| John Rawls
The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
John Rawls, arguably the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, passed way this week in his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, at the age of 81. Rawls was not a household name in the conventional sense of the term. Although his classic, A Theory of Justice, has been translated into two dozen languages, it cannot be described as a “popular” book. Rawls, who taught for most of his life at Harvard, was himself very much of an academic and hardly a public intellectual. He rarely lectured, seldom participated in ideological trench warfare that tempts so many intellectuals and his clear and austere prose was not the sort to set hearts on fire. But A Theory of Justice was a work of extraordinary depth and profundity and is easily the most important work in moral theory to have been published this century. It secured Rawls’s place amongst the great philosophers of all time and is in every sense comparable to the works of Hobbes, Locke and Mill. It is a book of rare and dignified nobility and the best defence of the highest aspirations of liberalism. Its influence in political science, philosophy, economics and law is as powerful as that of any book ever written in any discipline, and it is the one 20th century book whose profound moral appeal will exert a hold on the 21st century and beyond.
The achievements of his best known work, A Theory of Justice, are almost impossible to list. Just when Peter Laslett has pronounced political theory as dead, Rawls revived the grand tradition of political theory. Just when Marxist critics were dismissing liberalism as a doctrine of possessive individualism, Rawls argued that liberalism possessed a hitherto unrecognized moral depth. It was the best expression of what treating people as free and equal, respecting their autonomy and dignity, required.
Just when moral philosophers were playing meaningless semantic games, Rawls showed how philosophers could say something substantive. Just when decision theoretic models based on economics were gaining ground in moral philosophy, Rawls showed that these were not incompatible with serious moral argument. Rawls single-handedly did more to clarify, make vivid, and bring out the moral stakes in the central elements of our political vocabulary than anyone since J.S. Mill. Concepts such as rights, liberty, equality, obligation, civil disobedience, justice, civic friendship, justice between generations, reciprocity, autonomy, the social basis of self respect, were all woven together in a subtle, harmonious and attractive vision of a free and just society. No book on justice or moral theory can be written that does not seriously engage with Rawls.
Rawls’s main idea “Justice as Fairness” first articulated in 1958 and then progressively refined was simple. The question he asked was stunningly simple and relevant far beyond its immediate context. How can we come up with rules of justice that can form the basis of social cooperation and to which all individuals, considered as free and equal could agree'
Rawls’s starting point was the striking and profound moral claim that each person possesses an inviolability that no society can override: in terms borrowed from Kant, the individuals were always to be regarded as ends in themselves and never merely as means to some other collective project. A proper theory of justice would, he argued, give full expression to our status as free and equal beings. He argued that we could come up with a conception of justice that was fair if we imagined ourselves in what he called an “original position”. Conduct this thought experiment. What rules of justice would citizens deliberating together choose if they knew some general facts about society, but did not know what their own position in society was going to be: which class they belonged to, what their particular beliefs were going to be, what talents they might possess and so forth' It is likely that the rules of justice chosen under such condi- tions of deliberation would be impar- tial, just and binding on all because, they were chosen under conditions that were themselves impartial and honoured each individual’s mo-ral status as free and equal beings.
Rawls argued famously that under such conditions we would choose two principles of justice. The first was that each one of us has had a right to a basic system of liberties that would be compatible with all others having such a right. The second principle was that inequalities would be permitted, only if these were compatible with equality of opportunity and worked to make the condition of the least well-off in society better than it would be under any rival system.
The implications of the second principle remained debatable, but as Rawls clarified in his last book Justice as Fairness; A Short Restatement, the principle entailed something closer to social democracy than it did to welfare state capitalism. But what was novel in Rawls’s argument was two things: the first, that social arrangements had to be justified to the least well-off in society, and that they could not simply reflect contingencies of birth or fortune. The second was the thoroughness and conceptual innovation with which Rawls argued his case over six hundred closely reasoned pages that repay constant study.
It is a mark of a classic that it can stand the test of time and Rawls’s arguments have survived trenchant criticisms from both left and right. Against communitarians who insisted that Rawls’s vision was too individualistic without any basis of social solidarity, Rawls argued that reciprocity that respects differences was a better basis for solidarity than either a shared identity or pure egoism. Against libertarians who argued that Rawls was too egalitarian and that his second principle of justice might be too procrustean, Rawls argued that arrangements that gave the least well-off no reason to abide by them, were both unjust and likely to be unstable.
Against critics from the left who argued that Rawls was too inegalitarian, Rawls was able to specify why his version of egalitarianism was both morally defensible and compatible with liberty. In short, A Theory of Justice, will, to those who read it carefully, continue to remain the most defensible, humane and dignified conception of justice anyone has ever produced. No small achievement.
Rawls’s later work, Political Liberalism, was an attempt to reformulate some of the philosophical foundations of his argument and The Law of Peoples tried to produce a brief theory of international morality. His philosophical papers and lectures on the history of moral philosophy exemplify his clarity and scrupulousness. He produced a remarkable range of students. His modesty and lack of pretension were legendary: I remember the first time he called me on the phone, he simply said, “Hello, this is John Rawls, we met at a dinner last night and I asked you a question.” Quite simply, the most famous and accomplished philosopher of his time introducing himself this way was quite disarming to say the least. He was in person as much a standing tribute to a humane liberalism, too lightly scoffed at in our political culture, as much as his work was to the power of careful argument. And his writings remain the greatest defence of human dignity and the best account of the institutions that can protect it.
In a world wrecked by oppression, fanaticism, intolerance and atavistic passions, Rawlsian liberalism remains the best account of what a free and decent society might look like. It will speak to all societies divided by difference.