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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A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, which was first published in 1971, became a work that many considered the field-defining volume for political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the many decades since it has appeared, it has been as admired and lauded as it has been criticized and considered inadequate. For readers in the twenty-first century, certain features appear important in an overall appreciation of the work.

The book does represent a sincere attempt to underline the social importance of justice and take it away from a purely abstract and philosophical conception. This is evident from the very first line of the book and continues in the way that justice is viewed in terms of distributive shares arranged to remove social inequality and the justice of institutions and laws being measured by what they deliver to the least advantaged member of society. However, there is a staggering difficulty for any modern reader with the text, and this is the complete absence of the “she” pronoun, or the reference to all examples of human beings in male terms.

There has been feminist criticism of this book, as well as other political philosophy books of the same period, by writers such as Susan Moller Okin, based on family not having been referenced as a site for injustice by these writers. Even if one were not to subscribe to this particular criticism, the complete lack of women being referred to as scholars, or sources, or even as the hypothetical parties in the “original position” appears hugely inappropriate today, when so much care is taken to make our terminology gender-neutral. No women grace the pages of this book.

Another baffling aspect of the text is how it has been written completely without naming any real-life examples of the institutions and processes described in the book. The book was written at a time of transformation and turmoil across the world and in the United States. Whether it was the American civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, or the emergence of newly independent countries in Africa after centuries of colonial rule, history was providing enough examples of how society had to grapple with injustice meted out over a long period and the wounds of those who had been affected.

In all the discussion about goodness as rationality, or how a sense of justice is acquired in a well-ordered society, there is no mention of the exceptions that later became the rule across the world—the fractured and alienated populations affected by wars and colonial rule. This gives the text an academic value but takes away from what could have been a more enduring validity of Rawls’s theory.

The strongest portions of the book are its first three chapters, when the theory is articulated and compared with the two most influential schools of political philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition of the time: utilitarianism and intuitionism. Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness does seem immediately better than the amoral principle of average utility of utilitarianism or the fuzzy conceptions of intuitionism. But as the chapters go on to look more closely at the application of the principles of justice to institutions, skepticism is bound to appear in the minds of today’s reader. This is because when we approach the issues of today’s polarized and divided world from the “original position” proposed by Rawls, it becomes difficult to find those who would make impeccably just decisions from behind a “veil of ignorance.” Who would such people be? How would they be able to rise above the deep divisions that are roiling societies today across the globe? With each successive chapter, Rawls’s conception begins to appear well-intentioned but otherworldly.

Rawls himself acknowledged this inadequacy somewhat in later years, when he attempted to go beyond his description of a well-ordered society where justice and goodness had achieved a congruence that promotes stability. While a well-ordered society does have to find means to accommodate the conflicting claims of many groups, it became clear to Rawls that his “goodness as rationality” conception was not robust enough to support his theory as a whole. He later developed a different version of stability through an overlapping consensus, and this was put forward in his later writings. This is what has led to part 3 of A Theory of Justice receiving less scholarly attention.

Rawls’s theory was criticized by his colleague and contemporary Robert Nozick when it first came out on the grounds that an arrangement of wealth and resources created to benefit the least advantaged member of society, requiring a reduction in the wealth of a more advantaged person, represented a loss of liberty. He also drew the criticism of David Schaefer, a political science professor at College of the Holy Cross, for what Schaefer called getting the “program of contemporary American left-liberalism into his doctrine.” But even if one were not to approach the book from a rival political or philosophical perspective, A Theory of Justice presents a mixed bag for today’s readers and students. It provides a glimpse of what justice can mean, and what it can deliver in social terms, while leaving several unanswered questions as to how we are to achieve that justice in the face of present challenges.

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