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Volume 9, No. 5 - July/August 1999
More in this Issue...



I HAVE BEFORE ME a copy of a new book by John Rawls. It does not have the feel of an important book. Its language is often blunt and lifeless; certain phrases--"a well-ordered constitutional democracy," "the fact of reasonable pluralism," "the criterion of reciprocity"--seem to crop up again and again, as if part of a strangely unpoetic mantra. For the most part its chapter titles are dry and academic: "Reply to Alexander and Musgrave"; "A Kantian Conception of Equality." Its arguments seem remote; they are certainly difficult.

Yet the publication of Rawls's Collected Papers (Harvard) is an important event. Since the appearance of his epoch-making A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls has been acknowledged as America's-- perhaps the world's--leading political philosopher. His opus has sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide. On a conservative estimate, about five thousand books or articles dealing with it, at least in some respect, have been written. The story of "How John Rawls Revived Political Philosophy and Rejuvenated Liberalism" is part of academic legend.

illustration As a result, you might think that Rawls would be a familiar figure--that his reputation would have seeped beyond the academic world. Yet nearly thirty years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, almost nothing is known about him except that he is an emeritus professor at Harvard University. Nor is it obvious that his ideas have had much of an impact on the "real" world. Ironically, Rawls¹s successful revival of liberalism in political theory coincided with the decline of liberalism as a political movement in America.

Rawls is a sophisticated and ambitious thinker. His arguments are informed by a deep sense of history and draw on an array of different disciplines. Still, as Isaiah Berlin was fond of saying, underlying most great philosophical systems there is a fairly simple set of ideas. This is true of Rawls. Almost everything he has written is animated by an urgent concern with reviving and extending a neglected liberal tradition--the tradition of rights-based social-contract thinking.

At the center of Rawls's system is the inviolability of basic civil and political rights. He believes, following his hero Kant, that the most distinctive feature of human nature is our ability freely to choose our own ends. Our most fundamental duty in dealing with our fellow citizens is to respect this capacity for autonomy: to let others live by their own lights; to treat them, in Kant's famous phrase, "as ends not as means." Rawls accordingly gives priority to the "right" over the "good"--to claims based on the rights of individuals over claims based on the good that might result from violating those rights. But unlike libertarian advocates of inviolable property rights, Rawls insists that taking rights seriously means taking social equality seriously--he is, indeed, a more radical egalitarian theorist than is generally acknowledged, one considerably to the left of traditional welfare-state liberals, not to mention Clintonesque New Democrats.

RAWLS HIMSELF IS an extraordinarily private, self-reliant man. He has long since withdrawn his name from Who's Who, declines honorary degrees, and refuses to be interviewed. When I wrote to him to request an interview, I received a cryptic but touching reply: "I am sorry, but I have not been well, and for that and other reasons I am unable to give an interview. I am sorry. Sincerely yours, John Rawls." His friends were willing to talk to me, but they were universally cautious and reserved. I understood how Ian Hamilton must have felt in attempting to write the life of another shy New England writer--J.D. Salinger.

For all his restraint, Rawls has exercised a great influence on those who come into personal contact with him. Recently I spent ten days in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, talking to people who know him. The experience was heartening. I telephoned the philosopher Rogers Albritton, an old friend of Rawls's from the 1940s, who said: "My principal sense of Jack is of a man who has an incredibly fine moral sense in his dealings with other human beings. He is not just the author of a great book, he is a very admirable man. He is the best of us." Albritton's testimony was repeated again and again. One eminent philosopher (he did not want to be named) said: "I find it hard to express what I feel about Jack. He is a rare creature. He has a much more developed moral and social instinct than most people." The same philosopher works with a portrait of the great man above his desk. Stories about Rawls's moral and social instinct do, indeed, abound. One, possibly apocryphal, tells of how Rawls was attending a dissertation defense, when he noticed that the sun was shining in the candidate's eyes. He got up and spent the rest of the session standing uncomfortably between the candidate and the sunlight.

