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Harvard Professor John Rawls Dies at 81

November 26, 2002

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BOSTON (AP) _ Harvard University’s John Rawls, who sparked political and philosophical debate by raising enduring questions about the nature of freedom, liberty and responsibility, has died.

Rawls, a giant of 20th century philosophy who revived the study of ethics and became an intellectual hero of liberalism, was best known for his 1971 book ``A Theory of Justice.″ He revolutionized philosophy by returning it to questions of right and wrong, rescuing it from a preoccupation with the questions of logic, epistemology and the philosophy of science that had come to dominate the field.

``His work is not going to be forgotten for decades, I think for centuries,″ said Hilary Putnam, his colleague at Harvard’s philosophy department for 35 years.

Rawls died of heart failure Sunday at his home in Lexington. He was 81. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes since the mid-1990s, although he continued publishing until last year.

His colleagues said Rawls’ greatest contribution may have been reviving the study of ethics in philosophy, forcing it to confront head-on questions of freedom, liberty and responsibility.

``He connected philosophy with democracy,″ said Joshua Cohen, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former student.

Rawls believed that the ideal society should be constructed according to a relatively straightforward principle that came to be known as the ``Rawls test″: Would the best off accept the arrangements if they believed at any moment they might find themselves in the place of the worst off?

Slavery, for instance, would not pass the test as slave owners could not in good faith say they would prefer the arrangements if the roles were reversed.

Cohen said Rawls’ greatest accomplishment was not merely providing philosophical support for socio-economic liberalism, but reconciling it with a commitment to the rights of individuals.

Born in Baltimore, Rawls received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton University. Tall and athletic like his hero Abraham Lincoln _ Rawls was once offered a minor league baseball contract _ he served an infantryman in the Pacific during World War II.

Rawls joined Harvard’s philosophy department in 1962 after teaching stints at Princeton, Cornell and M.I.T. In 1999, he received the National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Perhaps most notably, Putnam said, Rawls ``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.″

``He combined profound wisdom with equally profound humanity,″ Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers said. ``Few if any modern philosophers have had as decisive an impact on how we think about justice. Scholars in many different fields will continue to learn from him for generations to come.″

Rawls leaves his wife, Margaret Warfield Fox Rawls, four children and four grandchildren.


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