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A Theory of Justice Paperback – 8 Sep 1999

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Product details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Revised edition edition (8 Sept. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674000781
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674000780
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 94,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


In his magisterial new work...John Rawls draws on the most subtle techniques of contemporary analytic philosophy to provide the social contract tradition with what is, from a philosophical point of view at least, the most formidable defense it has yet received...[and] makes available the powerful intellectual resources and the comprehensive approach that have so far eluded antiutilitarians. He also makes clear how wrong it was to claim, as so many were claiming only a few years back, that systematic moral and political philosophy are dead...Whatever else may be true it is surely true that we must develop a sterner and more fastidious sense of justice. In making his peerless contribution to political theory, John Rawls has made a unique contribution to this urgent task. No higher achievement is open to a scholar. -- Marshall Cohen New York Times Book Review Rawls's Theory of Justice is widely and justly regarded as this century's most important work of political philosophy. Originally published in 1971, it quickly became the subject of extensive commentary and criticism, which led Rawls to revise some of the arguments he had originally put forward in this work...This edition will certainly become the definitive one; all scholars will use it, and it will be an essential text for any academic library. It contains a new preface that helpfully outlines the major revisions, and a 'conversion table' that correlates the pagination of this edition with the original, which will be useful to students and scholars working with this edition and the extensive secondary literature on Rawls's work. Highly recommended. -- J. D. Moon Choice [Rawls] has elucidated a conception of justice which goes beyond anything to be found in Kant or Rousseau. It is a convincing refutation, if one is needed, of any lingering suspicions that the tradition of English-speaking political philosophy might be dead. Indeed, his book might plausibly be claimed to be the most notable contribution to that tradition to have been published since Sidgwick and Mill. Times Literary Supplement Enlightenment comes in various forms, sometimes even by means of books. And it is a pleasure to recommend...an indigenous American philosophical masterpiece of the first order...I mean...to press my recommendation of [this book] to non-philosophers, especially those holding positions of responsibility in law and government. For the topic with which it deals is central to this country's purposes, and the misunderstanding of that topic is central to its difficulties...And the central idea is simple, elegant, plausible, and easily applied by anybody at any time as a measure of the justice of his own actions. -- Peter Caws New Republic With the simple carpentry of its arguments, its egalitarian leanings, and its preoccupation with fairness, Rawls's classic 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, is as American a book as, say, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. -- Will Blythe Civilization

About the Author

John Rawls is James Bryant Conant University Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard University.

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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Lois on 13 Jan. 2012
Format: Paperback
The ultimate text with regards to the discussion on rights of 'equal justice'. The Rawls approach is a guiding light in terms of the way in which social justice is translated and administered in modern Western democracies.
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0 of 23 people found the following review helpful By claudia on 6 Sept. 2010
Format: Paperback
It's too much. I don't have the time for a lengthy description, the star system should be enough. Thank you
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Amazon.com: 49 reviews
247 of 262 people found the following review helpful
Why so many misconceptions? 27 Feb. 2006
By Vincent Poirier - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I'm astonished at the tenor and number of negative reviews "A Theory of Justice" has garnered from the right. This is especially surprising because Rawls shares with American conservatives one fundamental principle: the inviolability of the individual.

A "Theory of Justice" is a technical work aimed at professional philosophers, political scientists, and constitutional law specialists. Nevertheless, the book is understandable by laymen, provided it is read as what it is, i.e. a technical work of moral philosophy and not as a political agenda. Rawls's simple and plain style also makes this book a relatively easy read.

I suspect that the rejection of Rawls by even the more thoughtful conservatives stems from a serious misunderstanding of utilitarianism, which Rawls savagely attacks from the start. Utilitarianism is the moral principle that the TOTAL welfare of a society is the highest value. In practice, the only measure of total welfare the government has is GDP, so that's what we maximize: GDP. This makes utilitarianism attractive to laissez-faire capitalist philosophies, and because Rawls attacks utilitarianism, both the left and the right imagine he is attacking markets, industry, and capitalism. The left have made him their angel, and so the right their demon.

Rawls makes no attack on capitalism, only on utilitarianism. He asserts the inviolability of the individual as society's primary moral principle and demonstrates that this is incompatible with utilitarianism. For example, under utilitarianism, it makes sense to take Bob's heart, give it to Stan, and to give his lungs to John. You've saved two lives by sacrificing one, so society is on the whole better off with two members (Stan and John) rather than just one (Bob). This is obviously wrong and that's why we want to jettison this (im)moral philosophy.