Also in LF

The Outrageous Pragmatism of Judge Richard Posner: America's most prolific legal scholar rules for nude dancing and against moral philosophy.

The 250 Year-Old Man: Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon.

Books by John Rawls at

+ Political Liberalism

+ The Law of Peoples

+ Collected Papers

+ A Theory of Justice

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Rawls's system is its very radical attitude toward fate. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this attitude might have a source in his own life. It is the duty of society, Rawls believes, to ensure that our opportunities are as little affected by our circumstances as possible. It is not that he believes that social institutions have to ensure that everyone is as happy as everyone else--that is our own responsibility. But he does insist that, as far as possible, we should all be given similar opportunities to achieve happiness--that our family upbringing, our looks and health, even our abilities and talents, should not be allowed to give us an unfair advantage in life. Life will contain its afflictions and troubles, Rawls seems to say, without unjust institutions worsening our lot. This, it might be pointed out, is a recognizable left-wing conviction, but in Rawls's case it was not the product of a deprived upbringing. Instead, it seems to be the outcome of a life which has been full of very good luck or of very close shaves. "He has," as one former student put it, "an unusually strong sense of ėthere but for the grace of God go I.'"

John Borden Rawls was born in 1921 into a rich Baltimore family, the second of five sons. His father, William Lee Rawls, was a successful tax lawyer and constitutional expert. His mother, Anna Abell Stump, from a distinguished German family, was a feminist and president of the local League of Women Voters. Isaiah Berlin, an admirer, used to say that he couldn't but see Rawls as a Puritan "in a tall black hat," and it is true that there is something deeply puritan in his austere, aspiring life. Yet other friends point out that Rawls comes from an old Southern family and has a patrician sense of noblesse oblige.

Rawls appears to have given only one interview in the course of his career, and that to a small Harvard-based magazine. The only other significant source for information on his life is the first chapter of Thomas Pogge's book John Rawls, which was published in German in 1994. Rawls described to Pogge the formative experience of his early life: the deaths of two of his younger brothers, one from diphtheria, the other from pneumonia, both illnesses they contracted from Rawls himself. Joshua Cohen, a former student, says that these anguishing events are reflected in A Theory of Justice in discussions of the "arbitrariness of fortune" and the "unmerited contingencies" of life. It was at about this time that Rawls developed his stutter, which he associates with his brothers' deaths.

Rawls attended a public school in Baltimore for a while, but most of his high school years were spent at Kent, a strict, Episcopalian private school in Connecticut. According to Burton Dreben, a long-standing friend and colleague, Rawls went through a religious phase in prep school, and although he has not remained a believer in any conventional sense, the experience left its mark. As his later writings attest, he shows more feeling for religious values than most of his liberal-left colleagues.

Like his two remaining brothers, Rawls went to Princeton--in 1939 still very much what it had been in the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the northernmost outpost of a Southern gentleman. It was at Princeton, under the influence of Norman Malcolm, a friend and follower of Wittgenstein's, that Rawls became interested in philosophy.

Finishing Princeton early, he joined the army and saw action in the Pacific, serving in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. Rawls belonged to the cohort worst hit by the war--seventeen in his class at Princeton were killed, as were twenty-three members of the following year's class. Dreben says that Rawls never talks about his experiences as a foot soldier but they were certainly horrific.

Rawls was still in the Pacific when, in August 1945, U.S. planes bombed Hiroshima. Fifty years later, he wrote an article for the political journal Dissent in which he argued that although in times of extreme crisis a liberal democratic regime waging a just war may attack enemy civilians, the U.S. army in 1945 was facing no such crisis; therefore, the firebombing of Japanese cities and the dropping of the atomic bomb were "very great wrongs." The Dissent article is the only one Rawls has ever written tackling a concrete political issue. His willingness to write it may in part be explained by the fact that he was in Japan soon after the bombings and saw some of the consequences of what had been done. But Joshua Cohen suggests that something else also weighed on him: Rawls knew that if the bomb had not been dropped, he and his fellow soldiers would certainly have had to fight a conventional campaign in Japan. Once again Rawls was "lucky" to get away with his life, and perhaps burdened by the knowledge that an unjust act might have assured his survival.

