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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1789: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, by Jeremy Bentham, delineates the principle of utility, which posits that morality is determined by whatever results in the greatest good for society as a whole, regardless of the fortunes of any individual or group of individuals. This theory goes against intuitionism, a school of thought that implies that humans have an intuitive sense of right and wrong.

1971: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, transforms the fields of ethical and political philosphy, posing the first convincing challenge to the dominance of utilitarian thought.

Today: Ongoing critical response to Rawls, both supportive and dismissive, is a continuing measure of his influence on the field of ethics.

Mid-1800s: Legal, educational, and general social reform occurs in England as a result of corruption and dissatisfaction. A new legal system, largely based on utilitarianism, supplants a system more or less based on natural law.

1960s and 1970s: In the midst of much social and political upheaval, including the civil rights movement, women’s liberation movement, gay rights movement, and a nationally declared ‘‘War on Poverty,’’ many Americans concern themselves with social justice and its existence within a democratic society.

Today: Discrimination persists in many forms, despite being largely illegal. Welfare reforms attempt to reduce poverty.

Mid-1800s: The Civil War leads to the complete abolishment of legal slavery in the United States.

1960s and 1970s: Legislation is passed to end segregation in the United States. Affirmative action is conceived and is slowly instituted.

Today: Segregation is illegal. Affirmative action is widely instituted and is the subject of many political and legal disputes. The American attempt at civil equality is emulated by other countries, such as South Africa.


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Additional Reading

Alejandro, Roberto. The Limits of Rawlsian Justice. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. A new critique of Rawls’s theories.

Barry, Brian. The Liberal Theory of Justice: A Critical Examination of the Principal Doctrines in “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. An early book-length critique of Rawls.

Baynes, Barry. The Normative Grounds of Social Criticism: Kant, Rawls, and Habermas. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. An attempt to clarify social criticism, including Rawlsian refinements of Kantian arguments. Extensive bibliography.

Boucher, David, and Paul Kelly, eds. The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls. London: Routledge, 1994. An overview of the social contract and its critics. Also contains bibliographical references and an index.

Daniels, Norman, ed. Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989. A collection of major critical reactions to A Theory of Justice. Contains a Rawls bibliography covering the years 1971 to 1974.

Griffin, Stephen M., and Lawrence B. Solum, eds. Symposium on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism. Chicago Kent Law Review 69, no. 3 (1994). Contains nine articles by professors of philosophy on the later work of Rawls, with comparisons with the earlier work. A good resource for conflicting views and criticism.

Martin, Rex. Rawls and Rights. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985. Focuses on the basic rights central to Rawls’s theories.

Murphy, Cornelius F., Jr. Descent into Subjectivity: Studies of Rawls, Dworkin, and Unger in the Context of Modern Thought. Wakefield, N.H.: Longwood Academic, 1990. Outlines the antecedents of the social contract tradition (Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant) and places the philosophers under discussion in context, relating them to the earlier philosophical tradition. Written from a legal perspective. Deals with governmental institutions.

Pogge, Thomas W. Realizing Rawls. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. A defense and constructive critique of Rawlsian theories of justice.

Schaefer, David Lewis. Justice or Tyranny? A Critique of John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice.” Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979. A critical assessment of Rawls’s work.

Wolff, Robert Paul. Understanding Rawls: A Reconstruction and Critique of “A Theory of Justice.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. A critical assessment of Rawls’s work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barry, Brian, The Liberal Theory of Justice: A Critical

Examination of the Principal Doctrines in ‘‘A Theory of

Justice’’ by John Rawls, Clarendon Press, 1973, p. ix.

Davion, Victoria, and Clark Wolf, eds., The Idea of a

Political Liberalism: Essays on Rawls, Rowman and Littlefield

Publishers, Inc., 2000, pp. 1, 3, 14.

Freeman, Samuel, ed., John Rawls: Collected Papers, Harvard

University Press, 1999, pp. ix, xii.

Martin, Rex, Rawls and Rights, University Press of Kansas,

1985, p. vii.

Rao, A. P., Three Lectures on John Rawls, Indian Philosophical

Quarterly Publications, 1981, p. 1.

Schaefer, David Lewis, Justice or Tyranny?: A Critique of

John Rawls’s ‘‘A Theory of Justice,’’ Kennikat Press, 1979,

pp. ix, 105.

Wolff, Robert Paul, Understanding Rawls: A Reconstruction

and Critique of ‘‘A Theory of Justice,’’ Princeton University

Press, 1977, pp. 3, 16.

Further Reading

Alejandro, Roberto, The Limits of Rawlsian Justice, Johns

Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Alejandro provides critical discussion of Rawls’s

theory of justice in relation to the American legal


Corlett, J. Angelo, ed., Equality and Liberty: Analyzing

Rawls and Nozick, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Corlett provides a collection of essays addressing the

themes of justice, equality, and liberty in the works of

Rawls and his primary critic, Robert Nozick.

George, Robert P., and Christopher Wolfe, eds., Natural Law

and Public Reason, Georgetown University Press, 2000.

George and Wolfe provide a collection of essays that

focus on the themes of natural law, liberalism, and

reason in the work of Rawls.

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Historical and Social Context