The Theory of Justice by John Rawls (Book Review)

  • Shagun Kashyap
  • July 23, 2020

Content :


Name of the Author- John Rawls
Title of the book - A Theory of Justice
Year of Publication-1971
Name of Publisher- Harvard University Press
Number of Pages-560

Against the classical utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, John Rawls offers a new solution to combine social justice and liberalism in hisbook, Theory of Justice. John Rawls founded his thought on his readings: mostly Aristotle and the classics of English political philosophy. His contractualism is partly inspired by Jean Jacques Rousseau but without a theory of the state of nature. His conception of morality is rooted in Immanuel Kant’s ethics. Rawls criticizes utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill and gives his Theory of Justice. John Rawls was born in 1921 in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S and he died in 2002, he was an American political and ethical philosopher, best known for his defence of egalitarian liberalism in his one of the greatest works, A Theory of Justice (1971). He is widely considered as one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. Rawls\'s magnum opus titled ‘A Theory of Justice’ aimed to resolve the seemingly competing claims of freedom and equality and his intent was to show that notions of freedom and equality could be integrated into a seamless unity which he referred to as ‘Justice as Fairness’. By attempting to broaden the perspective which his readers should take when thinking about the term ‘Justice’, Rawls hoped to show the supposed conflict between freedom and equality to be illusory. John Rawls took his base, the social contract theories which were proposed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 17th century and he was well aware that the society was now a political and civil society which has emerged from a natural society. He knew that consumerism focuses on one section of society while leaving the other section of society deprived of basic rights. He was of the opinion that a society should be created where the focus is not on utilitarianism that is happiness of the greatest number of people but the focus should be laid on benefit of the entire society. For this, to happen he gave a concept of original position which will can lead to justice and ultimately a fairness in the society.


The Theory of Justice is a book which is considered to be the most important work of political philosophy from second half of the 20th century. John Rawls theory starts with the fact of inequality present in the society, he says that inequality is unjust because it affects the weakest section of society and that inequality is a real phenomenon thereby forming a connection between inequality and injustice. He further states that inequality is the outcome of Liberal Capitalist system but he never stood against the Capitalist system rather he focuses on whether the inequality can affect the weakest section of the society in a positive way. 
The book is divided into nine chapters each dealing with different aspects, constituents and principles of justice. John Rawls states that if an inequality affects the weakest section of society by improving their standards of living then that inequality is just and focus should be on eradication of inequality which negatively affects the weakest section of society which is unjust. According to John Rawls, all social values such as liberty, wealth, income, opportunities should be equally distributed and any unequal distribution of these should be justified. Unequal distribution can be justified when it is shown to benefit the weakest section of the society. In this way, he talks of a welfare state where the distribution of resources is just. So, distributive justice talks about fair distribution of income, wealth, liberty and opportunities based on fair principles of distribution which are decided by a unit of people when they are in their original position that is when they are unaware of their status, position, sex in the society and therefore the people in their original position will be under a veil of ignorance. Basically, Rawls states that original position is a hypothetical situation prior to the starting of the society in which people decide the principles that will govern the society that they live in, people are under a veil of ignorance so they are unaware of their will be position in the society and whether they will be rich or poor, strong or weak.People under original position form two principles of justice, first is the Liberty Principle and the second principle is subdivided into two; first is the Equal Opportunity Principle and the second is the Difference Principle. The Liberty Principle states that justice requires maximum equal Political liberty and that Basic liberty includes Liberty to Participate in political activities, freedom of thought and expression, Right to acquire property. The Second principle is based on the fact that social-economic inequalities are just if they attach to position, “open to all” and “benefit all”. Equal Opportunity Principle is based on when inequalities are “open to all”, this means that when a person having a lower position in the society had equal opportunity as that with person having a higher position in the society. In addition to this, he states that there are three sources of inequality in the society; inequality based on legal status, birth status and talent/effort and the State must eliminate all legal and birth status related inequalities. The Difference Principle is based on when the inequalities will “benefit all”, that is when some benefits enjoyed by the upper section of the society will be distributed for example by distribution of tax collected from upper section of society among the weaker section of the society.