Although he was offered the chance to become an officer, Rawls left the army early, as a private, in 1946. He returned to his alma mater to write a doctoral dissertation in moral philosophy. In his last year as a graduate student, 1949-1950, he took a course in political theory; it was then that he formed the idea of writing a treatise on justice. A Theory of Justice was twenty years in the making.

In 1949 Rawls married Margaret Fox, a graduate fresh from Brown, and they have had five children. She became a painter; Rawls--himself a connoisseur of painting, especially American painting--has often sat for her. The couple spent their first summer together drawing up an index for a book on Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann. Rawls also compiled the index to A Theory of Justice, and it is a masterpiece of the art. Indeed, his thoroughness is the stuff of legends. The liberal legal theorist Ronald Dworkin remembers a midnight conversation in the deserted bar of the Santa Lucia hotel in Naples in June 1988. He, Rawls, and one or two others were having a fruitful discussion about Rawls's later work. In the middle of the exchange, Rawls halted the conversation, asked no one to talk while he was gone, retrieved from his room a yellow pad, and returned to the wine-stained tablecloth to take notes. "No one else," Dworkin says with a chuckle, "would have done it."

Princeton, it seems, failed to recognize Rawls's genius. On his return from a year at Oxford in 1953, Rawls joined his old mentor Norman Malcolm at Cornell, in a philosophy department that was emerging as one of the best in the United States. At Oxford he had already begun to formulate some of his most original notions, although the real breakthrough came when he published the article "Justice as Fairness" in 1958. Rawls was in his mid-thirties; this was only his third article. Students remember, however, that by 1960 he was already using an early draft of A Theory of Justice as the basis for his seminars. He spent the next decade honing its arguments.

In the early 1960s, Rawls obtained a tenured position at MIT. Two years later, he moved to Harvard, where he has remained, living in the same large house in Lexington, Massachusetts, for almost forty years.

Vietnam provoked the same conflicts at Harvard as everywhere else. One of the philosophy department's leading lights, W.V. Quine, was a staunch conservative; another, Hilary Putnam, was a Maoist. From the beginning, Rawls was opposed to the war and made his opposition known. He participated in an antiwar conference in Washington and, back at Harvard, taught a course on international law as it applied to Vietnam. He also campaigned against the 2S deferment, which allowed students "in good standing" to have their call-ups deferred. According to Rogers Albritton: "Both of us thought that it was wrong that the sons of the privileged should be allowed to stay out and accumulate grades, while someone who wanted to start a filling station was sent off." In retrospect, Albritton sees the irony in their position: "There was something a bit bizarre about saying we were against the war, but our students should go to fight in it."

Rawls seems to have been unprepared for the success of A Theory of Justice: "I thought I would publish it and some friends might read it," he told the Harvard Review of Philosophy. "I had been writing it for a long time, so I would finally get it off my desk and then do something else." But despite his intellectual stardom, Rawls's life remained that of an anonymous, hardworking academic.

TO UNDERSTAND what is most radical, and most noteworthy, in Rawls's theory of justice, we must contrast it with some of its rivals. First among them is utilitarianism--the doctrine that we ought to maximize the total amount of well-being in a society regardless of how evenly that well-being is distributed. There was much that Rawls admired in the utilitarian thought of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and their intellectual descendants. It had the scope and rigor he wanted for his own theory and a good track record as a progressive principle, inspiring directly or indirectly a great deal of social and political reform. Yet it had one flaw: It did not take human rights seriously. Utilitarians might maintain that the general good will usually be served by respecting human rights, but they are committed to the position that when a conflict between individual rights and general well-being arises, it is the claims of the latter that should prevail. Thus, the greatest-happiness principle could have permitted slavery. Or, more to the point, it could be used to defend what is often said to be an unstated principle of the modern market economy: that in the battle for low wages and low inflation, the well-being of some is sacrificed for the good of the rest.

