The late John Rawls was, by all accounts, a remarkably modest and generous person, much beloved by his friends and students, and profoundly uninterested in the kinds of fame and celebrity perks his prominence naturally invited. But his genius, not his goodness, is what makes him important to those of us who never knew him.
Thomas Nagel calls Rawls “the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century.” Many consider him to be the most important thinker on justice, rights and equality since Kant. Indeed, his demanding 1971 masterpiece, A Theory of Justice, has sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States alone, launched an estimated 5,000 retorts and critiques, and been translated into roughly two dozen languages. Even political philosophers who disagree with its emphasis, including the liberal communitarians Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor, and the conservative Robert Nozick, do so in a Rawlsian context. Liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin admits, “My present view is opposed to his in some ways, but only from within a field defined by him.”
Isaiah Berlin often observed that beneath most great philosophical systems lie some pretty ideas. Nowhere is this truer than of Rawls. I’ll leave the summary to Alan Ryan, who memorialized Rawls in the London Independent. Rawls, Ryan wrote, “had two deep insights. The first was that utilitarianism was fundamentally flawed; utilitarianism, that is, trying to maximise the welfare of a whole society, failed to recognise what Rawls called ‘the separateness of persons.’… The second deep insight is thus that we need an account of justice as fairness. What is the crucial question that we must be able to answer if we are to say that social arrangements meet the test of fairness?… Rawls’s stroke of genius was to invent the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance,’ shrouding the folk who make this social contract so that they do not know who they will be, what abilities they will possess, what faith they will adopt, and so on. If they do not know whether they will be winners or losers, smart or dumb, Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists, they will sign up only for arrangements that protect them whatever happens.”
These two insights remain the starting point for most students of political philosophy, but they remain all but invisible in politics itself. Dworkin once told a reporter that he could think of no Supreme Court arguments relying on Rawls. His ideas are entirely invisible in the political programs of either US major political party and have been explicitly rejected by “New Labour” in Britain. The relative obscurity of his ideas in American life today–compared with, say, those of Milton Friedman or, God help us, Charles Murray–is evident in just how little notice was taken of his death in this country. The Washington Post, the political community’s hometown paper, ran a buried wire-service report. The New York Times and LA Times both ran rather perfunctory obituaries with none of the “great man” trappings that accompanied the death of Milton Berle (no disrespect to Uncle Miltie intended). While he was properly lauded by his peers in Britain and in Le Monde, ironically, if you wanted to read an American appreciation of Rawls, you had to go to National Review Online, where the conservative philosopher Richard Epstein published a provocative engagement with his work (though the Times and Boston Globe did later run thoughtful reflections on his legacy in other sections).