In this book, John Rawls put emphasis on the fact that liberty and equality both should be given importance in a fair and just society, in this way, one section of society believing in equality and the other section of society believing in liberty, both will get equal importance and emphasis which will make them feel that they are getting justice and thus a sense of fairness among them. But priority wise he keeps liberty above equality. The language used in the book is not very clear and therefore there is a lack of coherence. The theory is positive because it focuses on the well being and development of all the sections of the society and lays importance on justice for all. The two principles of justice very evidently show that he focuses on liberty and equality of even the poorest and weakest section of society. His principles focus on upliftment of the weaker section of the society. He is of the opinion that fairness in a sense requires equality but if everyone is benefited from inequality then the inequality is justified. Veil of ignorance which can be better termed as selective ignorance in itself ensures fairness in the society. John Rawls’s Principles of Justice are abstract and are basic principles and are not to guide day to day activities of individuals, he lays no moral duties on following these principles. According to him, in deeper level of Constitution, we all should be governed by these very strong ideas of equal liberty, fair opportunities for all, ranging our economic opportunities for every section of society especially keeping in view the worst-off section of the society. John Rawls kept liberty in the most prioritized position. Liberty, according to John Rawls, is the first principle of justice. As per his first principle:Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.Nowadays, people have started keeping liberty at the top most priority. Recently, it has been allowed even to transgenders to contest in the beauty pageant. It is obviously a sign of liberty where people have chosen liberty over other traits.John Rawls was never against all inequalities among the members of the society rather he accepted the social and economic inequalities as just only if they qualify the following two criteria:
(a) they have to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
(b) offices, posts and positions should be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.One recent example of this principle is ‘Women Reservation Bill’ in which women are being given preference over men because women in India have been considered to be the lesser advantaged members on the society but then at the same time men are not completely ousted from the positions.One the same parameters, if we analyse Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, we will find the same principle running where ‘Untouchability’ is a social evil and it has not been promoted because it is in no way benefiting the least advantaged members of the society.Similarly, the declaration by Government regarding RTE (Right to Education) where it is allowed a reservation of 25% to poor children, even in private schools is another example where it is said to benefit the least advantaged section of the society. The flow of the book is not shifted even for a single time, the author has stuck to the central theme of the book and author has done complete justice to the topic ‘Justice’ being discussed. But there are certainly some shortcomings in this book, such as Rawls’s book discusses a theory which is not a purely procedural theory, it supports capitalism and it is against the theory of class struggle. Further, Rawls’s book is biased in its approach with respect to his concept of rationality, there cannot be a single criterion of rationality or any grand theory of Justice that can be applicable to all people in all societies in all contexts. His book elucidates a theory which doesn’t protect the right to liberty and compromises liberty for the stake of welfare. Summing up, it is difficult to form a universal notion of Justice.


“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise, laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”- John Rawls. The book is a bit complex in language at the beginning but towards the end, it is much easier to read and grasp the information discussed as the language becomes easy. The book is extremely informative as it touches all the important points and topics needed to understand the very vast concept of ‘Justice’. The author has also supported his argument throughout the book, so there is not much of obliquation found. We can date political philosophy in 20th century to pre-Rawls and post-Rawls time periods. In pre-Rawls time period, between John Stuarts Mill and John Rawls, there were no substantive political philosophers and John Rawls completely changed the spirit of political philosophy, when the society was in a period of logical positivism and language philosophy, most works in political philosophy were a matter of clarifying political terms such as books based on vocabulary of politics, John Rawls came up with a theory and its arguments, which was very unique and unheard for many years before. This definitely makes the book worth reading. The greatest strength of the book is that it is on a theory which is of substantive value for our society, states, government and nation and it definitely provides a unique and important perspective on it. The weaknesses of the book are not many, but the theory elucidated in the book can rarely be completely applied on its own since the ‘original position’: the basis of formation of justice is an imaginary situation which makes it impractical, further the language used is a little complex, so it cannot be recommended to a complete beginner student of Political Philosophy. Any reader interested in understanding the dynamics of ‘Justice’ must give this book a try as it lays down the foundation for the future models and theories of ‘Justice’. I would rate this book 4/5 points and I would highly recommend this.