Today is the 100th birthday of the late John Rawls, arguably the most important 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 made a helpful contribution to the importance of Rawls in legal and political theory. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a more general overview of his work.
Solum also comments that “Rawls, the human, was generous and kind – perhaps to a mistake.” I can testify to this from personal experience.
In this memoir, written for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) (pp. 24-26), I describe how I had a long phone conversation with Rawls as a sophomore student. My teammates and I thought Rawls (who lived in the same town as us) might provide some useful insight into an argument we were developing for an upcoming high school debates tournament.
I was the person nominated to actually call Rawls because, as one teammate put it (probably incorrectly), “you guys have a lot in common”. Even though Rawls was the world’s most famous political philosopher at the time, he was too nice to just tell me to go for a hike. So we discussed the subject for a long time. In the end, 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 review his writings with an obscure high school student.
In a section of Chapter 1 of my most recent book, Free Moving: Foot-Suffrage, Migration, and Political Freedom, I contend that Rawls’ theory of the “fair value” of political freedom (described in Theory of Justice) requires broader freedom for people to give to “vote with your feet,” which (by Rawls’ own criteria) offers more value than conventional ballot boxes. That argument would probably have horrified Rawls himself if he had been alive to read it. But it would have been fascinating to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him.