from NY Times
John Rawls, Theorist on Justice, Is Dead at 82
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
John Rawls, the American political theorist whose work gave new meaning and resonance to the concepts of justice and liberalism, died on Sunday at his home in Lexington, Mass. He was 82.
The cause was heart failure, his wife, Margaret, said. She said he had been incapacitated in varying degrees since suffering a stroke in 1995.
The publication of his book "A Theory of Justice" in 1971 was perceived as a watershed moment in modern philosophy and came at a time of furious national debate over the Vietnam War and the fight for racial equality. Not only did it veer from the main current of philosophical thought, which was then logic and linguistic analysis, it also stimulated a revival of attention to moral philosophy. Dr. Rawls made a sophisticated argument for a new concept of justice, based on simple fairness.
Before Dr. Rawls, the concept of utilitarianism, meaning that a society ought to work for the greatest good of the greatest number of people, held sway as the standard for social justice. He wrote that this approach could ride roughshod over the rights of minorities. Moreover, the liberty of an individual is of only secondary importance compared with the majority's interests.
His new theory began with two principles. The first was that each individual has a right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the same liberty for others. The second was that social and economic inequalities are just only to the extent that they serve to promote the well-being of the least advantaged.
But how could people agree to structure a society in accordance with these two principles? Dr. Rawls's response was to revive the concept of the social contract developed earlier by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.
For people to make the necessary decisions to arrive at the social contract, Dr. Rawls introduced the concept of a "veil of ignorance." This meant that each person must select rules to live by without knowing whether he will be prosperous or destitute in the society governed by the rules he chooses. He called this the "original position."
An individual in the "original position" will choose the society in which the worst possible position — which, for all he knows, will be his — is better than the worst possible position in any other system.
The result, Dr. Rawls argued, was that the least fortunate would be best protected. The lowest rung of society would be higher. Though inequalities would not be abolished by favoring the neediest, they would be minimized, he argued.
In later works, Dr. Rawls expanded his arguments to suggest how a pluralistic society can be just to all its members. His idea was that the public could reason things out, provided comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrines are avoided. Dr. Rawls, like Kant, whom he revered, believed that as liberal democracies capable of such reasonableness spread, wars would be avoided.
Damon Linker in National Review in 2000 spoke for many conservative critics when he called Mr. Rawls's formulation hopelessly utopian. Mr. Rawls, he said, had "a childlike innocence about the ways of the world."
The conservative philosopher Robert Nozick likewise considered Dr. Rawls's argument egalitarian nonsense, but its impact is suggested by the 5,000 books or articles that took up the discussion. Many who bought Dr. Rawls's book — which sold 200,000 copies, a huge number for an academic work — were dazzled by his intellectual dexterity and moral clarity. Ben Rogers wrote in 1999 in The New Statesman that "Rawls has been recognized as the most important English-speaking philosopher of his generation." Mr. Rogers went on to say that Dr. Rawls "through a mixture of bold thought experiment, conceptual rigor and historical imagination, more or less invented analytic political thought."
John Bordley Rawls was born the second of five sons in Baltimore on Feb. 21, 1921. His father, William Lee Rawls, did not attend law school but through a clerkship at a law firm learned enough to become a lawyer and argue cases before the Supreme Court. His mother's advocacy of voting rights for women, among other issues, greatly influenced his own political and moral development.
He loved family vacations to Maine and would go on long sailing trips in a leaky boat. His love of the outdoors was later expressed in mountain climbing.
He graduated from the Kent School in Connecticut and from Princeton University, and planned to become a minister. But after serving as a combat infantryman in the South Pacific in World War II, he gave up his aspiration without explaining why, his wife said.
He returned to Princeton and earned a doctorate in philosophy, a decision he always explained by joking that he was not good enough in music or math. His interest in developing a theory of justice began in graduate school.
He taught at Oxford, Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before settling at Harvard, where his final position was James Bryant Conant university professor emeritus. His books included "Political Liberalism" (Columbia, 1993); Collected Papers (Harvard, 1999); "The Law of Peoples; with, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" (Harvard, 1999) and "Justice as Fairness, a Restatement" (Harvard, 2001).
A modest, tweedy man, he turned down hundreds of honorary degrees, and accepted them only from universities with which he was associated (Oxford, Princeton, Harvard). In 1999, he won a National Humanities Medal, with the citation noting his success in helping women enter the ranks of a male-dominated field.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Rawls is survived by his brother William Stow Rawls of Philadelphia; his daughters, Ann Warfield Rawls of Beverly Hills, Mich., and Elizabeth Fox Rawls of Cambridge, Mass.; his sons, Robert Lee, of Woodinville, Wash., and Alexander Emory, of Palo Alto, Calif.; and four grandchildren.
