giovedì, novembre 28, 2002

John Rawls, Theorist on Justice, Is Dead at 82

November 26, 2002
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.