January 29, 2003: Features

A life that sought justice

The impact of John Rawls ’43 *50, who died at 81

By Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann, provost of Princeton University and Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values, studied with John Rawls.


The philosopher John Rawls died in November at 81. He was the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, whose work was so transformative that even his critics acknowledge their theories of social justice would not have occurred without his. Rawls devoted much of his life to an urgent ethical question – one he had begun to consider as a student at Princeton. What, he asked, does justice require of individuals and institutions, and how can we realize it?

Rawls conceived of “justice as fairness” in the 1950s when the 25-century-old tradition of grand political theory – beginning with Plato’s Republic and extending through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – was declared dead by leading philosophers of the day. Ethical judgments (such as “slavery is unjust”) were said to be nothing more than expressions of emotion. Justice could be the subject of conceptual analysis or social science research, but not substantive ethical inquiry. Beginning with the publication of his article “Justice as Fairness” in 1957, Rawls’s philosophy single-handedly eclipsed this approach to scholarship and restored moral content to the study of social justice.

Many of us drawn to political philosophy in the 1960s were inspired by Rawls to think far more rigorously about social justice than we ever would have before. Even before its publication in 1971, we were awaiting the appearance of Rawls’s monumental work,

A Theory of Justice, which revived the social contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Although Rawls avoided publicity like the plague, he could not control the reception of A Theory of Justice, which was unprecedented in contemporary philosophy within and outside the academy. The intricately argued book has sold more than a quarter-million copies in English, and has been translated into 20 languages.

Feature articles about the book in Time, Newsweek, Le Monde, and other general publications, along with special issues of major academic journals in many different disciplines, ignited both academic thinking and wider public discussions about social justice. Timely issues of civil rights, conscientious objection, campaign financing, and inequalities of educational opportunity for rich and poor made Rawls’s perspective all the more relevant.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought,” he wrote. “A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.” To be uncompromising, Rawls argued, justice must take seriously both the freedom and the equality of individuals.

Utilitarianism once dominated academic discourse, but Rawls’s social-contract theory put it on the defensive by pursuing the political implications of the idea that individuals are “inviolable.” To treat individuals as inviolable, he said, the institutions of a state must be fair to everyone, including those who are born with the fewest economic and social advantages. Even if the institution of slavery might be economically efficient and maximize welfare for society as a whole, he argued, slaves still are treated as mere means to overall social prosperity, and mere instruments of other people’s wills. Therefore, slavery is unfair, and unjust.

Rawls demonstrated the combined practical and philosophical importance of Abraham Lincoln’s firmest conviction that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” He took settled convictions, such as this view of slavery, and extended them to show the justice or injustice of many more controversial practices – for example, how and why a constitutional democrat could rigorously defend the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr., and could criticize unfair inequalities of educational and economic opportunity.

Rawls’s eminence also rests on an ingenious thought experiment that he devised to test the fairness of principles of justice. Principles of justice must not unfairly reward individuals for their unearned attributes, such as their gender, race, ethnic, religious, or class origins. Since we do nothing to earn the attributes of our birth, Rawls invites us to put on a “veil of ignorance” that ensures our fairness. The veil of ignorance requires that we argue for principles of justice without considering whether we are born rich or poor, male or female, black or white, or Christian, Jew, or Muslim. When we engage in this thought experiment, the resulting principles protect the rational interest of even those who are born with the fewest social advantages, because we may be them.

What results is, first, an equal set of basic liberties for all people; and second, a principle that secures the greatest life chances for the least advantaged group of individuals, consistent with equality of opportunity for all. “In all sectors of society,” Rawls writes, “there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed.”

Rawls later extended his theory to address matters of global justice. Colleagues and students at Princeton had the opportunity to respond to an early draft of The Law of Peoples, which he presented as a scholar-in-residence at our University Center for Human Values in 1995. No one in the field could afford to ignore his insights, and everyone knew how seriously he took well-reasoned criticism. Rawls responded to critics in the most thoughtful and respectful way possible. Many of Rawls’s most vocal critics were among his most avid admirers.

I first met Rawls when he kindly welcomed me as an undergraduate into his graduate seminar on justice at Harvard, and like many of his students who pursued political philosophy, I later became his friend. He welcomed our criticisms even as he taught us. As hard as it is to imagine Rawls’s theory of justice being surpassed in our lifetime, it is far harder to imagine anyone matching his combination of intellectual genius and moral goodness.

He was extraordinarily generous, and combined graciousness with a wry wit. His devotion to truth and dedication to justice were inspiring. He was as loyal as he was modest, and accepted only three honorary degrees in his lifetime, from the universities that had nurtured his career: Harvard, Oxford, and, of course, Princeton. In 1999 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton. His work, the citation said, “stimulated a national revival of attention to moral philosophy.”

On the day of Rawls’s death, November 24, 2002, I got in touch with a mutual friend, Thomas Scanlon ’62, who also taught at Princeton and now is at Harvard. He captured my own reaction to Rawls’s death better than I could.

“The thought I keep coming back to is how lucky we were to be around and have such a chance to work with him,” Scanlon said. “What a gift from fate. It’s as if one could say, ‘Oh yes, I knew John Locke; he used to stop by my office and ask if I wanted to go out for coffee.’”

Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary