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A Theory of Justice ()

Intercollegiate Studies Institute Worst 50 Books of the Century

John Rawls' Theory of Justice is the single most important philosophical work of the Left since Marx.  As even a brief search of the Internet will reveal, it is one of the most widely discussed topics in political philosophy. I fondly recall arguing about Rawls' theories in John Singer's Values and Institutions class at Colgate, so it was interesting to finally try reading it.  It turns out, the revolution that Rawls created was based on a simple but totally specious change in the assumptions about human nature, and upon this rotten foundation he built up a shaky edifice to justify Liberal yearnings.  The book is reminiscent of a treatise by a Medieval scientist, working out the elaborate orbital patterns that planets would require if the Universe actually were geocentric.

In order to accomplish his revolution, Rawls posited a counterintuitive and antihistorical starting point for the discussion of political theory. The great political philosophers, Hobbes, Locke, etc., had used the "state of nature" as the starting point for their theories.  In this state of nature, men were assumed to be completely self-centered and dedicated only to their own interests, with the result that life was "nasty, brutish and short" and only the strongest survived.  But gradually men tired of this blood sport and entered into a social contract wherein they surrendered some personal sovereignty to a central governing entity, which, in whatever form, would enforce a set of impartial laws in order to protect men from one another.  This is a pretty minimalist position, the social contract and the government that it creates serve only to provide a certain level of physical security, leaving men free to pursue their own fortunes and taking no interest in the degree to which they succeed.  But it conforms with our intuitive understanding of human nature, our observations of our fellow man and, most importantly, it has proven a workable basis for understanding politics for some 300 years.

The essential change that Rawls made was to replace the State of Nature with his "Original Position", wherein, when it came time for primordial man to enter into a social contract, because he would be ignorant of his own capacities (the "veil of ignorance"), he would pursue a low risk strategy and choose a social contract based on egalitarianism; he would seek the most equal distribution of wealth and power possible, just in case it turned out that he was the least fit of the species.

If Rawls is right, if men acted on the assumption that they would be one of the ones left behind once the race of life begins, then the rest of his theory might be worth examining.  But, of course, this assumption runs counter to everything we understand about ourselves and our fellow human beings.  It is a fuzzy headed liberal's view of the appropriate strategy for life's losers--make political decisions on the basis of the likelihood that you are a loser and need help.   But look around a casino or a Lottery Ticket line and you will see that the losers think that they too are winners.  Look at polls about taxation levels and you find that the lower class does not want the upper class taxed too heavily, because they assume that they, or their children, are headed for that bracket eventually.   It turns out that people act very much as the great philosophers expected them to; they act out of naked self interest and the belief that they are capable and deserve whatever they can achieve.  The justice that men seek is in fact little more than an impartial application of a set of laws that are fair to all, not an equal distribution of goods and power, which would necessarily impinge on the freedom of all.

Rawls' great error is to try to base his theory on a generalized yearning for "happiness".  Rawls was seeking a positive definition of Man's aspiration in the "original position", but the inevitable result, because we will all define happiness differently, is to create a foundational quagmire for his theories.  After all, you may define happiness as having a lot of stuff, but I may define it as spiritual enlightenment.   The classic understanding, basing the social contract on the avoidance of death, is obviously universal, we are all agreed that our own deaths are to be avoided, and, therefore, more sound.  .

Finding the basic supposition that props up Rawls' whole theory to be fundamentally incorrect, it behooves us little to examine the superstructure he seeks to construct upon this error.  Suffice it to say, no system of government has ever achieved a more equal distribution of wealth and power than has the American Constitutional Republic and it is based on the classic understanding of human nature found in Hobbes and Locke.  'Nuff said.


Grade: (F)


John Rawls Links:

    OBIT: John Rawls, Theorist on Justice, Is Dead at 82 (DOUGLAS MARTIN, 11/26/02, NY Times)
    OBIT: Distinguished Philosopher, Professor Dies at 81 (ELLA A. HOFFMAN, November 26, 2002, Harvard Crimson)
    OBIT: Harvard Professor John Rawls Dies at 81 (JUSTIN POPE, 11/26/02, Associated Press)
    OBIT: Philosopher John Rawls Dies; Dissected Basis of Liberalism Washington Post, November 26, 2002)
    OBIT: John Rawls, towering figure of political philosophy; at 81 (Mark Feeney, 11/26/2002, Boston Globe)
    OBIT: John Rawls, 81; Philosopher Shaped Idea of Social Justice (Peter Hong, November 26 2002, LA Times)
    OBIT: John Rawls: Philosopher whose Theory of Justice argues for a social contract that does not disadvantage minorities (Times of London, November 27, 2002)
    OBIT: John Rawls (Daily Telegraph, 27/11/2002)
    OBIT: John Rawls: A leading political philosopher in the tradition of Locke, Rousseau and Kant, he put individual rights ahead of the common good (Ben Rogers, November 27, 2002, The Guardian)
    OBIT: The philosopher who transformed his subject (Brian Barry, November 27 2002, Financial Times)
    OBIT: John Rawls: Author of 'A Theory of Justice' (The Independent, 28 November 2002)
    Philosopher Rawls taught us to be thankful for luck By Matthew Miller, 11/30/02, Boston Globe)
    Rawls Remembered: An appreciation from the Right. (Richard A. Epstein, November 27, 2002, National Review)
    -PODCAST: Rawls' Theory of Justice: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, first published in 1971, a work that's been called the most influential book in 20th-century political philosophy. (BBC: In Our Times, 2/15/23)
    The Best of All Games (John Rawls, March/April 2008, Boston Review)
   -ESSAY: Justice as Warfare (Nick Schulz, 12/06/02, Tech Central Station)
    -ESSAY: John Rawls' philosophy of justice (S. Phineas Upham, 10/29/2001, UPI)
    -ESSAY: JOHN RAWLS AND THE POLITICS OF SOCIAL JUSTICE: Social reformers such as Rawls are in a tradition that emphasizes the best over the possible. (Clive Crook, 12/10/02, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: John Rawls and the Liberal Faith (Peter Berkowitz , Spring 2002, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Justice, Justice, Shalt Thou Pursue : The rigorous compassion of John Rawls. (THOMAS NAGEL, 10.25.99, New Republic) nbsp;   -ESSAY: The Enduring Significance of John Rawls (MARTHA NUSSBAUM, July 20, 2001, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -REVIEW: of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, by John Rawls, edited by Barbara Herman (Michael Zuckert, Claremont Review of Books)
    -Course Notes: RAWLSIAN LIBERALISM (PHIL 213 Political and Social Philosophy R.Johnson)
    -An OUTLINE: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls
    -Portrait: John Rawls
    -ESSAY : Dangerous Egalitarian Dreams (John Kekes, Autumn 2001, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: Jesus Through the Eyes of John Rawls (Gilbert Meilander, First Things)
    -John Rawls: A Calvinist After-Image (Michael Weinstein, CTHEORY)
    -John Rawls's Political Liberalism By Ted Vaggalis, Drury College
    -Justice as Fairness
-ESSAY: Marx and Rawls: Opposites or Complements? (Matthew McManus·October 4, 2022, Liberal Currents)
    -ESSAY : BEHIND THE VEIL : JOHN RAWLS AND THE REVIVAL OF LIBERALISM  (Ben Rogers, July/August 1999, Lingua Franca)
    -REVIEW: A SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT: A New Philosophy of the Just Society (Stuart Hampshire, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of  Political Liberalism by John Rawls, Liberalism: The New Twist (Stuart Hampshire, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of  Collected Papers by John Rawls, edited by Samuel Freeman The Plight of the Poor in the Midst of Plenty (Jeremy Waldron, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Justice as Fairness : A Restatement by John Rawls (J. B. SCHNEEWIND, June 2001, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Justice As Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Law of Peoples by John Rawls (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Papers by John Rawls (Thomas Nagel, New Republic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The God Trick: ‘In the Shadow of Justice’ (Susan McWilliams Barndt, May 11, 2020, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of In the Shadow of Justice (Olúfémi O. Táíwò, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Free and Equal by Daniel Chandler (James Orr, The Critic)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW: of Democracy's Discontent America in Search of a Public Philosophy By Michael J. Sandel. Alternative Politics  (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE PERVERSION OF AUTONOMY The Proper Uses of Coercion and Constraints in a Liberal Society.  By Willard Gaylin and Bruce Jennings.  The Cult of the Individual  (Thomas Nagel, NY Times)
   -REVIEW: of  FREEDOM WITH JUSTICE Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions. By Michael Novak CHURCH, CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRACY  (Aaron Wildavsky, NY Times)
   -REVIEW: of THE SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda By Amitai Etzioni A Chorus of Moral Voices (Edward Schwartz, NY Times)
   -REVIEW: of  The City of Man and  Modern Liberty and Its Discontents: Selected Writings of Pierre Manent (Russell Hittinger, First Things)
   -SOCIAL CONTRACT  a debate brief (Information Press)
   -RULE OF LAW a debate brief  (Information Press)


I actually haven't read this book in full so I can't speak to Rawl's theory. I do see at least two misunderstandings in your review, however.

