Happy 100th Birthday, John Rawls!

Today is the 100th birthday of the most influential political philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century.


John Rawls.


Today is the 100th birthday of the late John Rawls, probably the most significant political philosopher of the 20th century. Rawls' most important and influential works were A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993).

University of Virginia Law Professor Larry Solum has a helpful post on Rawls' importance to legal and political theory here. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a more general overview of his work.

Solum also comments that "Rawls, the human, was generous and kind–perhaps to a fault." I can testify to that based on personal experience.

In this memoir, written for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) (pp. 24-26), I describe how I had a lengthy phone conversation with Rawls when I was a high school sophomore. My teammates and I thought Rawls (who lived in the same town as we did) could provide some useful insights on an argument we were developing for an upcoming high school debate tournament.

I was the person nominated to actually call Rawls, because, as one teammate put it (probably mistakenly), "you guys have a lot in common." Although Rawls was then the most famous political philosopher in the world, he was too nice to just tell me to take a hike. So we discussed the issue for a long time. Ultimately, I didn't get much out of him that was useful for the tournament. But I will always remember how the world's most prominent political theorist took the time  to discuss his writings with an obscure high school sophomore.

In a section of  Chapter 1 of my most recent book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, I  contend that Rawls' theory of the "fair value" of political liberty (outlined in Theory of Justice), requires giving broad scope for people to "vote with their feet," which provides more value (by Rawls' own criteria) than conventional ballot-box voting. This argument would probably have horrified Rawls himself, if he were alive to read it. But it would have been fascinating to have the opportunity to discuss the issue with him.

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  1. I remember reading some of his work about the “Veil of Ignorance” back in high school and thinking it was brilliant and that was the solution to all the world’s problems … and now I’ve basically come around to the conclusion that its really only useful as a thought experiment and not that helpful otherwise, and Noziak and others were probably more right in the end.

    Most people age out of libertarian ideas, I’m one of the only people to age into them I guess. The problem with the veil of ignorance and Rawls idea of political liberty more broadly is the assumption of a static society. Society is to be designed with a certain percentage you might be poor, rich, black, or white, etc … that shouldn’t be the question, because society is always in Flux. Ask how to maximize opportunity by identifying fundamental truths of liberty despite that Flux… thats Noziak in my view, not Rawls.

    1. The ‘veil of ignorance’ struck me as a heavily contrived notion, and entirely too unrealistic to be useful even as a thought experiment.

      Rawls makes assumptions about how somebody in such a position would reason, that seem designed to arrive at the conclusions he wants. They don’t otherwise seem particularly persuasive.

      1. Yeah, the problem with the veil of ignorance is a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ problem – it just reflects your assumptions back at you.

        My bigger problem with Rawls was defining Justice as ‘fairness’. That’s meaningless as a definition – it just begs the question ‘okay, what is fair?’

        I have nothing against Rawls the person, but Nozick was a vastly superior thinker, and it’s a shame that Rawls is more influential. Its not hard to understand why, though – When you get out your own assumptions, everyone reads into Rawls what they want, and with that as a stamp of approval, they basically get to launder their assumptions through a famous philosopher.

        1. The veil of ignorance wasn’t invented by Rawls. Harsanyi published the idea much earlier. He reached the obvious conclusion, which is maximizing the average of Von Neumann utility, since that is defined by the choices people make under uncertainty.

          I have never understood why people take Rawls, in particular his argument from the veil to the difference principle seriously, since it depends on assuming, with no justification, that someone faced with a set of possible outcomes will act as if he is certain of getting the worst one.

          He may have been a very nice man, as described in this piece, and he may have done other work that is admirable; the only thing of his I have read is _The Theory of Justice_. But his most famous contribution to philosophy is, as best I can tell, complete nonsense, which people admire only because it leads to a conclusion they like. His status in the community of academic philosophers is one reason why I do not take modern academic philosophy seriously.

          Anyone here who thinks he can defend the argument is welcome to do so. My email is

  2. Wouldn’t the most influential philosopher of the 20th century be Ayn Rand? Or is this limited to philosophers academics like?

