Chapter 9.  Rawl's Theory: Justice as Fairness
Section :  Rawl's Article

Making Philosophy Matter to Politics

December 2, 2002



John Rawls, who died last week at the age of 82, was the most distinguished political philosopher of the 20th

century. His is not a household name, in part because he disliked publicity. Yet, to a great degree, it is thanks to

John Rawls that philosophy has continued to animate politics. He enters philosophy's history alongside Locke,

Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Kant. One of his characteristically generous contributions was to insist on

the enduring significance of the writings of these historical figures: he constantly taught them in preference

to his own.

When Mr. Rawls began his career, these figures and their themes - social justice, free speech, respect for

human equality, religious pluralism - were neglected in philosophy. "Logical positivism" had convinced people 

there were only two things that it made sense to do: empirical research and conceptual analysis. Science did the

first, philosophy the second. So moral and political philosophy became the analysis of moral and political

concepts and how language conveyed them. Mr. Rawls, however, insisted on the importance of asking

the big normative questions like, What makes a society just? He used a method of justification that he associated

with Socrates, Aristotle and Sidgwick. He argued that, as we set out our ethical convictions, we try to identify

those that are deepest and most reliable. (His example is the belief that slavery is wrong.) We then examine these

convictions using the ethical theories known to us, seeking consistency and fit in our judgments taken as a whole.

Judgments sometimes yield to a convincing theory; and theories often undergo revision or rejection in the light

of judgments that they fail to fit.

Mr. Rawls believed that his own writings supplied only one of the theories we should consider in such a process. But

he also believed he could show that his theory was superior to some other theories that had held sway: for example,

utilitarianism, understood as the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. This theory, he argued, does

too little to respond to our conviction that each person's life is in certain ways inviolable. (Utilitarianism cannot

rule out slavery as being unjust, only for being inefficient.)

Beginning from this idea about each person's inviolability, Mr. Rawls invented the famous thought experiment called the

"original position," which represents people choosing principles of justice for the society in which they will

live. In the experiment, these people know that they have interests and plans, but they are behind a "veil of

ignorance," not permitted to know their class, race, sex, religion or the precise content of their plans of life.

Mr. Rawls argues that, under these conditions, they will give priority to a group of traditional religious and

political liberties on a basis of equality for all citizens. In the economic sphere they will permit

inequalities, but only when those raise the position of the least well off. "Purity of heart, if one could attain it,

would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view," says the last

sentence of "A Theory of Justice," published in 1971.

These famous arguments underwent some revision over time. Mr. Rawls focused increasingly on the issue of religious

pluralism, redesigning the theory to show that it could offer principles that all the major religions, and

nonreligious people, could accept as a basis for life together in a pluralistic society. Although he seemed to

lose interest in defending his economic principles against the criticism they increasingly received - as the Great

Society yielded to a new era in which these principles seemed increasingly radical - he did insist that the

American system of campaign financing was distorting the right to vote.

Another change was Mr. Rawls's growing interest in justice for women. Unlike some of his younger colleagues - Robert

Nozick, for example, who also died this year, a man of constantly surprising perceptions - Mr. Rawls had, at

first, little sense of the goals for which feminists were striving. But he understood that many of the proposed

changes were just, and he worked constantly to integrate a concern for women's equality into his work.

Although he never questioned the naturalness, in some sense, of the traditional nuclear family, he did much to

respond to feminist criticisms, acknowledging that families as we know them are often unjust to women. In his writings

on international justice, he repeatedly underlined the importance of women's equal opportunity as a key to global


John Rawls has sometimes been portrayed as a kind of natural saint, who effortlessly put others first. I believe

the reality was more complicated and more admirable than that: he had a keen sense of the emotions that make for

injustice, yet waged a constant struggle for justice. I recall a conversation with him about Wagner's "Tristan,"

when I was a young faculty member. I made some Nietzschean jibes about the otherworldliness of Wagnerian passion and

how silly it all was. Mr. Rawls, with sudden intensity, said to me that I must not make a joke about this. Wagner

was absolutely wonderful and therefore extremely dangerous.

You had to see the danger, he said, to comprehend how bad it would be to be seduced by that picture of life, with no

vision of the general good.

America has increasingly moved away from John Rawls. Inequalities have grown, and the electorate seems largely

indifferent to them. But our own greed and partiality can hardly diminish the virtues of his distinguished work.

Perhaps we can regard the occasion of his death as a challenge to look into ourselves and identify the roots of

those selfish passions that eclipse, so much of the time, the vision of the general good. Purity of heart would be to

see clearly what has blocked that vision and to act with grace and self-command toward the general good.

Martha Nussbaum is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


John Rawls, 81, Revived Ethics in Philosophy


November 26, 2002

Boston - John Rawls, a giant of 20th century philosophy who revived the study of ethics and became an intellectual hero of liberalism, died Sunday. He was 81.

Rawls is best known for his 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice," which revived the idea of the social compact. Each person, he argued, is entitled to certain rights that cannot be overridden even in the interests of society as a whole. His ideas revolutionized philosophy by returning it to questions of right and wrong, rescuing it from a preoccupation with the questions of logic and the philosophy of science that had come to dominate the field.

"His work is not going to be forgotten for decades, I think for centuries," said Hilary Putnam, his colleague in Harvard University's philosophy department for 35 years.

Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn confirmed that Rawls died Sunday but could not provide further details. Rawls had suffered a series of strokes starting in the mid-1990s, though he continued to publish until last year.

His colleagues said Rawls' greatest contribution may have been reviving the study of ethics in philosophy, forcing it to confront head-on questions of freedom, liberty and responsibility.

"He connected philosophy with democracy," said Joshua Cohen, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former student.

Rawls' work "systematized a great deal of liberal thought about what a just constitution is and what a just society is," Putnam said.

Born in Baltimore, Rawls received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton University. Tall and athletic, he was once offered a minor league baseball contract. He also served as an infantryman in the Pacific during World War II.

Rawls joined Harvard's philosophy department in 1962 and was given the title of "university professor," Harvard's highest teaching post, in 1979. His works included "Political Liberalism" (1993) and "Justice as Fairness: A Restatement" (2001).

The fruits of his labor are visible in Harvard's philosophy department, which is now evenly divided between ethicists and metaphysicists - something unimaginable before Rawls, Putnam noted.

And at Harvard and elsewhere, Cohen said, a generation of moral philosophers were trained at his feet.

Copyright (c) 2002, Newsday, Inc.


This article originally appeared at:,0,3866645.story


John Rawls, Theorist on Justice, Is Dead at 82

November 26, 2002


John Rawls, the American political theorist whose work gave new meaning and resonance to the concepts of justice and liberalism, died on Sunday at his home in Lexington, Mass.

He was 82.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Margaret, said. She said he had been incapacitated in varying degrees since suffering a stroke in 1995.

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.

Damon Linker in National Review in 2000 spoke for many conservative critics when he called Mr. Rawls's formulation hopelessly utopian. Mr. Rawls, he said, had "a childlike innocence about the ways of the world."

The conservative philosopher Robert Nozick likewise considered Dr. Rawls's argument egalitarian nonsense, but its 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 loved family vacations to Maine and would go on long sailing trips in a leaky boat. His love of the outdoors was later expressed in mountain climbing.

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.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Rawls is survived by his brother William Stow Rawls of Philadelphia; his daughters, Ann Warfield Rawls of Beverly Hills, Mich., and Elizabeth Fox Rawls of Cambridge, Mass.; his sons, Robert Lee, of Woodinville, Wash., and Alexander Emory, of Palo Alto, Calif.; and four grandchildren. 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.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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