Biography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Article abstract: A creative and original thinker, Rawls sought to present the basic political structure of democracy as a set of principles of justice obtained from a hypothetical social contract, a system of cooperation among equal citizens having a common allegiance.
In 1921, John Bordley Rawls was born to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abel Stemp Rawls. Rawls was educated at the Kent School, Princeton University, and Cornell University. He served in the United States Army from 1943 until 1946. He married Margaret Warfield Fox in 1949, and they had two sons and two daughters. He was an instructor at Princeton from 1950 until 1952, a Fulbright fellow at Oxford University from 1952 until 1953, and then an assistant and later an associate professor at Cornell from 1953 until 1959. He was a visiting professor at Harvard University from 1959 until 1960, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1960 until 1962, and the James Bryant Conant University Professor of Moral Philosophy at Harvard University from 1962 until his retirement sometime after 1993.
Rawls’s primary and most significant work is A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. In this highly controversial volume, Rawls presents a liberal, egalitarian, and moral conception of society and aims to explain and justify the basic structure of a constitutional democracy.
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John Rawls, who has taught at Harvard University from 1962 until his retirement sometime after 1993, was best known for A Theory of Justice. In that book, Rawls defended a theory of justice that sought to strike a compromise between the democratic ideals of equality and liberty. The theory was in the social contract tradition associated with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Rawls introduced the idea that the contract would establish abstract principles of justice rather than specific laws or arrangements. Rawls’s contract was a hypothetical one involving agents who have been idealized in certain ways to create what he called an “original position.”
Rawls argued that the agents in this original position should be ignorant of their own abilities and prospects in order to ensure that the principles they choose will be fair ones. The result, he argued, would be egalitarian principles that would maximize the position of the worst-off persons rather than maximize overall utility and that would protect certain basic liberties. Rawls was also known for the idea that any theory should be judged on the basis of whether it is the result of a process of “reflective equilibrium” in which one considers competing theories and their implications, testing these against one’s intuitions about general principles and cases.
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John Bordley Rawls is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. He was born on February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of William Lee Rawls and Anna Abel (Stump) Rawls. Rawls received a bachelor of arts degree from Princeton University in 1943. During World War II, he served in the military, stationed in the Pacific. He attended Cornell University for a year from 1947–1948 and earned a doctorate from Princeton in 1950. In 1949, he married Margaret Warfield Fox, with whom he had four children.
Throughout his academic career, Rawls held posts in philosophy departments at several prestigious universities in England and the United States, including Princeton University, Oxford University, Cornell University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became a professor of philosophy at Harvard University in 1962, where he remained through his semi-retirement as professor emeritus. As an academic, Rawls was active in several national organizations, serving as president of the American Association of Political and Legal Philosophers from 1970–1972, and president of the American Philosophical Association in 1974. He also co-edited the journal Philosophical Review from 1956–1959.
Rawls’s masterpiece of political philosophy, A Theory of Justice, was first published in 1971. Although he wrote numerous articles in academic journals, Rawls did not publish another book until the 1990s....
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