First, Rawl's use of the term "liberal" has nothing to do with the political tradition of liberalism (i.e. the liberal half of the liberal/conservative divide in politics). Both republicans and democrats are "liberal" in Rawl's sense. As a philosophical theory, liberalism involves a commitment to some set of personal/political liberties, a fair and impartial rule of law, democracy, and individualism. You can read more about it in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy [ ] or any other philosophical reference source.

Second, it seems as if you may think that Rawls offered the original position as an actual or hypothetical historical circumstance. I believe that Rawls explicitly tried to head-off this particular misunderstanding. In section 3 he writes "This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice." As you yourself point out, the conditions required by the original position aren't ones that are ever likely to obtain. It was my understanding that this was one of the major differences between it and the "state of nature" (which was offered as a possible historical situation).

Your objections may not depend on either of these points, but it's probably something worth examining.

Best-- David

- David

- Nov-22-2004, 02:30



As a rule the "state of nature" crowd of the 17th and 18th centuries have been largely discredited (largely due to ignorance and the sort of subjective analysis that severely bias such); we read them because they are a starting point in the discussion, not because their statements are especially definitive or truthful. To be frank Hobbes would be aghast at the sort of society we live in and the liberty we enjoy; he did not view human nature as allowing for such without open civil war.

- Gary

- May-09-2004, 04:22


Err, I meant James Harrington.

- Gary

- May-09-2004, 04:17


"Suffice it to say, no system of government has ever achieved a more equal distribution of wealth and power than has the American Constitutional Republic and it is based on the classic understanding of human nature found in Hobbes and Locke."

Actually, it is well substantiated by this point that Montesquieu's vision of what such a republic is closer to the truth, given Locke's combination of the executive and judicial branches into one body, as opposed to the three branches of government found in the US, French, etc. systems. Locke accepted only two branches because the judicial branch in England at the time was mixed into both the executive and legislative branches (and I believe this remains the case today). Also, the work of Samuel Harrington was as influential or more so than Locke in the 18th century, especially in America. You should read Oceana sometime. As to the idea of what they thought of human nature, well that's equally an equally problematic claim. Its clear from the Federalist Papers that Madison thought that human nature was corruptible, but it did not rise to the level of Hobbes' contempt for humanity, nor did Madison feel that humans required a "leviathan" to keep men in order; that they could this on their own if the institutions were properly constructed. Indeed, the Hobbesian mental universe and form of government is ultimately radically different from the likes of what Madison had in mind, which is of course why America doesn't have a state church as Hobbes insisted upon. Your thoughts reflect an old, simplistic and rather discredited view on the nature of these things.

- Gary

- May-09-2004, 04:16


Human nature is not plastic. We've not changed. Your desires are no different than Adam's.

- oj

- Jun-03-2003, 22:44


The thrust of your review is that Rawls' intuition about mankind's nature at the dawn of time is errant, as compared with Hobbes'. It seems to me, though, that what our ancestors felt and sought in the dim recesses of history is mostly irrelevant to the task of generating a workable (fair, just, stable, pick some or all) system of justice or government.

I wasn't around then, and my own desires, choices, and nature were formed recently, based on the environment I found in the 70s and 80s. A proper system of Justice/Government, or treatise thereupon should start with that, as extended to all 7 billion persons around now, or a suitable subset.

- Craig Ewert

- Jun-03-2003, 22:09


Rawls' bookhas to me one major flaw. I realized it one day about 25 years ago when I was in Dallas, working on a deal and eating lunch with the lawyer from the other side at the Petroleum Club. As I looked around the room, I had a vision. Rawls had elaborated a procedural mechanism that would produce the kind of ideal society that the members of the Harvard faculty club would agree to, i.e. Sweden, they were, after all, men whose lives had been tied to the security of tenure contracts guaranteed by billion dollar endowments. The members of the Petroleum Club, most of whom had been rich and broke a couple of times during the last ten years, probably had different risk/reward preferences and would agree on a different kind of ideal society, say Texas but with without those damn fool yankees in congress.

One way to think of these books is as the manifestoes of the chattering classes. As political theory, they are lame. They completely overlook the interests and ambitions of non-intellectuals, who may very well be better at field striping and cleaning their rifles than are the professoriate. After Machiavelli, they are all drunks in a bar. But the recent ones are drunker and have spent more time inhaling their own vapors.

- Robert Schwartz

- Apr-26-2003, 19:39