Rawls, John

born 1921, Baltimore, US

American philosopher and political theorist, grad. Princeton (A.B. 1943, Ph.D. 1950). He taught at Princeton (1950-52), Cornell (1953-59), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology before becoming professor of philosophy at Harvard (1962). Rawls's chief work is A Theory of Justice (1971), in which he attempts, within the social contract tradition of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, to offer an alternative to utilitarian political philosophy. His system is developed from two basic principles: Each person has a right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with like liberty for others; and inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power are just only when they can be reasonably expected to work to the advantage of those who are worst off. For Rawls, justice does not require equality in social position, but it does require that people share one another's fate. By providing the social contract tradition with a formidable philosophic defense, Rawls's book revived interest in systematic political theory.