Dr. Rawls's concern for justice and individual happiness is seen in a story from Harvard. When a candidate was defending his dissertation, Dr. Rawls noticed the sun shining in his eyes. He positioned himself between the candidate and the sunlight for the rest of the session.
from Harvard Gazette
John Rawls, influential political philosopher, dead at 81:
Author of "A Theory of Justice" was James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus
By Ken Gewertz
Updated 4 p.m. 11/26/02
John Rawls, the James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus, whose 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice" argued persuasively for a society based on equality and individual rights, died Sunday (Nov. 24) at the age of 81.
Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective. His work continues to be a major influence in the fields of ethics, law, political science, and economics, and has been translated into 27 languages.
Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers said, "I am deeply saddened by the death of John Rawls. He combined profound wisdom with equally profound humanity. Few if any modern philosophers have had as decisive an impact on how we think about justice. Scholars in many different fields will continue to learn from him for generations to come."
William Kirby, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, "John Rawls' consideration of questions of social justice has marked him as one of the greatest political theorists of our time. His analyses of the conditions, present and wished for, under which we pursue the great questions of right living in a pluralistic society reveal his probity and his searching quality of mind. We are very sad to know of his passing. This is a grave loss for Harvard, and for philosophy."
Philosophy Department Chairman Thomas Scanlon, the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Policy, said that "John Rawls was widely recognized as the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. His work revived and reshaped the entire field, and its profound influence on the way justice is understood and argued about will last long into the future. He was also a remarkable teacher, who inspired countless students, and an unfailingly generous and devoted colleague. We will miss him greatly and are all deeply grateful to have had the privilege of being around when he was here."
Stanley Hoffmann, the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor, said of Rawls: "This gentle, modest and thoughtful man has revived the philosophy of liberalism that had been for so long mired in its glorious past and ridiculed by its enemies. His colossal attempt to adapt it to the circumstances of the 20th century, to the age of democracy, but also totalitarianism, world wars and mass poverty, his emphasis both on diversity and on consensus, his scrutiny of democratic citizenship and of the requirements of justice, his influence on disciples he treated as his equals, will continue to inspire us and to deserve our gratitude. He was a great thinker and a good man, and many of us feel orphaned."
Charles Fried, the Beneficial Professor of Law at Harvard, said of Rawls, "He was the dominant figure in political and moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th century. He developed an approach to the questions of moral and political philosophy which was substantive and analytic at the same time, proposing concrete answers to many questions."
Dennis Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy and director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions, stated that in his view Rawls "will be in the canon for centuries, along with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, etc." Rawls was a senior fellow in the Center for Ethics and the Professions from its beginning in 1986 and was personally engaged in the work of the center until his illness made active participation impossible.
In "A Theory of Justice," Rawls sets forth the proposition that "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests."
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Rawls attended the Kent School in Kent, Conn., and earned a B.A. degree from Princeton in 1943. From 1943 to 1945 he served in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan as an enlisted man in the U.S. infantry, later describing his military career as "singularly undistinguished." He returned to Princeton in 1946 to take up graduate studies, receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1950.
Before joining the Harvard Philosophy Department in 1962, he was an instructor at Princeton (1950-52), assistant and associate professor of philosophy at Cornell (1953-59), and professor of philosophy at M.I.T. (1960-62). He was appointed the Conant University Professor at Harvard in 1979.
University professors hold Harvard’s highest professorial posts. These special endowed positions were established in 1935 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for "individuals of distinction ... working on the frontiers of knowledge, and in such a way as to cross the conventional boundaries of the specialties."
In addition to "A Theory of Justice," nominated for a National Book Award, his publications include "Political Liberalism" (1993), "The Law of Peoples" (1999), "Collected Papers" (1999), "Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy" (2000), and "Justice as Fairness: A Restatement" (2001).
He was a member of the American Philosophical Association (president, 1974), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association of Political and Legal Philosophy (president, 1970-72), the American Philosophical Society, the British Academy, and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. In 1999, he received the National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Rawls died of heart failure at his home in Lexington, Mass. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes that eventually left him unable to work. He leaves his wife, Margaret Warfield Fox Rawls, four children — Anne Warfield, Robert Lee, Alexander Emory, and Elizabeth Fox — and four grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for Dec. 3 at 9:30 a.m. at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington.