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John Borden Rawls



John Borden Rawls (February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002)


Personal and Academic Life
John Borden Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland on February 21, 1921[1] He received his BA from Princeton in 1943, afterwards serving briefly in the US Army during the Second World War[2]. After his military experiences Rawls returned to Princeton in 1946, where he was granted a PhD in Philosophy in 1950[3]. Throughout his professional life Rawls had many academic appointments; including teaching at Christ Church College (Oxford University), Cornell University, and finally Harvard University, where in 1979 he was appointed as the James Bryant Conant Professor of Philosophy[4].

A Theory of Justice and the theory of Justice as Fairness
Rawls most influential work, entitled A Theory of Justice, was published by the Harvard University Press in 1971[5]. A Theory of Justice was applauded for renewing interest in the topic of moral philosophy, an idea that had again garnered attention in the face of the Vietnam War[6].

In A Theory of Justice Rawls first introduced his theory of justice as fairness, a viewpoint that suggests that when making decisions one must always consider the greater good and aim to be equitable[7]. It was through this justice as fairness model that Rawls created his two principles of justice, which in turn fostered the ideas of the original position and the veil of ignorance[8].

The Original Position
The original position is the idea that fair guidelines will be set up so that any decisions made will consider the needs of the majority of the populations.[9]

Rawls agrees that the notion of the original position is “a purely hypothetical situation”[10] He believes that there are not really any situations that directly mimic those he has theoretically created; however, the decision maker should apply the ideas of the original position to their daily decision making in order to be more just[11].

The Veil of Ignorance
The veil of ignorance is present when the decision maker recognizes the importance of the original position. According to Rawls, the veil exists when rational citizens make decisions based on “general considerations, without knowing anything about their own personal situation”[12]. Behind this veil, decision makers are unaware of how they stack up against the rest of the world: how does their race/gender/age compare? What are their natural abilities? Will any of these things give them an advantage? Since the decision maker has no outside information upon which to base his/her choices he/she must make a decision that seems the most fair for all involved – otherwise it could be a choice that could do the decider harm (since he/she is not sure where they rest in the natural balance)[13]

Two Principles of Justice
According to Rawls there are two fundamental principles of justice: the Principle of Equal Liberty and the Difference Principle[14].

The Principle of Equal Liberty is an egalitarian philosophy that states that the liberties you enjoy should be equal to the liberties shared amongst the other members of society[15].

The Difference Principle believes that equalities will inevitably exist within a social and economic model, however as long as these equalities are going to better the lives of the underprivileged they are alright[16]

Rawls believed that anyone situated behind the veil of ignorance who is striving to create a rational, just society would chose between these two principles in order to create the highest level of equality[17].

Death
John Rawls died at the age of 82 of heart failure on November 24, 2002 at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts[18].

Additional Reading
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Wolff, R. P. (1977) Understanding Rawls: A Reconstruction and Critique of A Theory of Justice.
Princeton: Princeton University Press

Photo Credit

John Borden Rawls - Retrieved from http://www.eumed.net/cursecon/economistas/Rawls.jpg




[1] John Rawls (2005) In Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved from http://www.bookrags.com/biography/john-rawls/
[2] Gewertz, K. (2002, Dec. 5) John Rawls, Influential Political Philosopher, Dead at 82. Harvard University Gazette. Retrieved from: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/12.05/03-rawls.html
[3] Gewertz, K. (2002, Dec. 5) John Rawls, Influential Political Philosopher, Dead at 82. Harvard University Gazette. Retrieved from: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/12.05/03-rawls.html
[4] John Rawls (2005) In Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved from http://www.bookrags.com/biography/john-rawls/
[5] Garrett, J. E. (2002, Sept. 3) John Rawls on Justice. Retrieved from http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/johnrawl.htm#prin
[6] Martin, D. (2002, Nov. 26) John Rawls, Theorist on Justice, Is Dead at 82. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/26/obituaries/26RAWL.html
[7] Original Position (2008, Dec. 20) In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/
[8] Original Position (2008, Dec. 20) In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/
[9] Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
[10] Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
[11] Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
[12] Piccard, D. (2005, April 4) A Theory of Justice, By John Rawls. Retrieved from http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~piccard/entropy/rawls.html
[13] Kay, C.D (1997, Jan. 20) Justice as Fairness. Retrieved from http://webs.wofford.edu/kaycd/ethics/justice.htm
[14] Garrett, J. E. (2002, Sept. 3) John Rawls on Justice. Retrieved from http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/johnrawl.htm#prin
[15] Garrett, J. E. (2002, Sept. 3) John Rawls on Justice. Retrieved from http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/johnrawl.htm#prin
[16] Garrett, J. E. (2002, Sept. 3) John Rawls on Justice. Retrieved from http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/johnrawl.htm#prin
[17] Garrett, J. E. (2002, Sept. 3) John Rawls on Justice. Retrieved from http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/johnrawl.htm#prin
[18] Hobbs, H. (2002, Nov. 26) John Rawls Death, Moral Imperative Lives On. Daily Republican Newspaper. Retrieved from: http://www.dailyrepublican.com/rawls-death.html