When I was studying philosophy at London University back in the late 1970s, there were famous names associated with nearly every area of the subject. Some, such as the linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and science theorist Karl Popper, were almost household names. Others were known only to students of the subject, but were revered as leaders in their field, even hailed as heroes. I recall Willard Van Orman Quine, renowned for his work in logic; P.F. Strawson, whose work on 'ordinary' language set the standard of analysis at the time, and G.J. Warnock, whose book, The Object of Morality , cast new light on issues as old as philosophy itself. And you couldn't mention the phrase political philosophy without associating it with John Rawls, who died on November 24, at the age of 81. His 1971 classic, A Theory of Justice , was high on every student's reading list and established him as one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. This was an era dominated in the West by 'logical positivism', a school of thought that divided philosophy neatly into empirical research and conceptual analysis - the former the domain of science, the latter, philosophy. Rawls, an American liberal, was predominantly concerned with the analysis of concepts like social justice, equality and pluralism. He believed that our ethical convictions were arrived at as the result of a moral process, arguing that we identified beliefs and values that were 'the most reliable', analysing them to seek holistic consistency. Judgements sometimes fitted with a convincing theory, but that theory was itself often modified to accommodate judgements that didn't tally. He identified weaknesses in other moral theories by subjecting them to a scrutiny based on the 'inviolability' of the individual, using as his example our consensus that slavery is wrong. He argued John Stuart Mill's 19th-century Utilitarianism - defined in terms of the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number - for example, could not reject slavery as unjust, merely inefficient. It only achieved the 'good' for a few. Rawls suggested in A Theory of Justice that the inviolability of the individual was at the base of moral and political judgements and argued it was possible to imagine an experiment in which individuals were asked to plan their lives without being allowed to take their class, sex, race or religion into account. He defined this as the 'veil of ignorance'. He argued that, without interference, they would give precedence to religious and political liberties on the basis of equality for all citizens. The last line of A Theory of Justice reads: 'Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.' He later concentrated on the issue of pluralism, arguing it was possible for all religions and non-believers to agree a set of principles for a truly pluralistic society. Rawls' passing is tragic for an increasingly sectarian world, exemplified by terrorism on the one hand and sanctimonious nations self-righteously attempting to monopolise morality in pursuit of their own politically vested interests, on the other. Steve Cray is assistant editor of Education Post.