Illustration of a woman with outstretched arms that are holding the scales of justice

A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

A Theory of Justice has had tremendous, far-reaching impact on twentieth-century philosophical thought. Rawls is widely credited with breathing new life into the field of political philosophy, which, by the 1950s, had nearly ceased to develop in any significant direction. Victoria Davion and Clark Wolf, in The Idea of a Political Liberalism (2000) assert, ‘‘By any account, the appearance of [A Theory of Justice] was a turning point for political philosophy,’’ adding that it ‘‘could not have been more cataclysmic in its effect on the field.’’ As Rex Martin avers, in Rawls and Rights (1985), A Theory of Justice ‘‘is widely regarded as an important and seminal treatise on some of the main topics of moral and political philosophy.’’ Rawls’s work also had an important effect on liberal thought. As A. P. Rao asserts, in Three Lectures on John Rawls (1981), ‘‘Rawls not only brought some freshness into the Anglo-American moral philosophy, but also rescued liberal thinking from sterility, and liberal ideology from impotence.’’

The book, however, inspired extensive criticism, as well as praise. Brian Barry, in The Liberal Theory of Justice (1973), claims, ‘‘Rawls’s theory of justice does not work and . . . many of his individual arguments are unsound.’’ Yet Barry is quick to add:

It is, quite simply, a work that anyone in the future who proposes to deal with any of the topics it touches must first come to terms with if he expects the scholarly community to take him seriously.

David Lewis Schaefer, in Justice or Tyranny? (1979), offers harsh criticism on the grounds that Rawls’s work is not that of true political philosophy, but rather of political ideology. Schaefer asserts, ‘‘Rawls’s writings . . . embody what I believe to be both a popular yet seriously deficient political ideology and a widely shared yet grossly inadequate understanding of the nature of political philosophy.’’ He goes on to state, ‘‘the widespread acclaim that A Theory of Justice has received from the academic community despite the book’s manifold defects is . . . a disheartening sign of contemporary decay, not only in political philosophy, but in scholarship.’’

Even Rawls’s most ardent admirers find many weaknesses in this seminal work. Robert Paul Wolff, in Understanding Rawls (1977), opines that Rawls’s central idea in A Theory of Justice is ‘‘one of the loveliest ideas in the history of social and political theory’’; yet, he confirms, ‘‘The logical status of the claims in the book never becomes entirely clear.’’

Whether criticizing or celebrating his theories, none doubt the impact of his ideas on the field of philosophy. Rao notes that the sheer volume of critical response to A Theory of Justice has been enormous, remarking that, since the book’s first appearance, ‘‘Rawls’s studies have become a heavy industry.’’ As Davion and Wolf point out:

Rawls has, for the most part, inspired philosophers not as disciples or followers but as critics and opponents. But even Rawls’s most articulate critics have adopted argumentative methods that betray his deep influence. Critical attention of this sort is, we believe, the highest form of scholarly compliment.

They add that, despite the many legitimate criticisms of his ideas, ‘‘clearly it is to Rawls’s credit that his books and papers continue to inspire controversy and productive disagreement and to generate articulate reasoned response instead of passive doctrinal adherence.’’ Further:

Among political theorists, there is clearly no overlapping consensus on the success of any particular Rawlsian argument, or even on the idea of an overlapping consensus itself. There is much more agreement on the overwhelming significance of Rawls’s contribution to the field and on his enduring influence: Rawls’s work has redefined the central issues of political philosophy and raised the standard of rigor and argument for the entire field.

As Rao observes of his widespread and lasting influence, ‘‘Rawls has become an integral part of the general intellectual culture, and the ideology, of the Anglo-American world.’’

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Essays and Criticism