A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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John Rawls | Biography


Early Life

Born February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, Maryland, John Rawls was one of five sons of a lawyer father and a politically active artist mother. As a boy Rawls endured the death of two of his brothers to illness and thereafter developed a stutter, which he would have for the rest of his life. Rawls attended an Episcopal high school and considered a career as an Episcopal priest, but in 1939, he entered Princeton University, where he studied a variety of subjects before focusing on philosophy. There, he cultivated an interest in the philosophy of theology and graduated summa cum laude.

Early Career

In 1943, as World War II (1939–45) gripped the globe, Rawls entered what he felt was a fight against evil by joining the army. His service, which lasted until 1946, included hand-to-hand combat and participation in the U.S. occupation of Japan following its defeat in 1945. There, Rawls witnessed firsthand the wreckage of the city of Hiroshima after the United States deployed an atomic bomb. His war experiences shook his faith in God, and he lost interest in religion.

After entering Princeton to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy, Rawls tackled the dominant conception of morality by working out a theory of morality as a function of human rationality. During his graduate work, he was deeply influenced by the work of English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who declared in his seminal 1859 essay On Liberty that preventing harm to others is the only justification society has for interfering with the liberty of its members. He met Margaret Warfield Fox, an artist with an interest in history and politics, and married her in 1949. Their four children were born during the following decade.

Rawls began his teaching career at Princeton in 1951 and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford University during 1952–53, where he began contemplating the idea of developing a theory of distributive justice, which is concerned with the manner in which advantages are distributed throughout a society. He began examining his utilitarian convictions and finding them inadequate to secure liberty and capable (with the correct definition of the good) of being used to justify propositions that seemed to undermine legitimate democracy.

The Writing of A Theory of Justice

After Oxford Rawls began teaching philosophy at Cornell University, earning tenure after he presented a paper entitled "Two Concepts of Rules" (1955), which contained the seed of his theory of justice as fairness. Over the next 12 years, Rawls read deeply and widely in philosophy as he worked on the project that would become A Theory of Justice. In 1960 he spent two years teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and then took a permanent professorship at Harvard University in 1962. As he fought against the student deferment clause that exempted college students from being conscripted or drafted into military service during the Vietnam War (1955–75) on the grounds of its expression of unequal liberty, Rawls worked on drafts of A Theory of Justice. After he completed a final draft during a sabbatical in 1969–70, the manuscript was almost destroyed in a fire. Rawls carefully saved the damaged pages, and the book was published in 1971. He spent the next four years as head of the philosophy department at Harvard.

Later Works and Critical Response to A Theory of Justice

Upon the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls received an enormous amount of attention in the form of criticism and formal recognition. Dealing with this response occupied his time throughout the 1970s, preventing him from adopting the new focus on moral psychology he had intended. As a result of the response to A Theory of Justice, Rawls eventually concluded that a central part of the theory was flawed and in need of revision. Rawls spent the 1980s correcting the "congruence argument" in his theory, which makes the case that in a society constructed according to justice as fairness, citizens are benefitted by just behavior. Proving this is necessary in order to provide support for his claim that his theory of justice as fairness produces a sufficiently stable society. Out of this re-examination of the congruence argument, Rawls produced the material for his second book, Political Liberalism (1993).

That same year Rawls delivered a lecture entitled "The Law of Peoples," which proved to be highly contentious. In taking up the subject of international relations, Rawls shocked many of his students and proponents by rejecting large parts of the domestic theory of justice as unsuitable for regulating global relations. This belief had the effect of intensifying the debate surrounding the issues addressed in A Theory of Justice.

Rawls's Final Years and Legacy

After holding an emeritus professorship at Harvard University from 1991 to 1994, in 1995 Rawls's extensive plans for continuing his philosophical investigations were hindered by the first of what would turn out to be three strokes. His wife and a close friend helped him complete the revisions of Political Liberalism and the production of a monograph based on his controversial "Law of Peoples" lecture. In 1997 Rawls published an essay entitled "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," and The Law of Peoples was published in 1999. Rawls heeded the wishes of his students and colleagues by publishing his papers and course lectures in two books, 1999's Collected Papers and 2000's Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.

Rawls's wife was beside him when he died on November 24, 2002. Rawls's death did not diminish his presence or influence in the intellectual community. His students continued to unearth and publish his papers and lectures. In 2008 Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy appeared, and Rawls's undergraduate thesis was published in 2010 under the title "Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith." A restatement of his religious convictions, an essay entitled "On My Religion," written late in his life, was included in the text. Rawls, who received numerous honors throughout his life including a 1999 National Humanities Medal, gave the world a framework and terminology for thinking about justice that has permanently altered the terms of the discussion and reinvigorated the discipline of political philosophy.

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