Rawls, John Bordley

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Rawls, John Bordley

John Bordley Rawls, 1921–2002, American philosopher and political theorist, b. Baltimore, grad. Princeton (A.B., 1943; Ph.D., 1950). He taught at Princeton (1950–52), Cornell (1953–59), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960–62) before becoming (1962) professor of philosophy at Harvard. Rawls's chief work, A Theory of Justice (1971, 2d ed. 1999), has been called the 20th century's most influential work of liberal political philosophy. In it, he attempts, within the social contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, to offer an alternative to utilitarian political philosophy (see utilitarianism). His system was developed from two basic principles: Each person has a right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with like liberty for others, and inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power are just only when they can be reasonably expected to work to the advantage of those who are worst off. For Rawls, justice does not require equality in social position, but it does require that people share one another's fate.

Providing the social contract tradition with a formidable philosophic defense by balancing the claims of liberty and equality, Rawls's book revived interest in systematic political theory. His other works include The Law of Peoples (1999) and Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (2000). He restated and enlarged the arguments of his 1971 magnum opus, replying to his critics and correcting what he perceived as mistakes in the original work while aiming at a broader audience, in his Justice as Fairness (2001). Rawls's liberalism has often been compared to the conservatism of his fellow Harvard philosophy professor, Robert Nozick.

See studies by B. M. Barry (1973), R. P. Wolff (1977), D. L. Schaefer (1979), A. Pampapathy Rao (1979, 1981, and 1998), R. Martin (1985), T. W. Pogge (1989), C. Kukathas and P. Pettit (1990), J. A. Corlett, ed. (1991), R. Alejandro (1998), D. A. Dombrowski (2001), and R. B. Talisse (2001).

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