John Rawls, 81; Philosopher Shaped Idea of Social Justice

Times Staff Writer

John Rawls, a political philosopher who shaped late 20th century notions of social justice with ideas that guided debates over topics from affirmative action and welfare to physician-assisted suicide, has died. He was 81.

A Harvard University professor, Rawls died Sunday of heart failure at his home in Lexington, Mass., according to a statement from the university. Rawls had suffered a series of strokes, beginning in 1995, but continued to publish until last year.

Rawls’s 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice,” revived the idea of the social contract, the concept that society is a cooperative venture from which everyone should expect to benefit.

Social contract theories -- the subject of works by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau -- had been neglected in the 20th century by philosophers preoccupied with the study of logic, linguistics and the philosophy of science.


Rawls asserted in his writings that one’s opportunities in life are influenced by, among other factors, social and economic status. One’s prospects, therefore, are largely shaped by luck, but luck is in turn shaped by political, social and economic systems.

Rawls’ idea of social justice, wrote philosopher Thomas Nagel, gave it “the form that it has in contemporary discussion.”

Indeed, Rawls’ ideas on equality and ways to achieve justice have transformed not only philosophy but also other academic fields. Rawls’ work not only remains a staple of undergraduate classes, but is evoked directly or indirectly in courtrooms, legislatures and houses of worship.

“His ideas had an electric effect on other people,” Princeton University professor Charles Beitz, a Rawls scholar, said Monday in an interview with The Times. “No political philosopher in memory has had the influence Rawls has had over fields such as law, economics and sociology.”

Beitz said Rawls’ profound effect on public policy debates is ironic because the professor never sought attention outside the world of professors and philosophers. “He never sought to write Op-Eds or testify before Congress,” Beitz said.

Rawls did, however, take stands on issues through his academic writing. In “A Theory of Justice,” written during the Vietnam War, he argued that a just society must provide the opportunity for true conscientious objection to combat service.

In 1997, Rawls joined five other philosophers in submitting a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that argued for a right of dying patients to choose to die. Later that year, the court refused to grant Americans a constitutional “right to die,” but it did not preclude states from establishing laws that would establish such a right. The ruling was considered a victory by some advocates of physician-assisted suicide.

Rawls believed society should follow a basic principle: Would the haves accept the status quo if they were in the position of the have-nots? Slavery, for instance, is unjust because a slave owner cannot in good faith claim the system would be acceptable if he were in the position of the slave.


Rawls argued that inequality is acceptable only if it works to everyone’s advantage. In his view, a doctor earning a high salary is justified in doing so if the services he provides result in better health care for all -- including the poorest of society.

John Bordley Rawls was born in 1921, the second of five sons in a well-to-do Baltimore family. He attended Kent School, a Connecticut prep school, and earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Princeton.

Rawls was an Army infantryman during World War II, witnessing some of the war’s bloodiest battles in New Guinea and the Philippines. Philosopher Nagel wrote that the war influenced Rawls’ world view by exposing him to “the deadly fanaticism of the Japanese army, the murderous romanticism of the Nazis ... and the calculated massacre of civilians by the Allies in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden.”

Rawls taught at Oxford, Cornell and MIT before settling at Harvard in 1962. He published his first article at 30, his second at 34 and his third at 37.


After “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls would not publish his second book until 1993. “Political Liberalism” was a response to more than 30 years of criticism of his previous work.

A stroke in 1995 left him unable to work for several years. He nevertheless resurfaced in 1998 with “Law of Peoples” in 1998, and “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” in 1999. Last year, he completed “Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.”

While Rawls seldom, if ever, attempted to influence public policy through vocal political activism, he believed philosophy was relevant to political and social issues. He contributed to the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, which applied philosophy to current policy debates.

Regarded by colleagues as generous and gentlemanly, Rawls also let his ideas guide his behavior. “He was one of the most decent people among teachers of moral philosophy,” Beitz said.


That decency is captured in an often-repeated anecdote.

When attending a doctoral dissertation defense, Rawls reportedly noticed that the sun was shining harshly in the candidate’s eyes. Rawls rose from his chair and stood between the candidate and the sunlight for the rest of the session.

Details on his survivors were not immediately available.