The Guardian, November 27, 2002.
With the death of John Rawls, from heart failure at the age of 81, the English-speaking world lost its leading political philosopher. An exceptionally modest and retiring man, with a bat-like horror of the limelight, he consistently refused the honours he was offered, and declined to pursue the career as public commentator or media guru opened to him by his achievements.
Nevertheless, after its appearance in 1971, his most important book, A Theory Of Justice – written during the Vietnam war – became required reading for students of philosophy, politics and law, and, in that way, Rawls has influenced several generations. Indeed, the book, which sold more than 300,000 copies in the US alone, more or less singlehandedly rejuvenated and transformed the study of political philosophy.
Rawls never wrote about himself, and virtually never gave interviews. But when, in the mid-1990s, I set out to write a profile of him, many of his friends and colleagues agreed to speak to me. Their tributes were universally fulsome. Friends described him as a complex and, in some sense, a troubled man, who, although not a believer, had retained an essentially religious outlook – he had a profound sense of “there but for the grace of God go I”.
They also stressed his genuine modesty and remarkable manners. “I find it very hard to express what I feel about Jack,” said one of his colleagues. “He had a much more developed moral and social instinct than most people – much more tact.” It is notable that in a field dominated by men, many of Rawls’s most eminent students were women – among them Christine Korsgaard at Harvard, and Onora O’Neill, principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and this year’s Reith lecturer.
At heart, A Theory Of Justice is concerned with what its author called the classical problems of modern political theory – problems about the grounds of basic civil liberties, the limits of political obligation, and the justice of economic and other inequalities. But where the dominant tradition of liberal thought in the first three quarters of the last century was utilitarian, taking his cue from Hume, Mill and Sidgwick, Rawls sought to rehabilitate the social contract tradition – the tradition of Locke, Rousseau and, above all, Kant.
If there is a single principle at the centre of his system, it is that basic civil and political rights are inviolable. Rawls believed, following Kant, that from the moral point of view, the most distinctive feature of human nature is our ability freely to choose our own ends. It follows, on his account, that the state’s first duty with its citizens is to respect this capacity for autonomy – to let them live life according to their own lights, and to treat them, in Kant’s phrase, “never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end”.
A leading feature of Rawls’s theory, then, is the the priority it gives to the right over the good – to claims based on the rights of individuals, over claims based on the good that would result to them, or to others, from violating those rights. Put another way, he argued, in opposition to utilitarian, perfectionist and communitarian principles, that the first duty of the liberal state was to safeguard the individual’s basic civil liberties, and that “the loss of freedom for some” can never be “made right by a greater good shared by others”.
As Rawls understood, however, it was not enough simply to affirm the priority of the right over the good; he had to come up with an adequate account of how basic freedoms were to be reconciled with one another, and how wealth and opportunity were to be distributed. In order to clarify our thinking on these issues, he introduced the concept of the “original position”.
He asked us to imagine a situation in which a group of individuals are brought together to agree the basic constitution of a society they are about to enter, but in which, to ensure their impartiality, they are placed behind a veil of ignorance. The veil denies them any knowledge of their race, gender, social class, talents and abilities, religious beliefs or conception of the good life.
Rawls contended that with the banishment of this sort of bias-inducing knowledge, the participants in the original position are forced, even if self-centred, into the moral point of view – or, as he called it in the last rousing chapters of A Theory Of Justice, “the perspective of eternity”. It follows that any principles issuing from it are bound to be fair.
If we think of the first part of Rawls’s theory as being taken up with the construction of the original position, then the second part is devoted to establishing the principles that would be agreed upon in it. He argued that the participants in an original position would pursue a low-risk strategy, and agree to principles that are fundamentally egalitarian – principles that would guarantee them the highest possible minimum levels of freedom, wealth and opportunity, even at the cost of lowering average levels.
In particular, Rawls suggests that they would elect to be governed by two principles – his own famous “two principles of justice”. The first of these dictates that each person should have the right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a like liberty for others; the second, that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the advantage of the worst off, and should be attached to careers open to all. In other words, he defended a state which remained absolutely neutral between different ways of life, while promoting, in its economic policies, the well-being of the least advantaged.
Rawls was not an especially gifted stylist, and A Theory Of Justice is a long and ungainly book. He was, though, a phrasemaker – as well as an idea-forger – of brilliance, and many of his terms, such as “the original position” and “veil of ignorance”, have become part of the language. Moreover, while his writings can seem forbiddingly abstract and technical, the man himself had a firm grasp of the real world. He was exceptionally knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects, from art history to economics, and knew as much as any scholar about his two greatest heroes, Kant and Abraham Lincoln.
Rawls, moreover, always insisted that the abstract principles in which political philosophers dealt had to be tested against pre-theoretical convictions of “common sense” – he suggested that political philosophers had to learn to adjust first principles and moral intuitions until they cohered in what he termed, in another famous phrase, “reflective equilibrium”. He understood as well as any conservative that political principles could not simply be conjured out of the air.
Rawls was born, the second of five brothers, to an old and wealthy Baltimore family, and acquired, early on, almost Puritan good manners and moral earnestness. His father, William Lee Rawls, did not attend law school, but built up sufficient expertise through a clerkship to become a highly successful tax lawyer and constitutional expert. He was also a close friend of the Maryland Democratic governor, Albert Ritchie.