Utilitarianism is the first target of Rawls's criticisms, but there are others. Although A Theory of Justice has little to say about Marxism, that creed was alive and well when Rawls was working on his book; and like utilitarians, Marxists tend to regard the notion of natural human rights as nonsense. Finally, Rawls challenges various "perfectionist" and communitarian theories--theories that look to the state to advance a single value system. Here Rawls has in mind the political ideals of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, or indeed of those American communitarians who urge the state to promote the virtues of church attendance and family preservation.

These philosophies all permit the sacrifice of human rights to some other good--to utility, the interests of the proletariat, or some religious ideal of the good life. It is as an alternative to these theories that Rawls champions the social contract. Society is, of course, involuntary and our place in it largely beyond our control, but Rawls asks what arrangements people would consent to if society were freely entered into.

To this end, Rawls suggests a thought experiment, asking us to imagine ourselves in his now famous "original position." People in this position are situated behind what he calls a veil of ignorance. They are denied knowledge of everything that makes them who they are: class, skills, age, gender, sexuality, religious views, and conception of the good life. Rawls argues that the principles these imaginary people would choose to regulate their relations with one another are the principles of justice.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilled in explaining, attacking, and defending the original position, but the thinking behind it is plain enough. The veil of ignorance is meant to ensure that our views on justice are not distorted by our own interests. Such distortions occur all the time. As Rawls puts it, "If a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he was poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle."

Rawls believes, contentiously, that if we were placed in the original position, we would choose to pursue a low-risk strategy and agree to principles that are basically egalitarian--principles that guarantee the highest possible minimum levels of freedom, wealth, and opportunity, even at the cost of lowering average levels. More particularly, Rawls suggests that we would elect to be governed by two general principles, the first concerning liberty, the second the distribution of wealth and power.

The first point on which men and women in the original position would agree is the importance of guaranteeing their freedom to live as they see fit. According to this principle, each person should have a right to the most extensive basic liberties (the right to vote, freedom of thought, and so on) compatible with a like liberty for others. Rawls contends that the state should remain neutral on conceptions of the good life and simply safeguard the freedoms that allow us to proceed according to our own values. This principle does little more than offer a more general guarantee of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

Rawls's second principle, however, is more unusual. The "difference principle" states that social and economic inequalities are acceptable only insofar as they benefit the least advantaged. The best way of understanding this principle is as a radical alternative to the principle of equality of opportunity. Proponents of equal opportunity argue for a market society in which people who have the same talents, and a similar willingness to use them, enjoy the same prospects of success. Rawls, however, argues not only that it is wrong that our lot should be determined by our class or educational opportunities, but that it is equally unjust that our position should be determined by our talents. These, just as much as the class positions of our parents, are the outcome of what he describes as a "natural lottery."

Rawls's point is echoed in other critiques of meritocracy: It seems unfair that simply because someone is especially strong, intelligent, or dexterous, he or she should have a higher standard of living than someone with less marketable skills. The natural lottery argument jettisons the notion that anyone "deserves" the rewards they gain from work and often turns into an argument for equality of income. But Rawls says that there is a better way of dealing with the unfair distribution of abilities: by allowing those inequalities that benefit the worst off. Rawls does little to explain which inequalities he believes would benefit the worst off. But he appears to imply that if paying doctors more than nurses, or CEOs more than production-line workers, could be shown to be of advantage to the poorest members of a society by encouraging, say, the development of rare and important gifts, then these practices are justified. Otherwise they are not. Rawls argues that unlike the inequalities we see all around us, inequalities based on the difference principle would not be felt by the less well-off as unmerited or degrading.

