Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 993

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 993


This is the grave of John Rawls.

I’m by no means an expert in philosophy or any of them high falutin ideas, being a mere country boy, but here we go.

Born in 1921 in Baltimore, Rawls grew up in a prominent family. His father was one of the city’s leading lawyers and his mother was quite active in the suffrage movement and then the League of Women Voters after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. He went to Princeton, then took time off during World War II, when he was in the infantry in the Pacific. This really changed him. He was considering the ministry before he was in the war. Seeing all the death around him killed God within him, basically. He went back to Princeton after the war and finished his PhD in 1950. He married Margaret Fox there, a fellow philosophy student who of course ended her career to support his. Rawls taught at Princeton for a couple of years and then went to Oxford where Isaiah Berlin became a major mentor to him.

Rawls came back to the U.S. to take a job at Cornell. He soon moved to MIT and then to Harvard in 1962. There, he became a leading liberal philosopher, someone who spoke out for justice when many leading academics did not. He was known as a sort of conduit for other philosophers, someone whose ideas were there for others to expand upon. He essentially created the field of contemporary political philosophy when he wrote A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, which was a genuinely profound work that changed the field. He also spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War at the same time, horrified by an unnecessary war that killed so many Americans and Vietnamese for no good reason.

Now I am going back to being just a dim Unfrozen Caveman Historian. I don’t know this stuff and I don’t have the patience to deal with these sorts of things. Would take a lot of time. And I don’t have that time. So we are resorting to quoting, in this case from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Rawls sees political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles in a society’s public culture. The first role is practical: philosophy can propose grounds for reasoned agreement when sharp political divisions threaten to lead to violent conflict. Rawls cites Hobbes’s Leviathan as an attempt to solve the problem of order during the English civil war, Locke’s Letter on Toleration as responding to the Wars of Religion, as well as the philosophy that emerged from the debates over the US Constitution, and from debates over the extension of slavery before the American civil war.

A second role of political philosophy is to help citizens to orient themselves within their own social world. Philosophy can meditate on what it is to be a member of a certain society—in a democracy, an equal citizen—and offer a unifying framework for answering divisive questions about how people with that political status should relate to each other.

A third role is to probe the limits of political possibility. Political philosophy must describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people. Yet within these limits, philosophy can be utopian: it can depict a social order that is the best that we can hope for. Given humans as they are, philosophy imagines laws as they might be.

A fourth role of political philosophy is reconciliation: “to calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history by showing us the way in which its institutions… are rational, and developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational form” (JF, 3). Philosophy can show that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly and corruption; but that, at least in some ways, it is better that it has become as it is.

Rawls views his own work as a practical contribution to resolving the long-standing tension in democratic thought between liberty and equality, and to limning the limits of civic and of international toleration. He offers the members of democratic countries a way of understanding themselves as free and equal citizens of a society that is fair to all, and he describes a hopeful vision of a stably just constitutional democracy doing its part within a peaceful international community. To individuals who are frustrated that their fellow citizens and fellow humans do not see the whole truth as they do, Rawls offers the reconciling thought that this diversity of worldviews results from, and can support, a social order with greater freedom for all.


In a free society, citizens will have disparate worldviews. They will believe in different religions or none at all; they will have differing conceptions of right and wrong; they will disagree on how to live and on what relationships to value. Citizens will have contrary commitments, yet within any country there can only be one law. The law must either establish a national church, or not; women must either have equal rights, or not; abortion and gay marriage must either be permissible, or not; the economy must be set up in one way or another.

Rawls holds that the need to impose a unified law on a diverse citizenry raises two fundamental challenges. The first is the challenge of legitimacy: the legitimate use of coercive political power. How can it be legitimate to coerce all citizens to follow just one law, given that citizens will inevitably hold divergent worldviews?

The second challenge is the challenge of stability, which looks at political power from the receiving end. Why would a citizen willingly obey a law that is imposed on her by a collective body whose members have beliefs and values so different to her own? Yet unless most citizens willingly obey the law, no social order can be stable for long.

Rawls answers these challenges of legitimacy and stability with his theory of political liberalism. Political liberalism is not yet Rawls’s theory of justice (justice as fairness). Political liberalism answers the conceptually prior questions of legitimacy and stability, so fixing the context and starting points for justice as fairness.

Justice as fairness is Rawls’s theory of justice for a liberal society. As a member of the family of liberal political conceptions of justice it provides a framework for the legitimate use of political power. Yet legitimacy is only the minimal standard of moral acceptability; a political order can be legitimate without being just. Justice sets the maximal standard: the arrangement of social institutions that is morally best.

Rawls constructs justice as fairness around specific interpretations of the ideas that citizens are free and equal, and that society should be fair. He sees it as resolving the tensions between the ideas of freedom and equality, which have been highlighted both by the socialist critique of liberal democracy and by the conservative critique of the modern welfare state. Rawls also argues that justice as fairness is superior to the dominant tradition in modern political thought: utilitarianism.

In Rawls’s egalitarian liberalism, citizens relate to each other as equals within a social order defined by reciprocity, instead of within the unjust status hierarchies familiar from today.

Significant political and economic inequalities are often associated with inequalities of social status that encourage those of lower status to be viewed both by themselves and by others as inferior. This may arouse widespread attitudes of deference and servility, on one side, and a will to dominate and arrogance on the other. These effects of social and economic inequalities can be serious evils and the attitudes they engender great vices… Fixed status ascribed by birth, or by gender or race, is particularly odious (JF, 131).

With the theories of legitimacy and justice for a self-contained liberal society completed, Rawls then extends his approach to international relations with the next in his sequence of theories: the law of peoples.

Rawls assumes that no tolerable world state could be stable. He cites Kant in asserting that a world government would either be a global despotism or beleaguered by groups fighting to gain their political independence. So the law of peoples will be international, not cosmopolitan: it will be a foreign policy that guides a liberal society in its interactions with other societies, both liberal and non-liberal.

Rawls describes the main ideas motivating his law of peoples as follows:

Two main ideas motivate the Law of Peoples. One is that the great evils of human history—unjust war and oppression, religious persecution and the denial of liberty of conscience, starvation and poverty, not to mention genocide and mass murder—follow from political injustice, with its own cruelties and callousness… The other main idea, obviously connected with the first, is that, once the gravest forms of political injustice are eliminated by following just (or at least decent) social policies and establishing just (or at least decent) basic institutions, these great evils will eventually disappear (LP, 6–7).

The most important feature of the “realistic utopia” that Rawls envisages in The Law of Peoples is that the great evils of human history no longer occur. The most important condition for this realistic utopia to come about is that all societies are internally well-ordered: that all have just, or at least decent, domestic political institutions.

Well, some of you will be able to make more of this than me. Have at it in comments.

Rawls died in 2002.

John Rawls is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you wouldl like this series to profile other philosophers it isn’t smart enough to understand, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Herbert Mead is in Chicago and Borden Parker Bowne is also in Cambridge. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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