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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Possibly the most ambitious and influential work in social philosophy of the later twentieth century, A Theory of Justice attempts to show what the principles of social justice are and why they can be satisfied only in a liberal society that partially redistributes income and wealth for the benefit of its least advantaged members. John Rawls revives the social contract tradition of philosophers John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, in opposition to utilitarianism.

Historical Context

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A Theory of Justice was first published in 1971, in the midst of a period of social and political controversy and upheaval in American society. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, major issues of ongoing national concern included: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the nationally declared War on Poverty, the women’s liberation movement, and the gay rights movement. Throughout this period, many Americans were concerned with issues of social justice, asking themselves questions similar to the ones that Rawls addresses in A Theory of Justice: What is a just society? The variety of controversies that reigned throughout the 1960s and 1970s revolved around this fundamental question, raising such basic issues to a democratic society as social equality and individual liberties.

The Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement, which began in the 1950s, was a widespread effort throughout the United States to fight for greater equality for African- American citizens. The civil rights movement can be dated from 1955, when Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation—African Americans had been required to sit in the back of buses and to give up their seats to white people. A series of federal actions and legislation designed to expand and protect the rights of African Americans followed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, federal troops were sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect the rights of African Americans to attend integrated public schools. In 1960, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which was designed to protect the voting rights of African Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further ensured far-reaching protection of civil rights to African Americans. The subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 even more strongly enforced the ability of African Americans to exercise their right to vote. Nonetheless, ongoing racial inequality provoked violent race riots in major cities throughout the country in the years 1965–1968. The civil rights movement received a tragic blow when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in the spring of 1968. However, the efforts of the civil rights movement continued, in addition to more radical movements for racial equality, such as the Black Panthers, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and the black nationalism of Malcolm X. Inspired by the efforts of African Americans, other ethnic minority groups, such as Latinos and Native Americans, launched organizations to fight for greater equality as American citizens.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War took place between a communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam, which was backed by the United States. United States involvement in Vietnam was sanctioned by the passing of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964. A turning point in American public opinion of the Vietnam War came in 1968 when, as a result of the Tet Offensive, many Americans first perceived that the extent of the communist forces would not make for an easy victory. Massive anti-war demonstrations and large-scale draft evasion grew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1970, during a non-violent student protest on the campus of Kent State University, in Ohio, four students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. In 1973, a cease- fire agreement was signed, whereby the United States withdrew forces from Vietnam, suffering military defeat after a decade of fighting and the loss of some 58,000 American lives.

The War on Poverty

During the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated extensive legislation designed to enact his declared War on Poverty, as part of his program for a great society. Many benefits were extended to the socio-economically disadvantaged, to ease the burden of economic inequality in the United States. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 was passed to support programs for federal housing. The Medicare Bill guaranteed health care coverage for senior citizens. In 1966, the minimum wage was raised, and in 1967, social security pensions were raised. Many other reforms were enacted during this period, focusing on such concerns as educational aid, urban renewal, and mass transportation.

Women’s Liberation

The women’s liberation movement, inspired by the civil rights movement, was an extensive effort to gain greater equality for women in all areas of society and culture, including work, the family, and politics. The women’s liberation movement has been referred to using a variety of terms, including women’s lib, the feminist movement, or simply feminism. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s is also referred to as second wave feminism, distinguishing it from the first wave feminism of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century women’s suffrage movement. The feminist movement has been referred to as a ‘‘bloodless revolution’’ because of the extensive and far-reaching societal changes it accomplished without the use of violence. Early second wave feminists organized consciousness-raising groups, small, loosely organized groups of women, often meeting in private homes to discuss an entire range of concerns affecting women’s lives. They were influenced by such early publications as The Second Sex (1949), by French writer Simone de Beauvoir, and The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966, focusing on reform for women’s rights at the public level. The widely circulated motto of the women’s lib movement was ‘‘the personal is political’’— a statement that captured the extent to which feminists perceived that even the most personal experiences, such as family, sex, and relationships, had political implications in regard to women’s status in society.

Gay Pride

The gay pride movement is generally dated from the night of June 28, 1969, when gay activists rioted in protest of the arrest of patrons of a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village in New York City. This was the first time in which a public, semi-organized protest by homosexuals had come to national attention, and the organization of a widespread and far-reaching gay pride movement soon followed. Gay Pride Week is now celebrated annually in June, in commemoration of the watershed incident now referred to simply as ‘‘Stonewall.’’

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