Not long before Rawl's death a leading classicist called him "the most distinguished moral and political philosopher of our age"; to another prominent scholar, he was simply "America's greatest political philosopher." Rawls's first and most comprehensive book, "A Theory of Justice," has sold more than three hundred thousand copies in the U.S. alone and had been translated into twenty-seven languages, including Russian and Chinese, as of 2003
In Political Liberalism [PL] (1993), he recast the role of political philosophy, accommodating it to the effectively permanent “reasonable pluralism” of religious, philosophical, and other comprehensive doctrines or worldviews that characterize modern societies. He explains how philosophers can characterize public justification and the legitimate, democratic use of collective coercive power while accepting that pluralism.
A key problem for Rawls is to show how such principles would be universally adopted, and here the work borders on general ethical issues. He introduces a theoretical "veil of ignorance" in which all the "players" in the social game would be placed in a situation which is called the "original position." Having only a general knowledge about the facts of "life and society," each player is to make a "rationally prudential choice" concerning the kind of social institution they would enter into contract with. By denying the players any specific information about themselves it forces them to adopt a generalized point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view. "Moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint and positing a moral outlook merely by pursuing one's own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints."
In "A Theory of Justice," Rawls sets forth the proposition that "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests."
Rawls's most significant achievement is his theory of a just liberal society, called justice as fairness. Rawls first set out justice as fairness in systematic detail in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls continued to rework justice as fairness throughout his life, restating the theory in Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as Fairness (2001).
Over many years, he developed a thorough understanding of moral and political philosophy by studying its primary sources and its massive secondary literatures. An attentive and critical reader, he retained clearly structured synopses of the texts he studied and of their various strengths and weaknesses. Rawl's works show that he was equally strict and careful as a writer. He paid great attention to his choice of terms and phrases, as well as to the clear exposition of his thoughts, often taking months or even years to produce thoroughly reworked drafts of a text before allowing a final version to be published.
After teaching at Cornell and MIT, Rawls took up a position in the philosophy department at Harvard in 1962. There he remained, being named a University Professor in 1979. Throughout his career, he devoted considerable attention to his teaching. In his lectures on moral and political philosophy, Rawls focused meticulously on great philosophers of the past—Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and others—always approaching them deferentially and with an eye to what we could learn from them. Mentor to countless graduate students over the years, Rawls inspired many who have become influential interpreters of these philosophers.
Rawls was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a prominent lawyer, his mother a chapter president of the League of Women Voters. Rawls studied at Princeton, where he was influenced by Wittgenstein's student Norman Malcolm; and at Oxford, where he worked with H. L. A. Hart, Isaiah Berlin, and Stuart Hampshire. His first professorial appointments were at Cornell and MIT. In 1962 Rawls joined the faculty at Harvard, where he taught for more than thirty years.
John (Jack) Bordley Rawls was born on February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, the second of five sons of William Lee (1883-1946) and Anna Abell Rawls (nee Stump, 1892-1954). His maternal grandparents came from affluent families residing in an exclusive suburb of Baltimore.
Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective. His work continues to be a major influence in the fields of ethics, law, political science, and economics, and has been translated into 27 languages.