To its admirers, A Theory of Justice showed that left-wing liberalism was not an incoherent mishmash of socialist and capitalist values but an intellectually respectable political philosophy. Liberals admired Rawls's emphasis on the inviolability of individual freedoms, while leftists appreciated his condemnation of nearly all forms of economic inequality.

But the book's impact also has something to do with the fact that it was published at a time when political philosophy was on the defensive. The dominant philosophical currents--logical positivism and linguistic philosophy--were hostile to large-scale moral theorizing; the extravagances of Marxism and fascism had given ideology--even liberal ideology--a bad name. Ronald Dworkin explains: "The 1950s were a complacent period, and there was a feeling that the United States was on the right path. Then the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement cast doubt on all that. Here suddenly was a book that raised all the issues--it gave people a way of arguing about these questions that suddenly seemed so important."

IF THE MEASURE OF the importance of a work lies not only in the amount of agreement it elicits but also in the quality of its opposition, then Rawls's book is important indeed. There is scarcely a page in it that has not been criticized; there are utilitarian, feminist, conservative, libertarian, Catholic, communitarian, Marxist, and Green critiques of Rawls's work. Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard who made his name as one of Rawls's critics, distinguishes three stages in the book's reception. First it sparked a debate about utilitarianism. "Rawls fairly clearly won that debate," says Sandel; rights-oriented, anti-utilitarian liberalism is now the philosophical orthodoxy. The next argument, in the late 1970s, took place within rights-oriented liberalism and pitted Rawls's brand of liberal egalitarianism against the sort of right-wing libertarian views that found their most powerful voice in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This debate, Sandel says, "corresponds roughly to the debate in American politics between defenders of the market economy and advocates of the welfare state." There is a sweet irony in the fact that the egalitarian position should have been defended by Rawls, a wealthy WASP, and the libertarian one by Nozick, a poor Jew from Brooklyn.

The last and longest running of the arguments has been between Rawlsian liberals and communitarians, including Sandel, Michael Walzer, Benjamin Barber, and the Canadian Charles Taylor. (One of Rawls's communitarian critics, William Galston, has served as a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton.) This critique of liberalism revolves around the charge that Rawls's ideas are excessively individualistic. The communitarians claim that his work surreptitiously draws on an implausible view of individuals as free from all deep moral ties and thus bound only by ends and roles they choose for themselves. The fact is that most of what we value is a matter not of choice but of inheritance--what really matters is the sustenance of strong communities, where we can live according to the values in which we have been brought up. The communitarians also attack Rawls's ideal of a neutral state: In refusing to favor one vision of the good life over another, the Rawlsian state offers no support for the sort of strong communities we all need. Rawls's work is an apology for the weak, atomistic, relativistic culture we see all around us.

Rawls has responded to some of the criticisms by reworking his theory. He has published about fifteen articles since A Theory of Justice came out; six years ago, he collected some of them in revised form in Political Liberalism. At some point in the late 1970s, he came to realize that A Theory of Justice was in part inconsistent. It offered the ideal of a society in which individuals--Christians and Muslims, theists and atheists, heterosexuals and homosexuals, puritans and hedonists--could all live life according to their own conception of the good. Yet, as Rawls came to see it, his argument relied on a single conception of the good that many citizens might reject: a Kantian version of a secular liberal outlook, according to which each of us has a right and a duty to search out our own good from the alternatives available to us. This will seem reasonable enough to a secular liberal, but it won't appeal to, say, a Roman Catholic; Catholicism teaches that a life spent following church tradition is superior to one spent ceaselessly exploring moral alternatives--it rates fidelity and submission over autonomy and experimentation. Rawls came to believe that while his just society would permit a great diversity of value systems, the argument he advanced for it would only ever appeal to those who accepted one set of values--those of secular liberalism.

