Rawls, John Bordley

Rawls, John Bordley
▪ 2003

      American philosopher (b. Feb. 21, 1921, Baltimore, Md.—d. Nov. 24, 2002, Lexington, Mass.), was among the most influential political thinkers of the 20th century. Rawls, who obtained a B.A. from Princeton University in 1943, spent two years in the Pacific with the U.S. Army before returning to Princeton, where he earned a Ph.D. (1950) in philosophy. He taught at Princeton (1950–52), Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (1953–59), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960–62), and Harvard University (1962–91), where he was James Bryant Conant University Professor from 1979. In 1953 Rawls was a Fulbright fellow at the University of Oxford, where he came under the influence of Isaiah Berlin and H.L.A. Hart. Rawls's book A Theory of Justice (1971) was instrumental in changing the emphasis of political philosophy from the analysis of political language to substantive inquiry into issues such as justice, liberty, and equality. Rawls's theory of justice was a response to utilitarianism, the theory that defines the just act as that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In Rawls's opinion, utilitarianism could not provide a foundation for the rights of the individual within society. Rather, Rawls reached back to the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to develop a theory in which social justice was compatible with individual rights. Rawls inquired into the conditions under which individuals would agree to a given set of political and social arrangements. He maintained that they would have to be ignorant of the outcomes of a particular arrangement, for no one would agree to an arrangement under which he or she would come out a loser. Hence, for Rawls such agreement would have to take place under what he called a “veil of ignorance.” Under such conditions, according to Rawls, people would act in a risk-averse manner and would follow Rawls's two principles of justice—first, that each person should have the most liberty compatible with like liberty for others and, second, that social inequalities should be organized so as to advantage the worst-off. Among Rawls's other books were Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001). In 1999 Rawls was awarded the National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Universalium. 2010.

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