The Antipolitical Philosophy of John Rawls

By Anderson, Brian C. | The Public Interest, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Antipolitical Philosophy of John Rawls


Anderson, Brian C., The Public Interest


AFTER the liberal philosopher John Rawls died of heart failure at the age of 81 last November, obituaries and remembrances in prominent places testified to the man's greatness as a thinker. The New York Times led the way, publishing three notices of Rawls's passing: an obituary declaring that he "gave new meaning and resonance to the concepts of justice and liberalism"; a "Week in Review" piece arguing that he provided "intellectual spine to liberals seeking tough-minded defense of their instinct to take from the rich and give to the poor"; and a lengthy op-ed by Martha Nussbaum, who called him "the most distinguished philosopher of the twentieth century." The Times's counterpart in England. the Guardian, asserted that Rawls "rejuvenated and transformed the study of political philosophy." Rawls's Harvard colleague (and critic) Michael Sandel, writing for the New Republic, bordered on the reverential. Sandel recalled the phone call he received from Rawls upon first arriving at Harvard as a young professor: "This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S." For Sandel, "It was as if God himself had called to invite me to lunch and spelled his name just in case I didn't know who he was."

Nor was it just the Left that celebrated Rawls's achievements. The Economist obituary described his massive 1971 book A Theory of Justice as a "philosophical classic," though how that work's radical egalitarianism squares with the magazine's free-market ideals is hard to see. Even the unabashedly conservative National Review Online had good things to say, running a tribute by legal theorist Richard Epstein praising Rawis as "a genuine leader in philosophical and political thought."

The outpouring of acclaim confirmed Rawls's prestige and influence, both in the academy and beyond. A Theory of Justice, translated into roughly two dozen languages, has reportedly sold upward of 400,000 copies worldwide--an amazing figure for any philosophical work, let alone one so dense and dryly expressed. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that since the 1970s, universities in the English-speaking world (and increasingly elsewhere) have transformed the teaching of political philosophy into an extended commentary on Rawls's thought. Thousands of essays and scores of books have appeared, defending Rawls, criticizing Rawls, seeking to go beyond Rawls. A bibliography of this commentary, notes French philosopher Luc Ferry, would run 800 pages in length. Law professors also use Rawls's work as a touchstone, and some scholars have noted increasing evidence of his influence on judicial decisions. In 1999, President Clinton awarded Rawls the Medal of Freedom. "Almost single-handedly," Clinton enthused, "John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy."

Yet the adulation Rawls's work has met with--the years scholars have dedicated to the study of A Theory of Justice, and the numerous honors he has received--is all a bit surprising. For Rawls's thought is a long lesson in how not to think about politics. The egalitarian liberalism Rawls called justice would be unworkable in practice, even if it were desirable. His works do not speak to any recognizable political world and ignore almost completely the real dilemmas and tragedies of our time.

Biography of an idea

John Borden Rawls was a private man who avoided publicity and gave only a couple of interviews during the course of his career. But some significant, if sketchy, biographical details have come to light in profiles by the British broadcaster Ben Rogers and political theorist Thomas Pogge. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Rawls was the second of Anna and William Rawls's five sons. The Rawlses were wealthy: His father was a tax attorney and constitutional authority, and his mother was the daughter of a prominent German family and president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. But successful as they were, the Rawlses did not escape tragedy.

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