Admittedly, I am late to the table concerning John Rawls, but I am becoming quite the fan. I am currently reading "A Theory of Justice" having read, earlier this year, "The Law of Peoples".
Rawls is a Newtonian figure in the realm of political philosophy. What Newton was to modern physics I believe Rawls is to moral and political philosophy. Rawls makes all things clear when considering how political life ought to work, which brings me to my first point. Johns Rawls is a pillar in the endless line of splendor that is the enlightenment tradition.
The enlightenment is based on the idea that through reason mankind can discover the path to ever increasing peace and prosperity. The works of John Rawls and especially "A Theory of Justice" lays forth a methodology by which men and women of reason may discover a conception of justice upon which they can agree. Such a conception of justice becomes the foundation of a well ordered society and, thus, such a program becomes a step forward in the enlightenment experiment. I find such an appeal to reason glorious and dignifying. The vision of the enlightenment can be quite motivational, but likewise, to lose the vision and quest of the enlightenment can be quite disheartening. Such a cynicism rooted in a rejection of the enlightenment principles that assume solutions to fundamental problems can be solved at least partially leads to political and social apathy. The study of Rawls can be a means to overcome such apathy, but it seems that to find inspiration from Rawls, we must first address two obstacles.
First, the enlightenment experiment involves faith in reason. There then is the problem of man's political nature. In our current political and social environment, partisanism appears to be undermining the role of reason in the decisions of the various political actors. Would a reading of the likes of Rawls by the American electorate tip the scales from purely political considerations in the decisions of political actors to a more principle-based problem solving founded on a common conception of justice. Needless to say, a more principled and thoughtful politics would be welcomed. A reading of Rawls can help us embrace such a quest for public reasoning based on a common conception of justice.
While the obstacle of our political tendencies poses a threat to a more enlightened approach to our political life, our cultures post-modern tendencies likewise poses an obstacle. By post-modern, I mean the belief that all opinions are equal. Ought not an opinion which is based in fantasy as opposed to fact be discredited in the marketplace of ideas, yet it appears of late that such a naive proposition is not a given. In fact, the reality that a fantasy based opinion can survive public discourse is a threat to the enlightenment experiment that is liberal democracy. But maybe just maybe, an appeal to education, indeed an education in the writings of John Rawls and the like, might just give a shot in the arm to our ailing experiment.