Noted Baltimore Native Dies:

John Rawls—An Appreciation

by Alexander E. Hooke

“For all these reasons the less fortunate have no cause to consider themselves inferior and the public principles generally accepted underwrite their self-assurance. The disparities between themselves and others, whether absolute or relative, should be easier for them to accept than in other forms of polity.”

—John Rawls,
A Theory of Justice
(p. 536)

John Rawls, a world-renowned philosopher and Baltimore native, has died. He grew up in Roland Park and eventually became a professor at Harvard University. He is most famous for his now-classic treatise, A Theory of Justice.

Since 1971 the book has been translated into dozens of languages and sold over 250,000 copies, a rare feat for a philosophy (or any academic) work. Conferences, journals and books from various disciplines have studied the implications and arguments of this book and Rawls’ other writings. A recent journal ranked A Theory of Justice among the most important philosophy books in the twentieth century, sharing company with works by Wittigstein, Heidegger, Sartre, and Russell.

One reason for a particular philosophy’s endurance is that people continually find new interpretations and insights. Even sincere readers of a text—be it a poem, story, legal brief, or sacred parable—can nevertheless draw contrary conclusions about its core tenets.

For A Theory of Justice, there were two core principles that anchored a just society. The first required equal and basic rights for everyone. The second, called the “difference principle,” acknowledges that humans have uneven abilities and interests, and demands that basic goods (e.g., resources, opportunities, property) be distributed so that "any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored." These principles acted less as utopian goals and more as standards or guides by which to judge moral and political progress.

Their meaning and relation to justice sparked considerable debate. In Rawls some critics saw a quasi-Marxist ,while others detected a subtle proponent of capitalism. Supporters found a framework of justice with universal potential; detractors countered that Rawls ignored marginal groups whose identities resisted assimilation.

As he wrote A Theory of Justice, Rawls was alert to his country being embroiled in Vietnam, waging a war on poverty, struggling heatedly over civil rights for blacks and women. He was also influenced by the wisdom of Aristotle on self-respect, of Kant on rationality and the social contract, of Mill on happiness and human nature, of Nietzsche on resentment and envy, and of many other significant thinkers.

What followed, instead, has been the treacle of self-esteem movements, a contract with America that cut taxes for multimillionaires without public principle, and mass consumption without self-assurance.

In Rawls’ hometown, his obituary was preceded by news about CEOs of insurance companies receiving millions of bonus dollars while fewer citizens enjoy adequate health care, and public school officials were squabbling over six-figure salaries and administrative respect while thousands of children are undergoing an education unworthy of a modern democracy. Should these less fortunate recognize a just polity?

Rawls was obviously one of the more fortunate, and not only in terms of locale, family, and boarding school—he was clearly brilliant. J.B. Schneewind, philosopher and historian, tells of arriving at Princeton as a student and observing Rawls defend his doctoral dissertation. Such an ordeal can be a friendly ceremony, a rite of passage, or a blood bath exacted by barbarous professors. The young Rawls turned it into an erudite lesson by citing to the professors passages from Kant—in German!

Rawls’ brother died at a young age. Nothing in Rawls’ view could justify the arbitrariness of such misfortune. Indeed, so many of our advantages and disadvantages we are simply born with or fall into. Despite his many talents and the abstract tone of his writings, Rawls echoed some affinity for the venerable saying, "There but for the grace of God...."

Whether living in Roland Park, teaching at a college, working in downtown, exercising at the gym, taking in a game or concert, worrying about the stock markets, keeping an eye out on the kids—how many of us see the disparities and wonder about another’s chance for a meaningful life? Which of us wind up accepting or seeking another form of polity?

Alexander E. Hooke, Ph.D. is a professor of philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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This story was published on January 8, 2003.