of significant domestic pressure to do otherwise. Rawls also claimed, controversially, that violations of human rights can legitimate 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.