The Philosophy of Justice: John Rawls

By Ponce, Pedro | Humanities, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Philosophy of Justice: John Rawls


Ponce, Pedro, Humanities


JOHN RAWLS IS ONE OF THE MOST influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. But from his colleagues' descriptions, he doesn't give it away in his demeanor.

"He's famously modest as a person," says Professor T. M. Scanlon, a former student of Rawls, who now teaches in the Harvard University philosophy department. "He's never expected any special treatment for his accomplishments. and eminence in the field."

Rawls's eminence is indisputable. Says Scanlon: "He was instrumental in reviving political philosophy, raising it to a new level in the English-speaking community."

Rawls, 78, grew up in Baltimore. His father was a prominent lawyer. The example of his mother, at one time president of the League of Women Voters' Baltimore chapter, helped inspire his long-standing interest in women's rights.

After attending private school in western Connecticut, Rawls enrolled at Princeton University in 1939. "I don't think we know really how we become interested in something, or why," he told the Harvard Review of Philosophy in 1991. "We can only say what happened when I went to Princeton and eventually became a philosophy major."

Following graduation, Rawls served army stints in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan during World War 11. He returned to Princeton in 1946. During the final years of his doctoral studies, he met and married his wife, Margaret. Since their marriage in 1949, they have raised four children.

In 1950, he joined the Princeton faculty as an instructor. Drawing from his own work in moral theory and from close readings of economists like J. R. Hicks and Frank Knight, Rawls turned to the question of how people can arrive at reasonable principles of justice.

Rawls eventually conceived of a hypothetical state of equality, the original position, in which people did not know their own gender, race, religion, and other personal particulars. Rawls believed that, ignorant of such information about themselves, they would shape principles of justice

that accommodated a broad range of individual rights.

As he developed his theory, Rawls held teaching posts at Cornell University and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. …

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