    1. I’ve heard of Ayn Rand countless times. I haven’t heard of this guy until 5 minutes ago.

      1. Says more about you than about Rawls.

        1. Not meant as an insult. My cat is less famous than Pol Pot but I don’t think Pol Pot is a better being because of it. I’m just wondering since ‘most influential’ is a pretty tall claim and familiarity among philistines when it comes to 20th century philosophers, of which I freely admit I am among would certainly help bolster that claim, especially when many other philosophers are known to the general public.

          1. You may not have heard of Rawls, thats fine. But most of liberal society (broadly defined as the “west,” though of course not exclusively) is based on his ideas and Nozicks ideas, in some combination. The US is more Nozick with a rights based approach to society, and Europe is more Rawls.

            Rawls essentially said you define a good society in a number of ways, most equal, most free, most wealthy, etc… and said, assume you didn’t know where you will end up in society. Then you would prefer some combination of these three and he outlined it, and it ended up resembling something like a liberal democracy.

            He is famous because although you don’t know his name society revolves around his ideas.

            In the same way John Locke and Rousseau are famous. You may not have heard of them, but our entire system of government is based on it. There are a number of SCOTUS cases today on the government where the justices, though they don’t say so explicitly, are debating Locke.

            You have heard of Ayn Rand, but, as much as people on this site wish it were so, her ideas are not the dominant force in the arrangement of liberal society.

            1. “But most of liberal society (broadly defined as the “west,” though of course not exclusively) is based on his ideas and Nozicks ideas, in some combination.”

              At best, you’ve got the causality backwards there. You might somewhat have it right for John Locke and Rousseau.

              1. I was just going to say that — unless society took a huge Rawlsian turn in the 20th century, it can’t be based on him.

            2. “But most of liberal society (broadly defined as the “west,” though of course not exclusively) is based on his ideas and Nozicks ideas, in some combination.”

              Those ideas existed before Rawls was born — the welfare state goes back at least to Bismarck, arguably much farther, and both democracy and rights based arguments for property go back equally far. Rawls’ contribution was to provide what looked like a philosophical defense for ideas and practices that were already popular.

        2. What the comment by Amos and your response tell us about is the difference between the community of academic philosophy and the rest of the world. Rawls is much more famous in the former, and people who have taken a philosophy class in college are likely to remember his name. I would guess that his books have sold at least an order of magnitude fewer copies than Rand’s, possibly two orders of magnitude, and that a random poll of people would find that many more have heard of Rand.

          I have heard of both, read both, disagree with both, but my opinion of Rand is higher than my opinion of Rawls. Both make strong claims based on argument with gaping holes in them, both cover up the holes with passionate rhetoric, but Rand does a more entertaining job of it and the holes are a little less obvious. If you disagree, explain why someone in the initial condition would act as if he was certain of getting the worst outcome, was infinitely risk averse, which is the claim on which the argument Rawls is most famous for is based.

      2. “Heard of Ayn Rand” but never read Atlas Shrugged? Hey, it’s a bit tedious, because she repeats her theme multiple times in its 400-some-odd pages, but it’s a compelling novel nonetheless (I stayed up all night to read it cover-to-cover when I discovered it as a college freshman) and it’s amazing that, published in 1957, it so presciently described the American society we’re living in today.

        1. Just skip the long monologues. I literally can’t read the 60 page John Galt speech.

          And honestly, treating it solely as a work of fiction (and years after i last read it), it has a great hook, but it gets noticeably worse once Dagny actually meets John Galt. Both Dagny and Howard Rearden are vastly more interesting characters before John Galt takes over the narrative.

    2. Wouldn’t the most influential philosopher of the 20th century be Ayn Rand?


      1. Make the case. I’d argue that Rand is more widely read, by far. And how many major motion pictures was Rawls responsible for? How were his book sales compared to Rand’s?

        Rawls is arguably more popular with academics, but Rand had more impact on the world.

        Maybe he did more damage, though.

