Rawls, John, 1921-2002

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John Rawls (1921-2002), James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, was one of the most significant political and moral philosophers of the twentieth century and is credited with reviving the social contract tradition in social and moral philosophy. Rawls's theories of a just liberal society, known as justice as fairness, greatly influenced the fields of political science, economics, sociology, theology, and the law.

From the guide to the Books from the personal library of John Rawls, 1915-2002., (Harvard University Archives)

John Rawls (1921-2002), James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, was one of the most significant political and moral philosophers of the twentieth century and is credited with reviving the social contract tradition in social and moral philosophy. Widely cited by scholars, Rawls's theories on justice and fairness in a modern society greatly influenced the fields of political science, economics, sociology, theology, and the law.

John Bordley Rawls was born on February 21, 1921 in Baltimore, Maryland, to William Lee Rawls (1883-1946) and Anna Abel (Stump) Rawls (1892-1954). The second of five sons, Rawls's interest in philosophy began at the Episcopalian Kent School in Connecticut and matured as an undergraduate at Princeton University. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1943, Rawls enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, trained as a radio operator, and served as an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific, in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. Following his discharge from the military, Rawls attended the Princeton University Graduate School (1946-1950), spending the year 1947-1948 at Cornell University. From 1952 to 1953, Rawls studied at Christ Church College at Oxford University. After returning from England, Rawls was appointed an Assistant and then an Associate Professor at Cornell University.

Rawls first came to Harvard University in 1959 as a Visiting Professor. While at Harvard, Rawls accepted a full professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he helped to develop the Institute's Humanities Department. In 1962, Rawls left MIT to join the Harvard Philosophy Department, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. Rawls taught moral, social, and political philosophy, focusing on discussions of justice as fairness in society, with examinations of earlier philosopher's works on the subject. He taught a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses at Harvard, but his most influential course was on ethics or moral philosophy in which he reviewed the works of some of the major philosophers of Western Civilization including Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, John Locke, Henry Sidgwick, and W.D. Ross. In Rawls's view, studying the greatest minds of philosophy offered the best hope of understanding some of the important questions asked by individuals during their lifetimes, including what makes a human life worthwhile.

Rawls's research and teaching focused on justice in society, a topic which he studied for over fifty years. He began researching and collecting notes on justice and fairness as a graduate student at Princeton University. In 1971, he published his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, which proposed an alternative to utilitarianism, which in Rawls's view led to injustice. For Rawls, the utilitarian doctrine lacked any principle of justice and could quite easily be turned into a system where the welfare of the few was sacrificed for the welfare of the many. Rawls revived the seventeenth century idea of the social contract, a doctrine popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rawls postulated that a just and fair society was one in which each person had equal opportunities and freedom and that government had a responsibility to address economic and social disparities in order to assist and uplift the disadvantaged. Rawls's theory of justice was received favorably by philosophers, lawyers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, students, and other academicians, and led to an outpouring of journal literature and papers.

After the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls spent the next several years developing and expanding his ideas of justice and fairness by exploring ways in which different approaches to morality could co-exist in a democratic society holding diverse world views. In Political Liberalism (1993), he addressed how a concept of justice influences the lives of citizens in a democracy, specifically addressing the relationship and compatibility between religion and democracy. In The Law of Peoples (1999), Rawls extended his conception of justice to foreign affairs, describing what a peaceful and tolerant international order would look like. Finally, Rawls summarized his conceptions of justice in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), providing revisions to his original ideas on justice and fairness, reworked over a period of almost thirty years. Rawls's writings had a profound effect on philosophical discussion and discourse in the second half of the twentieth century and greatly influenced a generation of moral and social philosophers.

In 1949 John Rawls married Margaret (Warfield Fox) Rawls. They had four children: Anne Warefield (b. 1950), Robert Lee (b. 1954), Alexander Emory (b. 1955), and Elizabeth Fox (b. 1957).

John Rawls died on November 24, 2002.

