John Borden (Bordley) Rawls was born on February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the second of five sons to William Lee Rawls and Anna Abell Stump. Rawls only attended school in Baltimore for a short time before transferring to a renowned Episcopalian preparatory school in Connecticut called Kent. Upon graduation in 1939, Rawls went on to Princeton University where he became interested in philosophy. In 1943, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree and joined the army. During this time (World War II), Rawls served as an infantryman in the Pacific where he toured New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan and witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. After this experience, Rawls turned down the offer of becoming an officer and left the army as a private in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Princeton to write a doctorate in moral philosophy. Rawls then married Margaret Fox, a Brown graduate, in 1949. After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950, Rawls decided to teach there until 1952 when he received a Fullbright Fellowship to Oxford University (Christ Church), where he was influenced by the liberal political theorist and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin. Next, he returned to the United States, serving first as an assistant and then associate professor at Cornell University. Finally in 1962, he became a full professor of philosophy at Cornell. Another accomplishment made in the early 1960s was his achievement of a tenured position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, he moved to Harvard University two years later, where he remained for almost forty years. Unfortunately, Rawls suffered the first of several strokes in 1995, which severely impeded his ability to continue working. Nonetheless, he was still able to complete a work entitled, The Law of Peoples, which contained some of his strongest published expressions of feeling and statements concerning political liberalism.
Rawls is noted for his contributions to Liberal political philosophy, in particular its ethical foundations. He emphasised the ideas of the liberty principle and the difference principle. The former is essentially recognisable as the golden rule articulated by Kant. The latter holds that social and economical inequalities are justifiable only in so far as they serve those most disadvantaged by them.
In order to secure assent for the difference principle, Rawls envisaged the thought experiment of veil of ignorance or the Original position. This social-contractarian concept proposes an original state in which actors are asked to select a social order into which they will be born while lacking foreknowledge of the human capital that they will bring to their station. From this position, they eventually arrive at a reflective equilibrium and agree to universal ethical principles.
Rawls's work was (respectfully) contested by his libertarian Harvard colleague Robert Nozick, and today Rawls's A Theory of Justice and Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) are often read in conjunction with each other to examine the points of disagreement between social liberals and libertarians.