John Bordley Rawls was born in Baltimore on 21 February 1921, the son of a tax lawyer. After getting a B.A. at Princeton in 1943 he served as an infantryman
in the Pacific during the War. In 1949 he married Margaret Warfield and they had two sons and two daughters. It was a very happy marriage. Everyone seems to have liked and admired Rawls: he was modest
, and appreciated criticism
so that he could refine his ideas. He enjoyed hill walking and sailing; and he died in Lexington, Massachusetts on 24 November 2002.
Professionally, he taught at Princeton 1950-1952 (having completed his Ph.D. there), Oxford 1952, Cornell 1953-1959, MIT 1960-1962, and principally Harvard 1959-1960 and 1962-1979, then from 1979 to 1991 he was emeritus holder of the James Bryant Conant professorship. His modesty meant he refused many honours, and he accepted honorary degrees only from Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, because of his association with them.
His striking new theory was first published in 1957, in a small essay entitled 'Justice as Fairness' in The Journal of Philosophy. The next year an expanded form appeared in The Philosophical Review. But his new theory derived from the old, and in 1957 rather antiquated, social contract theories of past centuries -- Kant, Rousseau, Hobbes and the like. His approach revived the moribund topic of political philosophy and rescued it from the dead hand of logical positivism, which treated all morality as a kind of emotional affect.
Rawls further rejected utilitarianism, which only sought the largest mass amount of happiness as its ideal of justice. He argued that no one person got to experience this maximal happiness, but that individuals only got their own amount, and fairness demanded that justice be apportioned with respect for the interests of the individual.
To this end he took the maximin principle from game theory: rationally and morally it is best that the worst off are considered first, and their welfare maximized. Once the highest value for people in their situation has been achieved, everyone better off than them is relatively free to pursue their own interests. So to this extent he did not espouse a more thoroughly levelling approach to the redistribution of resources. It was enough to ensure that those who might suffer most had their privations minimized.
This was to be achieved by the thought experiment of the veil of ignorance, behind which we agree to a social contract in which we don't know what our own place would be, and therefore would want to maximize the welfare of the worst off, in case that is to be our lot.
Drafts of a book based on his essays circulated and were discussed as he revised them in the light of criticism, and eventually appeared as the monumental A Theory of Justice in 1971. This has been described as one of the most widely bought books in all philosophy: some 200 000 copies. The main response to it was Anarchy, State and Utopia by the libertarian Robert Nozick in 1974. Rawls's later books include Political Liberalism in 1993 and The Law of Peoples in 1999.
Sources: Obituary in The Independent by Alan Ryan on 28/11/02, which I can finally throw away
Obituary on Harvard Gazette website