Rawls, John (1921- )


Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, John Rawls received his undergraduate and graduate education at Princeton. After earning his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1950, Rawls taught at Princeton, Cornell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, since 1962, at Harvard, where he is now emeritus. Rawls is best known for A Theory of Justice (1971) and for developments of that theory he has published since. Rawls believes that the utilitarian tradition has dominated modern political philosophy in English-speaking countries because its critics have failed to develop an alternative social and political theory as complete and systematic. Rawls's aim is to develop such an alternative: a contractarian view of justice, derived from the tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and especially Kant. Rawls carries social contract theory to a "higher order of abstraction" by viewing the principles of justice themselves as the objects of a social contract. Justice is the solution to a problem, which arises in this way: Society, as it is conceived in a liberal democracy, is a cooperative venture between free and equal persons for their mutual advantage. Individuals participate in it in order to implement their conceptions of the good life. Cooperation makes a better life possible for everyone by increasing the stock of what Rawls calls "primary goods" - things which it is rational to want whatever else you want, because they are required for any conception of a good life. Primary social goods include rights, liberties, powers, opportunities, income, wealth, and the social bases of self-respect. But society is also characterized by conflict, since people disagree not only about how its benefits and burdens should be distributed, but also about conceptions of the good. Principles of justice are used to evaluate the distributions of benefits and burdens and the institutions which effect them. Rawls's idea is to identify an acceptable conception of justice by asking what principles it would be reasonable for the members of society to agree to, which is to say, what principles would be fair..



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