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John Rawls 1921 -

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Law of Peoples
Collected papers by John RawlsCollected Papers by John Rawls, Samuel Richard Freeman (Editor)

John Rawls's work on justice has drawn more commentary and aroused wider attention than any other work in moral or political philosophy in the twentieth century. But before and after writing his great treatises, Rawls produced a steady stream of essays, some of which articulate views of justice and liberalism distinct from those found in the two books. They are important in and of themselves because of the deep issues about the nature of justice, moral reasoning, and liberalism they raise as well as for the light they shed on the evolution of Rawls's views....  

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A Theory of Justice

Slide Presentation.  

Includes a Table of Contents:

Rawls Timeline

  • 1921 (Feb 21): Born in Baltimore, MD, USA, to William Lee Rawls
  • 1939: Graduates from Kent School, a renowned preparatory school
  • 1943: Completes B. A. at Princeton University (Princeton, NJ, USA)
  • 1949: Marries Margaret Fox
  • 1950: Receives Ph. D. from Princeton
  • 1950-1952: Is an instructor at Princeton
  • 1952-1953: Receives a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford University (Oxford, UK)
  • mid to late 1950's: Serves as an assistant and associate professor at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY, USA)
  • 1962: Becomes full professor of philosophy at Cornell
  • 1970-1972: Serves as President of the American Association of Political and Social Philosophers
  • 1971: Writes A Theory of Justice, his most famous work
  • 1974: Serves as President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association
  • 1979: Becomes James Bryant Conant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, USA)
  • 1980's-1990's: Is very philosophically active among intellectual circles and in teaching philosophy at Harvard

John Rawls: A Calvinist After-Image


Essay by Michael Weinstein


For John Rawls, his Political Liberalism is a coming to terms with what he has learned in the two decades since the appearance of his academically paradigmatic (academic monument) A Theory Of Justice. The Rawlsian retro-move, in A Theory Of Justice, of recurring to pre-Rousseau contract theory and giving it a Kantian gloss, created a humongous Rawls industry, judging from the footnotes filling Political Liberalism in which Rawls carefully notes and acknowledges anything he could get his hands on that has ever been said or written by anyone about A Theory Of Justice, whether in print, in class or conference, in correspondence, or in private conversation. Political Liberalism is also, then, a massive ego-trip in which John Rawls becomes a center of attention trapping the normal-science worker ants in his paradigm with gobs of condescending and self-important gratitude delivered in a tone of humility. Welcome to Rawlsiana...

John Rawls' New Methodology: An Interpretive Account

Essay by Kai Nielsen


In the years since the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls has elaborated on his project in a number of important articles and lectures. The author of this note contends that in these later works, where Rawls clarifies the nature of his political philosophy and ethical theory, a new methodological approach is evident. Through an interpretive reading of these later writings, the author sketches the outlines of this new methodology, characterized particularly by a new emphasis on the limitations on the scope of the undertaking and its practical intent as a political enterprise for pluralistic constitutional democracies. ..

John Rawls -- Veil of Ignorance and the Original Position

Essay by Kai Nielsen


Rawls’ political philosophy is a continuation of the idea of the Social Contract. He espouses this idea in contrast to the utilitarian mindset that permeated much of the political thought of his day. His main objection to utility as a weighing mechanism is that utility "puts no restriction on the subordination of some people’s interests to those of others, except that the net outcome should be good." Rawls had definite problems with this. As his philosophy is deeply rooted in Kantian thought, he believed firmly that all people are "ends-in-themselves" and that there should be definite, generalized rules that stopped the continual mistreatment of others. He addresses the problem of the determination of these rules in his 1971 book "A Theory of Justice". In this work, he sets out his idea of a "well ordered society". This concept builds upon the theories of Locke, and others, by beginning a social order with some type of contract. Rawls’s contract is explicitly hypothetical, a mere thought experiment that, nonetheless, creates concrete guidelines for a society. He comes up with these guidelines within what he calls the "original position"

Notes on John Rawls -- A Theory of Justice


In A Theory of Justice, and in later works, culminating in Political Liberalism, John Rawls develops a detailed and persuasive theory, which is concerned with providing a theory of justice in accord with the liberal-democratic conviction that concerns for the liberties of individuals in society must be tempered by some sort of condition ensuring that no social or natural contingencies -- no inherited advantages of political influence, material wealth or natural ability -- should irrevocably or overwhelmingly determine life chances; or more specifically, these morally arbitary factors should not determine the value of political liberties to moral persons.

Rawls's first articulation of his theory of justice (1971) centers around a model of social life and individual capabilities that he calls the "Original Position." This model is based upon plausible assumptions about (a) the circumstances of social life, and (b) the politically relevant capabilities of human beings. Rawls's model allows his theory to make explicit the correspondence between the convictions underlying these assumptions and the principles of justice which the theory derives from the model. This correspondence then serves to justify the theory's evaluative and prescriptive outcomes.

John Rawls -- Philosophy


Harvard University professor John Rawls destroyed the notion that political philosophy was dead and revived the discussion among intellectuals about the nature of justice. Most of his philosophical theories are summed up in A Theory of Justice (1971), the instantly popular book in which Rawls attempts to present a grand theory with a comprehensive discussion of normative standards (standards based on the average or median achievement of any large group in any particular category, in this case social) which he tried to apply to the idea of justice (simply defined as giving every man their just due). More or less, Rawls presented a form of modern pluralism in his book, basing his theories on societal obligations to the disadvantaged. He based his theories on a social contract, which was the agreement among men created from a hypothetical state of nature which effectively established the entity of society. People chose the principles of this contract without knowing their natural positions or abilities in the social order, where the discussion of justice comes in. Rawls was opposed to the utilitarian position of justice, believing that it was not just the outcome of pure utility, and was also opposed a purely intuitive view of ethics, which states that people have some source of knowledge or intuition that explains moral judgments and the right way of life.

John Rawls -- Punishment

Essay by John Rawls, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 64 (1955), pp. 3 13.


This is a revision of a paper given at the Harvard Philosophy Club on April 30, 1954.

In this paper I want to show the importance of the distinction between justifying a practice and justifying a particular action falling under it, and I want to explain the logical basis of this distinction and how it is possible to miss its significance. While the distinction has frequently been made, and is now becoming commonplace, there remains the task of explaining the tendency either to overlook it altogether, or to fail to appreciate its importance.

To show the importance of the distinction I am going to defend utilitarianism against those objections which have traditionally been made against it in connection with punishment…. I hope to show that if one uses the distinction in question then one can state utilitarianism in a way which makes it a much better explication of our considered moral judgments than these traditional objections would seem to admit. Thus the importance of the distinction is shown by the way it strengthens the utilitarian view regardless of whether that view is completely defensible or not....

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