John B. Rawls (1921-2002)

July 7, 2012

Known as one of the leading moral and political philosophers of the past century, John B. Rawls was born on February 21, 1921.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Rawls was the second of five sons.  As a young child, he lost two of his brothers to illnesses within one year.  These losses would become the most defining moments of Rawls’ childhood.  As an adult he attended Princeton University and received his B.A. in 1943.  From 1943 to 1945 he served as an enlisted man in the U.S. infantry and was stationed in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan.  After witnessing firsthand the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, Rawls decided to return to Princeton in 1946 and received his Ph.D. in moral philosophy in 1950.

After receiving his doctorate, Rawls took a teaching position at Princeton from 1950 to 1952.  In 1952 he received a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford where he was influenced by Isaiah Berlin and H.L.A. Hart.  From 1953 to 1959 Rawls was assistant and associate professor of philosophy at Cornell and from 1960 to 1962 he was a professor of philosophy at MIT.  In 1962 Rawls joined the faculty at Harvard University, where he remained for the rest of his career.  Here he spent almost 40 years teaching some of the leading contemporary moral and political philosophers of our time, such as Thomas Nagel and T.M. Scanlon.  In 1979, he was appointed the Conant University Professor at Harvard, one of the University’s highest professional posts.

In1971, Rawls published his most renowned work, A Theory of Justice.  Here Rawls argues for a society based on equality and individual rights.  He states 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.”  A Theory of Justice has been translated into 27 languages and in many ways revived the academic study of political philosophy.

In addition to A Theory of Justice, Rawls published 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).  His liberal political philosophy influenced thought in many fields, including ethics, law, political science and economics.  In 1999, Rawls received the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy.  In that same year he was presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton in recognition of “help[ing] a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”

John Rawls is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 330 on Amaranth Path.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *