Rawls, John

Rawls, John

biographical name

(born Feb. 21, 1921, Baltimore, Md., U.S.—died Nov. 24, 2002, Lexington, Mass.) U.S. political philosopher. He taught at Cornell University (1962–79) and later at Harvard University. He wrote primarily on political philosophy and ethics. His Theory of Justice (1971) is widely recognized as the major work in 20th-century political philosophy. In that work and others Rawls sought to develop a conception of justice appropriate to a democratic society. He believes that utilitarianism, which enjoins maximizing overall happiness, inadequately protects freedom and equality, the core liberal and democratic values. Following Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, he appealed to the idea of a social contract: he depicted justice as the result of a hypothetical agreement among free persons acting from a position of equal right. To insure a fair, impartial agreement, Rawls situated parties to it equally by imposing a “veil of ignorance”: parties do not know any particular facts about themselves and others (e.g., their talents, social class, wealth, or religious and other values) or even facts about history or their society. From this “original position” Rawls contends that free persons would agree to a liberal egalitarian conception of justice, or “justice as fairness.” This conception comprises two principles: (1) certain basic liberties, such as freedom of thought and association, are so important that they take precedence over other social values, such as economic efficiency and improving the welfare of the poor; (2) offices and positions of authority are to be open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.

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