It is rare for academic philosophers to greatly influence society. American moral and political philosopher John Rawls (21 February 1921—24 November 2002) is one candidate to have achieved this.
Rawls is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, recipient of several prizes including the National Humanities Medal. His works have been used in court rulings and invoked by politicians. People who have not read his works may find themselves using his ideas.
Rawls is best known for his defence of liberal egalitarianism in his first book, A Theory of Justice (1971). This book took elements of the social contract tradition to argue for principles of justice with a liberal and egalitarian slant over the Utilitarian approach which prevailed at the time.
In the first half of the day we will look at Rawls’ way of approaching moral and political philosophy, considering whether this is still relevant. We then look at how he applied his approach to the basic institutions of society, his theory of justice. The most discussed of his principles of justice is his famous ‘difference principle.’ This holds that inequalities should be allowed to the extent that they benefit the worst off. How does Rawls argue for this and does this influence economists and politicians today?
In the second half of the day we will consider Rawls’ later work, Political Liberalism and its ongoing influence on politics and the law. Rawls argues that political life should be conducted according to a secular ‘public reason’ which shows respect to those who disagree. Questions of tolerating the intolerant are a perpetual theme in liberalism. Those who are unable to sign up to the requirements of political liberalism are labelled unreasonable. Is this fair?
Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice is one of the most cited works in the humanities and social sciences of the 20th century. It has influenced not only moral and political philosophy but also economics and law.
This day school will summarise Rawls’ contribution and consider its ongoing influence in both academic discourse and in the wider world.