        1. Read a lot is not the same as influential.

          1. It’s not perfectly the same, but it’s certainly related, can’t be very influential if nobody is aware of your work. More than 7M copies of Atlas shrugged have sold since it was first published; Rand’s books probably outsold Rawls’ in Rawls’ best years.

            I think Ilya is mistaking, “Most influential in my relatively small professional circle” with “most influential”. Or maybe the former is actually what he meant, and he just wasn’t very clear about it.

            1. The Velvet Underground effect is real, though.

              Who you’re popular with is at least as important as how many read you.

              1. That IS true: Rand is mostly influential with people who are not in a position to push others around, and don’t aspire to be. Who mostly aspire to be left alone so they can do what they want.

                Rawls is influential with people who are into either oppressing others, or providing a rhetorical basis for doing so. Though they probably don’t think of themselves that way… In fact, Rawls is popular with them because he gives them an excuse to not think of themselves that way!

                So, like it or not, he has influence on a huge number of people who’ve never read him, and wouldn’t find him persuasive if they did. In a manner of speaking.

                1. So from he’s not as influential as Rand, to you’ve decided he enables stuff you don’t like.
                  That’s quite a pivot.

                  Also, the idea that between Rand and Rawls the one that lets people rationalize liking to do bad stuff is *Rawls* is some pretty great projection.

                  1. Rand is popular and influential with people who go on to leave other people alone, so her works don’t much effect the lives of those who don’t read them.

                    Rawls is popular and influential with people who go on to screw around with other people, or rationalized why doing so is good and proper, so his works effect people who don’t read them.

                    “Also, the idea that between Rand and Rawls the one that lets people rationalize liking to do bad stuff is *Rawls* is some pretty great projection.”

                    Be specific about what YOU mean by bad stuff. Rawls helps rationalize passing laws that are imposed on others, and many of those others experience those laws as “bad stuff”. Rand has written very little that I can think of to justify aggression, governmental or private, against others. Her “bad stuff” consists of leaving people be when they’re bizarrely convinced they’re entitled to have you help them whether or not you want to.

                    NOT “bad stuff” in my book.

                    1. How was Ragnar Danneskjöld leaving people alone or not a justification of aggression? He was a pirate who seized aid ships and is actually just making people’s lives worse.

                      Rand is popular with selfish people who want to justify their selfishness. Rawls, on the other hand actually thinks we owe duties to other human beings. You might find that concept nasty and evil…but you often out yourself as a supremely selfish person.

                    2. Also as a fan of Rawls, I actually DON’T want to oppress anyone. Mainly I want to get selfish people to understand, with no coercion, that they owe duties to other humans and proceed accordingly in how they conduct themselves and which policies they support. Rawls can help with that.

                    3. “Mainly I want to get selfish people to understand, with no coercion, that they owe duties to other humans”

                      Like I said, “Her “bad stuff” consists of leaving people be when they’re bizarrely convinced they’re entitled to have you help them whether or not you want to.”

                    4. Like I said: selfish person is selfish.

                2. “Who mostly aspire to be left alone so they can do what they want.”

                  Which includes acting without any regard to the lives and well-being of other people.

      2. The problem with classifying Rawls as influential is that, so far as I can tell, he was persuasive mostly to people who already to believe his conclusion, and simply want what they could see as a sophisticated defense of it. That gets fame and perhaps fortune, but it isn’t really influence.

        Rand, on the other hand, really was a religious founder, even if an atheist one. She caused a large number of people to accept her view of philosophy. Many of them probably wanted to believe at least part of what she was preaching, but I think she made some converts, and converted other people from conservatives to Objectivists, with noticeable differences in their views as a result.

        So judged by influence, I think she was more influential than Rawls, even if less popular with philosophy professors. Off hand I can’t think of any other philosophers with a better claim to the title than Rand,

    3. He did say latter half – it’s not clear which half of the 20th century you might assign Rand to.

      Also, while Rawls is probably most influential among philosophers within the analytical tradition of ethics, it’s not clear that its any more universal than that. There are certainly significant analytical philosophers besides Rawls who worked on problems besides ethics and political philosophy who could contest that claim (Searle comes to mind), and then there’s non-analytical philosophers (among whom Foucault is probably the most significant in that time period) who may well be more influential than Rawls overall.

