John Rawls Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

The principal themes of Rawlsian justice have created an enormous literature among many diverse academic disciplines—among them philosophy, political science, economics, and sociology—having in common an interest in liberty, equality, and social justice. Critics of Rawls believe that his foundations are flawed and that his position signals the death of the era of liberalism and the demise of the Enlightenment tradition. After A Theory of Justice appeared, there was an academic shift caused by the critiques of libertarian Robert Nozick and communitarian Michael Sandel.

While acknowledging his indebtedness to the ethics of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Rawls presents his social contract as a public conception of justice. He argues that free persons who are equally situated and ignorant of their historical circumstances would agree to certain principles to secure their equal status and independence and to pursue their conceptions of the good.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls develops an imagined agreement meant to express terms of fair cooperation among free and equal citizens in a modern constitutional democracy. Rawls’s aim is “to provide the most appropriate moral basis for a democratic society.” Rawls views persons as free, equal, rational, and endowed with a moral capacity for a sense of justice. Because of differences in knowledge and circumstances, free persons will develop different conceptions of the good. Toward this end, they make conflicting claims on scarce resources. These scarce resources, along with the benefits and burdens resulting from social cooperation, must be divided using some principles of justice. Rawls contends that the appropriate way to decide such principles for a democratic society is by use of conjecture as to what principles free persons would agree to, among themselves, if they were given the opportunity. To ensure that this agreement is fair, they must bring to this task their own awareness of justice as well as historical circumstances, desires, and conceptions of the good. A key concept in Rawls’s theory is the “veil of ignorance.” When deciding the principles to which they would agree, people are assumed to be behind such a veil. They know general social, economic, psychological, and physical theories of all kinds, and they are aware that there are certain all-purpose means that are essential to achieving their good. These “primary social goods” are rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, and the basis of self-respect. People in Rawls’s principles-deciding task, however, do not know which social, economic, racial, or other class they will belong to after the principles of justice have been established.

These restrictions render Rawls’s parties strictly equal, enabling him to carry to the limit the intuitive idea of the democratic social contract tradition: that justice is what could, or would, be agreed to among free persons from a position of equality. Rawls views his strong equality condition and other moral conditions as reasonable restrictions on arguments for principles of justice for the basic structure of society. These conditions define the “original position,” the perspective from which rational agents are to agree. Rawls argues that the parties, after being presented with a list of all known conceptions of justice, would unanimously agree to justice as fairness, comprising two principles: (1) Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all; and (2)...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)