A Theory of Justice

Influence and reception

In 1972, A Theory of Justice was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review by Marshall Cohen, who described the work as "magisterial", and suggested that Rawls' use of the techniques of analytic philosophy made the book the "most formidable" defense of the social contract tradition to date. He credited Rawls with showing that the widespread claim that "systematic moral and political philosophy are dead" is mistaken, and with providing a "bold and rigorous" account of "the principles to which our public life is committed." Though he suggested that it might take years before a satisfactory appraisal of the work could be made, he noted that Rawls' accomplishments had been compared by scholars to those of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. However, he criticized Rawls for "looseness in his understanding of some fundamental political concepts."[4]

A Theory of Justice received criticism from several philosophers. Robert Nozick criticized Rawls' account of distributive justice in his defense of libertarianism, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).[5] Allan Bloom, writing in American Political Science Review in 1975, noted that A Theory of Justice had "attracted more attention in the Anglo-Saxon world than any work of its kind in a generation", attributing its popularity to its being "the most ambitious political project undertaken by a member of the school currently dominant in academic philosophy" and to Rawls' "radical egalitarian interpretation of liberal democracy." Bloom criticized Rawls for failing to account for the existence of natural right in his theory of justice and wrote that Rawls absolutizes social union as the ultimate goal which would conventionalize everything into artifice.[6] Robert Paul Wolff criticized Rawls from a Marxist perspective in Understanding Rawls: A Critique and Reconstruction of A Theory of Justice (1977), arguing Rawls offers an apology for the status quo insofar as he constructs justice from existing practice and forecloses the possibility that there may be problems of injustice embedded in capitalist social relations, private property or the market economy.[7]

Michael Sandel criticized Rawls in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), arguing that Rawls encourages people to think about justice while divorced from the values and aspirations that define who they are as persons and that allow people to determine what justice is.[8] Susan Moller Okin wrote in Justice, Gender, and the Family (1989) that Rawls had provided "the most influential of all twentieth-century theories of justice", but criticized him for failing to account for the injustices and hierarchies embedded in familial relations.[9] Economists Kenneth Arrow and John Harsanyi criticized the assumptions of the original position, and in particular, the use of maximin reasoning, with the implication that Rawls' selection of parameters for the original position was result-oriented, i.e., calculated to derive the two principles that Rawls desired to advance, and/or, as the "contractarian critique" holds, that the persons in the original position articulated by Rawls would not in fact select the principles that A Theory of Justice advocates.[10][11] In reply Rawls emphasized the role of the original position as a "device of representation" for making sense of the idea of a fair choice situation for free and equal citizens,[12] and that the relatively modest role that maximin plays in his argument: it is "a useful heuristic rule of thumb" given the curious features of choice behind the veil of ignorance.[13]

Economist Amartya Sen has raised concerns over Rawls' emphasis on primary social goods, arguing in Inequality Reexamined (1992) that we should attend not only to the distribution of primary goods, but also how effectively people are able to use those goods to pursue their ends.[14] Norman Daniels has wondered why health care shouldn't be treated as a primary good,[15] and some of his subsequent work has addressed this question, arguing for a right to health care within a broadly Rawlsian framework.[16] Philosopher Gerald Cohen, in If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (2000) and Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008), criticizes Rawls' avowal of inequality under the difference principle, his application of the principle only to social institutions, and what he sees as his obsession with the using primary goods as his currency of equality.[17]

Sen critiques and attempts to revitalize A Theory of Justice in The Idea of Justice (2009). He credits Rawls for revitalizing the interest in the ideas of what justice means and the stress put on fairness, objectivity, equality of opportunity, removal of poverty, and freedom. However, Sen, as part of his general critique of the contractarian tradition, states that ideas about a perfectly just world do not help redress actual existing inequality. Sen faults Rawls for an over-emphasis on institutions as guarantors of justice not considering the effects of human behaviour on the institutions' ability to maintain a just society. Sen believes Rawls understates the difficulty in getting everyone in society to adhere to the norms of a just society. Sen also claims that Rawls' position that there be only one possible outcome of the reflective equilibrium behind the veil of ignorance is misguided. Sen believes that multiple conflicting but just principles may arise and that this undermines the multi-step processes that Rawls laid out as leading to a perfectly just society.[18]

A Theory of Justice inspired a 2013 musical, A Theory of Justice: The Musical!, written and produced by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, Tommy Peto and Toby Huelin.[19]


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