  3. Why is the word, Reason, central to the common law, and to this Harvard professor’s work? Why not another, like intelligent, logical, useful, helpful or a host of others denoting benefit?

    This is the dictionary definition: the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. It sounds like, intelligence. Why not use the word, intelligence?

    “Reason” has a technical definition in Scholasticism from which the common law is plagiarized. It means, the ability to see God. The best guide to moral decision making according to St. Thomas is the New Testament, and he rebutted the other guides. The New Testament is the story of one man, Jesus. Intelligence was easily deceived by sinfulness, since the Fall from Eden.

    Of course, philosophers are free to use the word. But, that fact makes any use of the word, reason, in the law illegal in our secular nation. It violates the Establishment Clause. Any rule or legal utterance containing the word, reason or any of its derivatives, is void.

  4. Ilya, amazing recall of every detail in your memoir.

  5. If John Rawl’s theories were corrrect, people would never gamble at casinos.

    But they do.

    1. Could you explain?

      1. Casino gambling always involves games where one side, the house, has an advantage over the other. Casino gambling games lose in the long run from the point of view of the player.

        That violates basic Rawlsian principles of rationalism and fairness.

        1. But this seems an odd metric for correct.

          Does Rawls say everyone will flock to his ideas?

        2. That confuses theories of what people will do, with theories of what people should do; Rawls’ was the latter.

        3. Its worse than that. Rawls posits that, at least in the initial situation, people are infinitely risk averse. Applying that to a casino, everyone would always assume he would lose. Of course, to be fair, he doesn’t claim that the assumption holds everywhere, just in the one place where he needs it to get the conclusion he wants.

          Casino gambling doesn’t violate principles of rationality. The expected return in dollars is negative, but so is the expected return in dollars from buying and eating an ice cream cone. The entertainment can be worth the price.

  6. I was unaware of Prof. Rawls’ prominence before Prof. Somin described it, despite having shared a lunch table with Prof. Rawls (who was visiting a professor at my campus); I recall discussion of college football, with which neither professor seemed strongly familiar, rollercoasters (same, although it was an interest they shared with George Plimpton), and lower-level philosophy classes. This description persuades me to read A Theory of Justice.

  7. Long ago (1975) I read Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which refuted Nozick’s Harvard colleague’s “Social Justice”. I was so impressed by libertarian Nozick’s argument that I carried the 3-pound book along a two-week backpack trip through the Colorado Rockies (okay, I’ll admit I was a philosophy major at the time, and usually made my dog carry it in his own backpack) so I could re-read it. To my mind, Nozick had the better of the argument. You and others may well disagree with my judgment, but I’d urge a reading of both books to get the full discussion.,_State,_and_Utopia

    1. Oops! The actual title of Rawl’s tome is “A Theory of Justice”. Hey, it was 45 years ago.

    2. I recall reading it in college; My philosophy prof loaned me his own copy to read, said he thought I’d like it. I ended up buying my own copy after I read and returned it. It is a good read. Though watching the way he reasoned his way into libertarianism, I was not surprised when he later reasoned his way out of it.

  8. Rawls probably was a very genuine and nice person. You can get that even from his academic works… that he is compassionate. But his ideas put the cart before the horse and make some arbitrary assumptions and decisions along the way.

    It is emotional pleading cloaked in a veneer or rationality. But it doesn’t hold up. Take most of his major claims and run them to their logical conclusions or stretch them to extreme examples and they all crumble. He limits human inter relational ethics with imaginary lines in the sand. I should give up my life to improve another person… but Someone in Mexico shouldn’t give up to help someone in Mongolia for example. Why not? Either morality and ethics exist in all places and all times or they don’t.

    And the veil of ignorance? Seemed smart when I was in college. Now? Put me under the veil and I will pick a 100% chance at freedom versus an “ideally more likely chance” at equality. He assumes a virtue in us all without accepting value judgements aren’t necessarily objective.

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