Rawls’s mother, too, was active in local Democrat politics; her advocacy of voting rights for women, among other things, greatly influenced her second son. As a child, he was traumatised by the deaths of two brothers from infections they had contracted from him; Rawls later admitted that this tragedy had contributed to the development of a severe stutter, which afflicted him for the rest of his life.
He was educated at Kent school, Connecticut, and entered Princeton University, New Jersey, at the outbreak of the second world war – the conflict, he said later, over shadowed everything he did as a student, stimulating his interest in politics in general, and the principles of international justice in particular.
After completing his first degree a semester early, Rawls joined the US army and, as an infantryman, saw action in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was in the Pacific in August 1945, when the US dropped its atomic load on Hiroshima and, 50 years later, wrote a piece condemning the act. This is an almost unique example of Rawls taking a stand on a concrete political issue – for the most part, he kept his strongly held and radical political allegiances to himself.
After the war, Rawls returned to Princeton to do a doctorate on methods of ethical decision-making, and to teach. His thesis, completed in 1950, began the formulation of his concept of “reflective equilibrium”, but Princeton failed to recognise his genius. After an extremely fruitful year at Oxford, where he was encouraged by encounters with Herbert Hart, Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, among others, he moved, in 1953, to Cornell University, in New York state, working under Max Black and Norman Malcolm in one of the best and most analytically oriented departments in America.
In Oxford, Rawls had began to formulate the concept of the original position, though his real breakthrough appears to have come when he devised the veil of ignorance: the results appeared in a seminal article, Justice As Fairness, in 1957. He was 34, and it was only his third article to date. Within a few years, however, he was using an early draft of A Theory Of Justice as the basis for seminars and lectures, and the next decade was spent revising the book. In 1960, he took up a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before returning, two years later, to Harvard, where he spent the rest of his career.
Rawls was surprised by the success of A Theory Of Justice; indeed, nobody could have predicted the book’s impact – 10 years after it came out, a specially published Rawls bibliography listed more than 2,000 publications dealing with one aspect of his work or another. Nowadays it is rare to find a work of political philosphy that does not mention his name.
Despite his fame, he continued to do his best to live the life of an anonymous academic, devoting himself to his family, and to writing and teaching. He did not much enjoy lecturing, but, over the years, his genuine modesty and good manners won him a devoted personal following. One story tells how during a viva for a doctorate, Rawls, as an examiner, positioned himself in the room so as to stop the sun shining in the candidate’s eyes. Isaiah Berlin was fond of likening him, mischievously, to Christ.
After the publication of A Theory Of Justice, he had hoped to work on a distinct, but related, issue of moral psychology. The enormous interest in the book, however, and the controversy it aroused, obliged him to spend most of the rest of his life defending its arguments. In the process, Rawls’s views underwent considerable change.
In 1993, he published his second book, Political Liberalism, which collected, in revised form, some of his main writings since A Theory Of Justice. Its major concern is to draw a distinction between liberalism as a philosophy of life, and as a narrower political creed. Liberals have traditionally based their defence of freedom and equality on certain presuppositions about the nature of the person and of the good life – John Stuart Mill, for instance, argued that only an examined life is worth living, and then justified liberal rights as a means towards ensuring the conditions for such a life. The danger with this type of liberalism, Rawls believed, was that it encouraged those who reject liberal views about the nature of the person and the good life to reject liberal political principles.
In his later writings, then, Rawls set out to do something quite new in the history of liberal thought, by casting liberalism as a strictly political creed – one which appeals not to contentious views about God, morality or the person, but to less contestable values of reciprocity, fairness and mutual respect. In this way, he hoped that a conception of justice, rooted in liberal values of fairness and liberty, could become, even in a society like modern America, where there is little agreement about fundamental moral questions, the basis for what he called “an overlapping consensus”.
Like Lincoln, Rawls came to see the task before liberalism as reaching out as widely as it can, to build a consensus around its principles. Though Political Liberalism has had nothing like the impact of it Rawls’s earlier work, it had a great deal to say about, among other things, the wrongs and rights of multi-culturalism; this alone ensured that it remained at the centre of political-philosophical debate.
Towards the end of his life, Rawls published a number of essays and lectures. In The Law Of Peoples (1999) he attempted to extend his ideas about justice to the international realm, surprising many of his liberal allies by writing, in respectful terms, about what he called “decent hierarchical peoples”, which only respected the minimum of traditional liberties, such as freedom of expression and freedom of religious worship. The book was characterised by a new expressiveness, and Rawls again argued against the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offering a moving evocation of statesmanship.
This was followed by Justice As Fairness, A Restatement (2001), which provided a brief overview of his main ideas. Based on lecture notes, it did not make for easy reading, but showed that Rawls’s thought had moved leftwards. Where, in A Theory Of Justice, he had suggested that just liberal principles might be realised in a “capitalist welfare state”, he now contended that they could only be achieved in either “a property-owning democracy” characterised by universally high levels of education and “the widespread ownership of productive assets”, or in a market-socialist regime.
Rawls probably placed more hope in the prospects for property-owning democracy than he did for market socialism. He had certainly come to despair of the capitalist welfare state, which acquiesced in a dramatic rise of social inequality in the 1980s and 90s. And, of course, as Rawls shifted leftwards, the Anglo-American left shifted rightwards. That must partly explain why, though Tony Crosland, Roy Hattersley and other old Labour thinkers cited Rawls approvingly, he has not been embraced by New Labour.
Rawls was incapacitated by a stroke in 1995. He is survived by his wife Margaret, two daughters and two sons.
· John Borden Rawls, philosopher, born February 21 1921; died November 24 2002