The Economist, December 5, 2002.
WHEN young, John Rawls was a talented athlete. Instead of becoming one of America’s most distinguished political thinkers, he could have been a baseball player. Thin, quick and gangly, he would have made a perfect third baseman, a position requiring lightning reflexes and no time to think.
In the line he chose, however—close argument—Mr Rawls was a slow mover. He noted queries in pencil, responded to every objection and often begged for time with, “I’ll have to think about that.” Many philosophers treat their theories as extensions of themselves; his seemed more like a common enterprise. He was modest, claiming that he took up philosophy because he was not clever enough for music or mathematics. Others at his level were quicker. Few were as thorough.
The germ of “A Theory of Justice”, the book that to his surprise made him famous, began to circulate in draft soon after he reached Harvard from Princeton and MIT in 1962. By the time of its publication in 1971, Mr Rawls had done his best to work in answers to every possible objection. His assiduity made the book hard-going. It also meant that it met a test proposed by Hilary Putnam, a logician and colleague, for a philosophical classic: the smarter you get, the smarter it gets. The book has sold getting on for 400,000 copies, and exists in dozens of languages, most recently Arabic.
In “A Theory of Justice”, Mr Rawls attempted to lay out a defendable basis for an equality-minded liberalism. Its pillars were two principles of justice: the inviolability of individual rights and the idea that when justifying social inequality—some degree of which was inevitable in a flourishing and prosperous society—absolute priority should be given to the needs of the worst off. By putting rights back at the centre of the enterprise and by re-invoking the old idea of a notional social contract among putative equals, Mr Rawls did much to free political theory in America and Britain from apparent cul-de-sacs. It also encouraged philosophers to think more practically about moral issues in the public arena.
Challenges were not long in coming. Much fire was concentrated on Mr Rawls’s famous “veil of ignorance”: what principles of justice would we choose, he asked, if we did not know our talents, wealth or opinions? Would we be as risk-averse as he seemed to think? This eye-catching device actually mattered less to the whole than it looked. A more notable attack came from Robert Nozick (who died in January). In “Anarchy, State and Utopia” (1974), Nozick argued that Mr Rawls’s two principles of justice were in irreconcilable conflict. Attempts at redistribution to correct for inequality were bound, Nozick believed, to infringe on personal freedoms.
Conservatives took up Nozick’s charge with alacrity. Though socialists were lukewarm to Mr Rawls, the two men were soon represented outside the academy as prizefighters for right and left: in the blue corner, Nozick, in the red corner, Rawls.
For all its importance, the issue of redistribution arose for Mr Rawls from a deeper concern. How can people with conflicting ideas about morals, religion and the good life agree to principles that will allow them to live together in a decent society? Though the need for toleration is perfectly general, because of America’s divided history and his own family background, Mr Rawls felt its demands with unusual acuity.
He was born to a wealthy, professional family from Maryland, a slave-owning border state that stayed in the Union during the civil war. The father was a Baltimore lawyer who, to the son’s chagrin, shared the racial bigotry of his class and time. His mother campaigned for women’s rights.
Mr Rawls grew up with a powerful conscience. Though not conventionally religious, there was something deeply moral about him. At one time, he thought of becoming a minister of religion. Colleagues remember his kindness and wry humour. He was almost universally admired, even loved. Not all of us can be so good, of course. Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford political thinker, referred to him teasingly as Christ. Political opponents chided Mr Rawls for overplaying human decency and underestimating our selfishness. A conservative writer called him an innocent.
Holier than some might wish, perhaps. But innocent, never. In 1943, Mr Rawls signed up as an infantry private and fought on the Pacific beaches. A rare example of direct political action was his protest in 1945 against the Hiroshima bomb. Like his reconciling hero, Abraham Lincoln—whose memorial he visited on trips to Washington—Mr Rawls appealed to our better natures. But he knew from experience what people and states were capable of. Not to see this darker, more pessimistic side is to mistake what he was about.
In his later work, Mr Rawls paid more attention to “how” questions of fair process and tried to extend his principles from what struck some as their unduly western, not to say American, context. He lived behind a veil of privacy with his wife and four children, accepting few honours, giving few interviews and devoting spare time to hiking and sailing.