John Bordley Rawls (February 21, 1921–November 24, 2002) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to William Lee Rawls, a prominent lawyer, and Anna Abell Stump. After attending the Kent School in Connecticut, he entered Princeton University in 1939. Although Rawls had intended to pursue a major in the natural sciences, he found himself drawn to philosophy.
Rawls immersed himself in the works of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. As a practicing Christian, he was especially drawn to moral philosophy, and came under the tutelage of Norman Malcolm. Rawl’s senior thesis (made available in print by Harvard University Press in 2010) was titled “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.” The thesis contains and anticipates many of the themes present in Rawls’s professional publications, such as a concern with morality and a critique of inequality. But as the editors of the volume note, it also discloses “a deep religious temperament,” one that is obscured in Rawls’s mature works and neglected by scholarly studies of his thought.
In the months leading up to his graduation in 1943, Rawls considered entering an Episcopal seminary to study for the priesthood. However, with the United States now engaged in World War II, most of his classmates were enlisting in the armed forces, and Rawls followed suit. He served with the infantry in the South Pacific, first in New Guinea, where he earned a Bronze Star, and then in the Philippines. In late 1945, following the defeat of Japan, he was sent to serve with occupying forces in that country. Based on the account that Rawls provides in his semi-autobiographical “On My Religion” (apparently written in the 1990s, but published posthumously in the volume containing “A Brief Inquiry”), by this time Rawls’s orthodox Christian beliefs had started to erode in the face of the tragedy of the war and the Holocaust, and he abandoned plans to study for the priesthood. Instead, financed by the GI Bill, he began graduate studies in philosophy at Princeton. After four years of study, which included a year at Cornell, he received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950. His dissertation was “A Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge: Considered with Reference to Judgments on the Moral Worth of Character.”
While completing his dissertation, Rawls took several graduate seminars outside the philosophy department. These included classes in economics, American political thought, and constitutional law. Rawls continued to pursue these subjects while teaching philosophy at Princeton for two years, beginning in the fall of 1950.
Rawls’s friendship with J. O. Urmson, a visiting philosophy professor from Oxford University, enhanced his knowledge of contemporary developments in the field in Great Britain. Encouraged by Urmson, he spent the 1952–53 year at Oxford on a Fulbright Fellowship. There he met and was encouraged by Herbert Hart and attended seminars led by Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire. In the fall of 1953 Rawls became an assistant professor at Cornell University, joining his mentor Norman Malcolm in the Philosophy Department. Three years later Rawls received tenure at Cornell.
During the 1959–60 academic year Rawls was a visiting professor at Harvard, and he was appointed in 1960 as a professor in the humanities division at MIT. Two years later he returned to Harvard as a professor of philosophy, and he remained there until reaching mandatory retirement age in 1991. During his long tenure at Harvard, Rawls trained many prominent figures in contemporary moral and political philosophy, including Thomas Nagel, Onora O’Neill, Christine Korsgaard, T. M. Scanlon, Barbara Herman, and Joshua Cohen.
Rawls focused his scholarship on the twin themes of justice and fairness. By building on the moral philosophy of Kant, and drawing upon the social contract theories of thinkers such as John Locke, Rawls developed an egalitarian philosophy characterized by reasonable pluralism in which he attempted to show how the same basic social and economic liberties could be secured for everyone in society.
One of Rawls’s earliest published attempts at this task was the essay “Justice as Fairness,” which appeared in the Journal of Philosophy. Over the next fourteen years the subject consumed Rawls, at a time when social justice for black Americans and other minorities had become a major public issue. His conclusions resulted in his first book, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. The work was avowedly redistributionist in its economic implications and made a significant impression among scholars, political figures, and the reading public. It provided the impetus for many works developing its arguments and for libertarian and communitarian critiques such as those of Robert Nozick and Michael Sandel. President Bill Clinton claimed in awarding him a 1999 National Medal of Arts that “Almost single-handedly John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate help the least fortunate is not only a moral [requirement] but a logical one.”
Rawls’s later publications were elaborations and restatements of A Theory of Justice. In Political Liberalism (1993) he specifically addresses the practical question of how to achieve justice in a modern pluralistic democracy whose citizens have competing and ultimately irreconcilable views. The Law of Peoples (2001) reworks two essays written during the prior decade that examine transnational justice, arguing that reason based on common sense and enlightened self-interest will, of necessity, ultimately prevail in dealings among nations. That same year he published Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (ed. Erin Kelly), a revised and considerably shorter version of A Theory of Justice that seeks to clarify the arguments he made in the earlier work and to answer the objections of its critics.
Rawls’s other books include Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (ed. Barbara Herman, 2000), a selection of his classroom presentations, and Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (ed. Samuel Freeman, 2007), a similar collection. His Collected Papers (ed. Samuel Freeman) was published in 1999.
Rawls’s papers are housed at the Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
For biographical information, see especially Thomas Pogge, John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, tr. Michelle Kosch (2007).
Samuel Freeman, Rawls (2007), provides a clearly written introduction to Rawls’s philosophy, as well as Samuel Freeman, Justice and the Social Contract: Essays on Rawlsian Political Philosophy (2007). In addition, see Alan Ryan, “John Rawls,” in Quentin Skinner, ed., The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (1985).
David A. Reidy, ed., John Rawls (2008), is a collection of scholarly commentaries on Rawls’s political theory. Another collection is Rex Martin and David A. Reidy, eds., Rawls’s Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia? (2006).
Stuart Hampshire, “A New Philosophy of the Just Society,” New York Review of Books, February 24, 1972, is a discursive and often cited review of A Theory of Justice.
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), offers a notable critique of Rawls, especially pp. 183-231.
Martha Nussbaum,“The Enduring Significance of John Rawls,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 20, 2001, is an eminently readable appraisal of Rawls’s political theory, underlining the significance of the debate that his work provoked as well as proposing new approaches to the problems he addressed.
An obituary is in the New York Times, November 26, 2002; see also two New York Times posthumous op-ed tributes: Michael M. Weinstein,“Bringing Logic to Bear on Liberal Dogma,” December 1, 2002, and Martha Nussbaum,“Making Philosophy Matter to Politics,” December 2, 2002.