As he has grown older, Rawls has come to recognize that many of the most powerful statements of principle within the liberal tradition do not rest on the sort of individualistic Kantian foundations he constructed in A Theory of Justice: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail champion liberal civil and political rights, but they invoke a religious worldview to do so. The main concern of Rawls's later work is to respond to this fact by recasting liberalism as a more modest and strictly political creed--one that appeals not to contentious views about God, morality, or the person but to the supposedly less contestable values of reciprocity, fairness, and mutual respect. In this way, Rawls hopes, a conception of justice rooted in liberal values--equal political and civil liberty; a fair distribution of resources--can become the basis for an "overlapping consensus." Such a conception is especially needed in a society like the United States, where there is little agreement about fundamental moral questions.

In his recent work, Rawls has largely shifted his attention from questions of economic distribution to the political perplexities of a diverse, multicultural society. But that is not to say he is no longer concerned about inequality. Three years ago, the twenty-fifth anniversary of A Theory of Justice was marked by a large conference in Santa Clara, California. At the event, Rawls expressed his concerns about the concentration of wealth in the United States with surprising force. He was especially exercised by the way the lack of limits on political donations was distorting the political process; in Rawlsian terms, the value of political liberty is now almost infinitely greater for some than it is for others. "I think," says Joshua Cohen, "his hopefulness has been shaken by the world. His feelings have soured."

Two days after the conference, Rawls was struck by the first of a succession of severe strokes. He continues to work, although he is weaker than he was. The introduction to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, finished after the strokes, has more passion than anything he has ever published. Similarly, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," published two years ago in The University of Chicago Law Review, includes a blunt criticism of the "curse of money." American politics, he believes, "has become dominated by corporate and other organized interests who through large contributions to campaigns distort if not preclude public discussion and deliberation." (This essay, together with a study of the relations among nation states, will be published by Harvard University Press as The Law of Peoples in November.)

Even Rawls's critics cannot deny that he has had an enormous impact on political theory; yet, as his own despair about politics in the United States suggests, his teachings have had very little influence on political debate more broadly. There are some qualifications to be made. It is said that A Theory of Justice has had an influence among dissidents in China and was seen at Tiananmen Square. On a literary level, Margaret Drabble's latest novel, The Witch of Exmoor, opens with its protagonists playing a game--"The Veil of Ignorance"--in which they imagine themselves in the original position.

Still, most of the Rawlsians I spoke with confirmed that his ideas have had little impact in the United States. Rawls's principles remain extremely egalitarian, and he has argued that they could only be realized in "a liberal socialist regime" or a "property-owning democracy" in which ownership of wealth and capital is highly dispersed; they are not, he believes, compatible with a modern welfare state that "may allow large and inheritable inequalities of wealth." It is true that Clinton's New Democrats and Blair's New Labor are publicly committed to raising the income of the poor and reintegrating the excluded into society, but there is no suggestion that the earnings of the rich need be limited by this goal. The left-of-center parties now in power all over the West speak the language of community, rather than individual rights; of equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome; of meritocracy rather than the difference principle. For the moment at least, the egalitarianism that animated old-style socialism or social democracy and still animates Rawls's work appears to be dead as a political force. People don't care about equality anymore: They want good public services and they want to see a safety net for the weak, but they are also happy to see talent "rewarded." Few complain about the earnings of a Warren Buffett, a Steven Spielberg, a Michael Jordan; these are popular heroes.

Rawls's critics argue that this attests to the irrelevance of his ideas. His friends, on the other hand, tend to adopt a long-term perspective, arguing that his time will come--his ideas are just too powerful, too profound, not to have an effect. There is a third position, one perhaps occupied by Rawls himself in his bleaker moments: For all their importance, for all their power, his ideas are simply too radical--too many people have too much to lose. The development of a more global economy and the corresponding decline in the power of the nation-state have, if anything, made a Rawlsian state harder to achieve now, at the time of Collected Papers, than it would have been in 1971, when A Theory of Justice appeared--and it was hard enough then.

Ben Rogers is the author of A.J. Ayer: A Life, published in the U.K. by Chatto & Windus. A different version of this article appeared in the London-based monthly, Prospect magazine (

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