My last visit with John Rawls — or Jack, as I was invited to call him after my dissertation defense — took place on a wonderful autumn day in 2002. On my way to him I had taken a swim in Walden Pond and also bought some cheesecake and fist-sized strawberries. When I reached the house, he was already waiting for me on the front porch. His wife Margaret (Mardy) — painter and delegate in Lexington’s town parliament, who had arduously cared for him during the last seven years — brought some tea and we both then shared joyfully in the delight with which Jack enjoyed the cake and fruits. In all his years of suffering, I had not seen him so gay and so lucid. He told of his childhood, the summer vacations in Maine with his cousins — how he had met Mardy, of the wedding, of their four children and grandson Martin who was visiting for a while after an extended stay in Dalien/China. No trace of the effects of the strokes which had often made it hard for him to orient himself in time. No trace of the sadness with which he had often received me in the last few years.
Rawls was an unusual person among the self-confident divinities of the Harvard Philosophy Department. His caring interactions with students and visitors, his modesty, his insecurity and conciliatory attitude in discussions — one could have taken him for a visiting professor from the countryside, next to his famous and overwhelmingly brilliant colleagues Quine, Goodman, Putnam, Nozick, Dreben and Cavell. And yet it was Rawls whose Theory of Justice transcended the boundaries of disciplines and countries and is still being widely read thirty years later: by jurists and economists, from China to Brazil.
‘Green monster’ we students used to call this bestseller, composed in twenty years of labor, alluding to the color of its first edition. Surely no page-turner. But once one has worked one’s way through a few chapters of this difficult text, one stands before an elegant and incredibly unified intellectual structure that harmoniously reconstructs the complexity of political values and principles from a single basic idea: We citizens of modern democratic societies should design their basic rules in accordance with the public criterion of justice that purely prudential representatives of prospective citizens would agree upon behind a veil of ignorance.
Once you understand Rawls’s specification of this basic idea, you can use his thought experiment to achieve the proper distance from concrete tasks of institutional design: Which criterion of justice would I rationally propose, if I had no knowledge about my natural and social endowments? Rawls shows that a criterion of justice agreed upon in this hypothetical situation would give much greater weight to the interests of the least advantaged citizens than is actually done in most such societies. His theory argues especially for lifting the lower threshold of societal inequality: Even those born into the lowest social starting position should be assured of rights, opportunities, and income sufficient for a truly worthwhile life. Differences in natural endowments and upbringing should be allowed to produce unequal life chances only insofar as this raises the life chances of all, and of the worst off in particular.
Rawls’s book was a formative event for the self-conception of 20th century philosophy. It shows how philosophy can do more than play with its own self-invented questions (are moral assertions capable of being true or false?, is it possible to know that the external world exists?) — that it can work thoroughly and creatively on questions that every adult citizen asks herself or should ask herself. Many thought, after reading this book, that it was worthwhile again to read, study, teach, and write philosophy. It became a paradigm, within academic philosophy, of clear, constructive, useful work. A book that made all of us a little proud, especially also because its author was such a thoroughly good and likeable person.
Unlike other great philosophers in history, Rawls regards his work neither as a revolutionary new beginning, nor as the definitive treatment of a topic area. Rather, he studied his predecessors — Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Mill, even Marx — very carefully and tried to develop their best ideas in his own work. And similarly with his contemporaries — with Habermas, for example, whose writings Rawls knew well and with whom he published an extensive debate.
Unfortunately, Rawls was only granted four healthy years of life after his retirement. At a conference about his work in California in 1995 he suffered the first of a series of strokes, which caused a substantial mental and physical decline. Rawls has nonetheless, with remarkable discipline and the untiring help of his wife and of some former students, brought his life’s work to completion: In his last three years, five books by him have appeared: a revised edition of his main work, a new, more accessible presentation of the same theory, a complete edition of his essays, a treatise on international justice, and a collection of lectures on the history of moral philosophy. The completion of these labors has been a great relief to him. In September he told me that there was only one thing left to do: The collection of his lectures on social and political philosophy. This volume is to appear soon.
After some two hours of animated conversation on the porch, Jack said that he had to take a rest. I brought him into the house to his couch. In parting, he held my hand for some time and then said “thank you.” This I should have said.