ethics. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2010 <http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9106054> Freeman, Samuel. Preface to Collected Papers by John Rawls. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. Herman, Barbara. Foreword to Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy by John Rawls. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. Hoffman, Ella A, "Distinguished Philosopher, Professor Dies," The Harvard Crimson, 26 November 2002. Papers of John Rawls. Biographical materials, 1995, 2002-2003. Autobiographical Notes, John Rawls, [ca. 2002], Box 42, Folder 12, HUM 48. Harvard University Archives. Pogge, Thomas Winfried Menko. John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Translated by Michelle Kosch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. political philosophy. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2010 <http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-10238> Rawls, John. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Web. 27 Aug. 2010 <http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9384858> social contract, n. Oxford English Dictionary. June 2009. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 30 August 2010 <http://dictionary.oed.com> utilitarianism. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 30 August 2010 <http://dictionary.oed.com>
  • 1921: February 21. John Bordley Rawls born in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • 1939: Graduates from Kent School, Kent, Connecticut; enters Princeton University.
  • 1943 - 1946 : Serves in the United States Army during World War II.
  • 1946 - 1950 : Attends Princeton University Graduate School; receives Ph.D. in moral philosophy, June 1950.
  • 1949: June 18. Marries Margaret Warfield Fox; the marriage produces four children: Anne Warfield, Robert Lee, Alexander Emory, and Elizabeth Fox.
  • 1949 - 1950 : Earns post-doctoral Fellowship at Princeton University.
  • 1950 - 1952 : Becomes Instructor at Princeton University.
  • 1952 - 1953 : Studies at Oxford University on a post-doctoral Fulbright Fellowship.
  • 1953 - 1959 : Becomes Assistant, then Associate Professor, at Cornell University.
  • 1957 - 1958 : Introduces an early version of his two principles of justice, Justice as Fairness.
  • 1959 - 1960 : Serves as Visiting Professor at Harvard University.
  • 1960 - 1962 : Appointment as Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • 1962 - 1991 : Appointment as Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University; chairman of Harvard Philosophy Department, 1970-1974.
  • 1964 - 1965 : Receives Guggenheim Fellowship.
  • 1964: September. Attended conference on Herbert Hart's Philosophy in Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy.
  • 1966: Summer. Taught six weeks at teaching institute at Boulder, Colorado.
  • 1969 - 1970 : Spends sabbatical year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
  • 1970 - 1972 : Elected President of the American Association of Legal and Political Philosophy.
  • 1971: Publishes A Theory of Justice.
  • 1972: Receives the Phi Beta Kappa Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for A Theory of Justice.
  • 1973 - 1978 : Appointment as John Cowles Professor, Harvard University.
  • 1974 - 1975 : Taught at the Philosophy Department and Law School at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
  • 1974: Elected President of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division.
  • 1975: Attends Bad Homburg conference on A Theory of Justice.
  • 1977: Fall term. Attends the Institute for Advance Study at Princeton University on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
  • 1978: May. Participates at the Tanner Lectures at Oxford University. Lectures on Immanuel Kant at Stanford University.
  • 1978 - 1991 : Appointment as James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University.
  • 1980: April. Gives three Dewey Lectures on Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory at Columbia University.
  • 1982: Gives Tanner Lecture and a seminar on The Basic Liberties and Their Priorities at the University of Michigan.
  • 1983: June. Receives honorary degree, Doctor of Civil Laws, from Oxford University.
  • 1985: September. Receives Ames Prize from Harvard Law School.
  • 1986: May 16. Lectures at the annual Hart Lecture at Oxford University, On the Idea of Overlapping Consensus. May. Lectures at University College, London. June. Lectures at Goethe-Universitat, Frankfurt am Main. June. Lectures at George-August-Universitat, Gottingen.
  • 1986 - 1989 : Lecturer at the Colloquium on Law, Philosophy and Political Theory at New York University; about a week in November for three years.
  • 1987: March 20-21. Participates in the Paris International Symposium on A Theory of Justice at the École Polytechnique. June. Receives honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Princeton University. June. Speaks on the Difference Principle at the Naples Conference on Public Reason. September 3. Awarded the Benjamin Lippincott Award by the American Political Science Association. November. Gives public lecture and seminar at Department of Political Science at University of Chicago.
  • 1990: February. Gives the first of two Abe Meldon Lectures at the University of California at Irvine. May. Lectures on the Overlapping Consensus at Democracy Conference at the University of California at Davis. November 15. Gives Griffin Lecture at University of California, Los Angeles. Also speaks to Philosophy Department Colloquium on November 16 on Political Constructivism.
  • 1991: June. Retires from the Philosophy Department at Harvard University. Rawls teaches three more years as Emeritus.
  • 1992: May 4. Elected member of the Norwegian Academy of Arts and Science and Letters.
  • 1993: Publishes Political Liberalism. February 12. Gives the Oxford Amnesty Lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University. April 30-May 1. Lectures on the nature of political liberalism at the University of California Riverside Conference. May. Speaks on Political Liberalism at a conference at Tel Aviv University. November 4. Delivered Dewey Lecture in Jurisprudence at University of Chicago Law School. November 30. Gives the Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on The Idea of Public Reason: Further Considerations.
  • 1995: March. Speaks briefly at the Eighth International Kant Conference at Memphis State University. October. Attends a two day conference in honor of A Theory of Justice's twenty-fifth anniversary at Santa Clara College in California. October. Suffers first two of several strokes.
  • 1996: Publishes a revised and expanded edition of Political Liberalism.
  • 1997: Receives Honorary Degree from Harvard University.
  • 1998: October. Suffers a stroke in connection with an operation from a broken hip.
  • 1999: September 28. Receives National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton for the National Endowment for the Humanities. November. Awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy from the Royal Swedish Academy. Publishes Collected Papers. Publishes The Law of Peoples with The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.
  • 2000: Publishes Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.
  • 2001: Publishes Justice as Fairness, A Restatement.
  • 2002: November 24. John Rawls dies at the age of 81.

From the guide to the Papers of John Rawls, 1942-2003 and undated., (Harvard University Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Quine, W. V. (Willard Van Orman). W. V. Quine papers, ca. 1908-2000. Harvard University, Houghton Library
creatorOf Books from the personal library of John Rawls, 1915-2002. Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn Stanford University. Dept. of Philosophy. Stanford University, Department of Philosophy, Immanuel Kant lectures, 1976-1996. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Papers, 1926-1977 Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Papers, 1918-1993 Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Stanford University, Department of Philosophy, Immanuel Kant lectures, 1976-1997 Cecil H. Green Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Stanford University, Department of Philosophy, Immanuel Kant lectures, 1976-1997 Cecil H. Green Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Papers of John Rawls, 1942-2003 and undated. Harvard University Archives.
creatorOf Papers of John Rawls, 1942-2003 and undated. Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Portraits, ca. 1852-ca. 2004 Harvard University Archives.
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