CHICAGO -- John Rawls, who died last week at the age of 82, was the most distinguished
political philosopher of the 20th century. His is not a household name, in part
because he disliked publicity. Yet, to a great degree, it is thanks to John Rawls
that philosophy has continued to animate politics. He enters philosophy's history
alongside Locke, Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Kant. One of his characteristically
generous contributions was to insist on the enduring significance of the writings
of these historical figures: he constantly taught them in preference to his own.
When Mr. Rawls began his career, these figures and their themes — social justice,
free speech, respect for human equality, religious pluralism — were neglected
in philosophy. "Logical positivism" had convinced people that there were only
two things that it made sense to do: empirical research and conceptual analysis.
Science did the first, philosophy the second. So moral and political philosophy
became the analysis of moral and political concepts and how language conveyed
Mr. Rawls, however, insisted on the importance of asking the big normative
questions like, What makes a society just? He used a method of justification that
he associated with Socrates, Aristotle and Sidgwick. He argued that, as we set
out our ethical convictions, we try to identify those that are deepest and most
reliable. (His example is the belief that slavery is wrong.) We then examine these
convictions using the ethical theories known to us, seeking consistency and fit
in our judgments taken as a whole. Judgments sometimes yield to a convincing theory;
and theories often undergo revision or rejection in the light of judgments that
they fail to fit.
Mr. Rawls believed that his own writings supplied only one of the theories
we should consider in such a process. But he also believed he could show that
his theory was superior to some other theories that had held sway: for example,
utilitarianism, understood as the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest
number. This theory, he argued, does too little to respond to our conviction that
each person's life is in certain ways inviolable. (Utilitarianism cannot rule
out slavery as being unjust, only for being inefficient.)
Beginning from this idea about each person's inviolability, Mr. Rawls invented
the famous thought experiment called the "original position," which represents
people choosing principles of justice for the society in which they will live.
In the experiment, these people know that they have interests and plans, but they
are behind a "veil of ignorance," not permitted to know their class, race, sex,
religion or the precise content of their plans of life.
Mr. Rawls argues that, under these conditions, they will give priority to
a group of traditional religious and political liberties on a basis of equality
for all citizens. In the economic sphere they will permit inequalities, but only
when those raise the position of the least well off. "Purity of heart, if one
could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command
from this point of view," says the last sentence of "A Theory of Justice," published
These famous arguments underwent some revision over time. Mr. Rawls focused
increasingly on the issue of religious pluralism, redesigning the theory to show
that it could offer principles that all the major religions, and nonreligious
people, could accept as a basis for life together in a pluralistic society. Although
he seemed to lose interest in defending his economic principles against the criticism
they increasingly received — as the Great Society yielded to a new era in which
these principles seemed increasingly radical — he did insist that the American
system of campaign financing was distorting the right to vote.
Another change was Mr. Rawls's growing interest in justice for women. Unlike
some of his younger colleagues — Robert Nozick, for example, who also died this
year, a man of constantly surprising perceptions — Mr. Rawls had, at first, little
sense of the goals for which feminists were striving. But he understood that many
of the proposed changes were just, and he worked constantly to integrate a concern
for women's equality into his work.
Although he never questioned the naturalness, in some sense, of the traditional
nuclear family, he did much to respond to feminist criticisms, acknowledging that
families as we know them are often unjust to women. In his writings on international
justice, he repeatedly underlined the importance of women's equal opportunity
as a key to global justice.
John Rawls has sometimes been portrayed as a kind of natural saint, who effortlessly
put others first. I believe the reality was more complicated and more admirable
than that: he had a keen sense of the emotions that make for injustice, yet waged
a constant struggle for justice. I recall a conversation with him about Wagner's
"Tristan," when I was a young faculty member. I made some Nietzschean jibes about
the otherworldliness of Wagnerian passion and how silly it all was. Mr. Rawls,
with sudden intensity, said to me that I must not make a joke about this. Wagner
was absolutely wonderful and therefore extremely dangerous. You had to see the
danger, he said, to comprehend how bad it would be to be seduced by that picture
of life, with no vision of the general good.
America has increasingly moved away from John Rawls. Inequalities have grown,
and the electorate seems largely indifferent to them. But our own greed and partiality
can hardly diminish the virtues of his distinguished work. Perhaps we can regard
the occasion of his death as a challenge to look into ourselves and identify the
roots of those selfish passions that eclipse, so much of the time, the vision
of the general good. Purity of heart would be to see clearly what has blocked
that vision and to act with grace and self-command toward the general good.
Martha Nussbaum is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago.
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