BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Spanish Portuguese Caribbean
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Americas  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
LANGUAGES
EDITIONS
Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 14:53 GMT
'Concept of justice' philosopher dies
Professor John Rawls ( photograph courtesy of Jane Reed/Harvard News Office)
Rawls - 'a combination of profound wisdom and profound humanity'
John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century, has died aged 81.

The reclusive Harvard University professor died of heart failure on Sunday at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, after a long illness, university officials said.

Rawls spent his career discussing the concept of justice - emphasising the rights of the individual over the greater good of society.


His work is not going to be forgotten for decades

Harvard colleague Hilary Putman
"I am deeply saddened by the death of John Rawls," said Harvard University President Lawrence Summers in a statement.

"He combined profound wisdom with equally profound humanity," Professor Summers said. "Few if any modern philosophers have had as decisive an impact on how we think about justice."

Rights and ethics

Rawls, a professor emeritus, is best known for his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, which is deemed to have revolutionised political science.

His ideas led the transition away from questions of logic and the philosophy of science to the study of ethics.

His views on social justice and individual rights forced philosophers to refocus on questions of freedom, liberty and responsibility.

"His work is not going to be forgotten for decades - I think for centuries," said Hilary Putnam, his colleague at Harvard University's philosophy department.

He "didn't just think about how to do good and be good, but he seemed to exemplify in his own life doing good and being good," she said.

Rawls introduced a relatively straightforward test to determine an ideal society - based on his concept of a "veil of ignorance".

If each man chose rules for his society to live by - without knowing whether he would be prosperous or destitute - he would choose the society in which the worst possible position is better than that of any other system, Rawls argued.

The result, he said, was that the least fortunate would be protected. Though inequalities would not be abolished, they would be minimised, he argued.

Life in academia

Born in Baltimore, John Rawls received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton University.

He served as infantryman in the Pacific during World War II, where he came to appreciate man's capacity for evil.

But throughout his life, he maintained what he called a "realistic utopianism", or an optimism that mankind could better itself.

Rawls joined Harvard's philosophy department in 1962, and was given the title of University Professor, Harvard's highest teaching post, in 1979.

He is survived by his wife, four children and four grandchildren.

Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes