A Review of “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls

Let’s get the banal part of the review over first. This book is twice as long as it needed to be. The author is long winded, repetitive, and doesn’t appear to know why we use commas in prose. I had to read at least a third of it twice to understand his meaning. As a sidebar, I bought a used copy which had been read (partly) by at least one other person. Their marks ceased at less than half-way through the text. This is not a book for the casual reader.

Having said that, this is an important book, not because of its eloquence (which is negligible) but because the author has successfully presented the first theory of a “well ordered society” since Plato’s Republic. My impression is that John Rawls was tired of Utilitarianism as an approach to how to run a society. Briefly, Utilitarianism is an approach to organizing a society so that the overall good of the total population is maximized without regard to individual rights. This is the paradigm applied throughout the world today. If any particular person or group’s needs are in the way of maximizing GDP or some other arcane socioeconomic index, that’s your tough luck. You get run over by the bus. Believe it or not, that is the world we live in. John Rawls shows this model to be a myth that was accepted because it didn’t require too much thought. I guess he was so frustrated with the state of affairs in the sixties (the first edition was published in 1971) that he dedicated himself to creating an alternative…almost from scratch.

If you read this expecting to see a critique of American democracy, you will be disappointed. Although it is obvious that this is a “thought exercise” about what might have been going through the minds of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and argued about throughout the colonies, it is not a discussion of American democracy.

This is a purely theoretical work. Rawls starts from the idea of a society constructed from nothing, what he terms the Original Position, in which the framers know nothing about their position in the society they are creating. Using the dialectic of moral philosophy, he proposes what he terms the principles of justice. It is worth mentioning these: the first and paramount principle is that every person has a right to liberty, which cannot be abrogated or in any way reduced; the second principle is that everyone has an opportunity to advance their status, no matter what their original status is. Using this simple ideas, he constructs a model of a “well ordered society,” which is the basis for his development of the theory of “Justice as Fairness.”

The book has three parts, and I must confess that I didn’t understand any of them until I had read the last section. It lays out the basic design of a “well ordered society,” based on the two principles I listed above. Despite his circular reasoning (unavoidable in philosophy I suppose), he makes a convincing argument that his theory is sound; he then puts meat on the bones (so to speak) of his basic theory and discusses the kinds of institutions necessary for a “well ordered society.” All of this is theoretical. He finally discusses the problems with such an imagined society because of the weakness of the human mind and spirit. The last chapters kind of negate the entire theory because he acknowledges and then dismisses this simple fact: people are not rational and too many of us are cheaters.

Nevertheless, the theory of “Justice as Fairness” does suggest how human frailty can be overcome in a “well ordered society” through the proper training of people from birth (no, he does not advocate state-run orphanages, although he does briefly mention it). He offers solid psychological alternatives to taking children away from their parents although they don’t sound too promising to me. I hadn’t imagined how poor our understanding of society was until I read this book; like everyone else, I thought that we were operating on something more than Utilitarian principles like “Don’t get in the way,” until I read this. Rawls’ vision may be utopian but so was the vision of a constitution and liberal democracy in the eighteenth century.

To finish, I will repeat what I’ve learned over the years: if you want to understand something, you have to repeat it again and again, and then maybe you will remember at least the basics. This book is good for that: I cannot avoid thinking of the “well ordered society” and how my country stands up. It doesn’t look too good from where I’m sitting.

One response to “A Review of “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls”

  1. Patricia F. Diaz says :

    I enjoyed reading your review. You saved me from reading the book! The basis of forming a well-running society has been a fascinating topic for me for a very long time. It occurs to me that no Utopic model conceived by humankind can succeed because, as Rawls points out per your review, humankind is profoundly flawed. I’ve personally concluded that without a moral basis, provided by an unflawed creator, as the societal foundation and rigorous adherence to that foundation, there’s simply no chance of Utopia (or peace) ever evolving on Earth.

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