(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

As many of my friends in the left-hand links column have already discussed, the great moral philosopher John Rawls died recently. It's funny to me that -- not having looked at blogs or newspaper, and being unaware of his death -- I was shelving books in my new office yesterday and got a little jolt of inspiration on picking up the familiar big green paperback of his "A Theory of Justice."

Professor Rawls was a warm and mild person, and it was easy to imagine that this personality (and the things that created that personality) drove him to his gut sense of moral philosophy. On the other end of the small-world academic spectrum, in the days when I studied those things, you had Professor Nozick, with a more individualistic moral philosophy that could only have come from someone with a more brash and self-pleased personal style.

I hope it's not disrespectful to Rawls to say that neither of them, I suppose, ever really convinced anybody who wasn't leaning in his direction already. If you were a Rawlsian sort, then his explanations of where those gut impulses would lead, in a philosophical sense, were mesmerizing and inspiring. If you weren't a Rawlsian sort to begin with, at least deep down in your heart of hearts, then his beautifully articulated theory of justice would have seemed like bleeding-heart naivete. I am tempted, often and even now, to describe the difference between Rawlsians and non-Rawlsians as the difference between people who care deeply about the happiness of those less fortunate, and people for whom that is pretty low on their personal priority list.

So here's my Thanksgiving wish for tonight: Thanks to Professor Rawls for building an unshakeable philosophical foundation for those to whom distributive justice is a living concern.

posted by sam 8:57 PM 0 comments


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