Another misconception is that Rawls does not accept inequality. This is false: Rawls accepts inequality provided that those at the bottom benefit from the inequality. For instance let's say John wants to become rich and so invents a pill that for ten dollars/person eliminates the risk of cancer in his hometown. John sells the pill and becomes rich and everyone is cured from cancer. John is better off than anyone else, but everyone else is better off than they would have been under an egalitarian society.

Yet another misconception is that Rawls wants to establish a Utopian plan for a perfect society. He does not. Rawls is not a revolutionary trying to reinvent society; he is a theoritical moral philosopher, a professional academic researcher, who seeks to isolate the basic principles that define what we mean by "Justice". This is a fair goal and a valid program of study. Everyone wants a just society; after all does anyone campaign for an unjust or unfair society? But we disagree as to what we mean by "Justice".

The real object of Rawls's work is to replace utilitarianism with a better concept of the social good, or of Justice. A Theory of Justice is his attempt at this.

Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
211 of 228 people found the following review helpful
Justice as Fairness 19 Feb. 2002
By D. Craig - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the most important books on social philosophy written in the last century. As the other mis-informed reviews illustrate, Rawls requires careful reading and a conviction to work through his arguments. Basically, Rawls tries to argue for a theory of Justice based on non-utilitarian principles. How can we have a Just Society that preserves individual rights and at the same time functions above the level of anarchy? Tilting too far one way results in a Communistic state that places the group above the individual. Tilting too far the other way results in a state that is a "war of all against all".
Rawls proposes that we arrive at a conception of Justice using minimal assumptions. He uses something called the "Veil of Ignorance" to derive his principles of Justice. This "Veil of Ignorance" assumes we would act in our own self-interest, but we don't know where in society we would end up. Given these two principles, people actint in their own self-interest but not knowing what place they might occupy in society, Rawls argues that we would come up with two principles of Justice; 1) each person has the most extensive basic liberties that are compatible for everyone having these liberties, and 2) social inequalities will be arranged so that they benefit everyone and such that we all have equal access to beneficial social positions.
(Some reviews here apparently feel that Rawls was trying to describe an historical situation with the Veil of Ignorance. I would suggest that they actually read Rawls.)
What Rawls is arguing is that taking a very minimal assumption about human nature (we rationally act in our own self interest) and assuming that no one knows his or her eventual social position, we will come up with these two principles of Justice (Justice as Fairness). A society is Just if it provides the most extensive set of liberties possible to everyone in the society and if it contains ways to balance social inequalities and provide equal access. Most people (even the Ann Rand folk) would agree with the first principle (equal rights), but likely have problems with the second.
Most of the people writing reviews, I believe, have not really read what Rawls has written or understood what they have read. If you want to disagree with Rawls then you must meet him with argument and reason, and not vituperative comment. I may not agree with everything in this book, but I must first understand Rawls' powerful arguments and reasoning before I can propose alternative ideas. Love him or hate him, Rawls cannot be ignored and neither can this book.
81 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Just Read It 16 May 2004
By ctdreyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Surely, A Theory of Justice is among the most important and influential texts in contemporary philosophy. And it is, of course, the central text in contemporary political philosophy. Want just a few reasons to think this is an important text that you ought to read? Here you go: Rawls develops and defends a new theory of justice, he provides a new way to extend some of the basic ideas in the social contract tradition, his text was crucial in resurrecting Kantian moral theory, his work has helped to bring constructivist meta-ethical positions back into prominence, the book develops some new and influential criticisms of utilitarianism, and it includes an explication of the method of reflective equilibrium and demonstrates how it can be applied in moral theory, etc.
This is a long, intricate, and densely argued book, and there's no hope of summarizing even its main claims in this review. Consequently, I'll simply aim to give a very sketchy account of the structure of his main argument here.
Rawls's theory is a theory of justice as it applies to the basic institutions of a single society. He calls his theory "justice as fairness." It is not that he thinks justice is simply fairness, or that a just society is a fair one. Rather, people choose principles of justice in a position that is supposed to be fair; their choices in this fair position determine the correct principles of justice. The principles of justice determine the nature of a just society; they apply to the basic structure of society--to its fundamental institutions. They will be understood by people who accept them as principles telling them how their society should be structured with respect to how it provides people with their basic rights and liberties, how it determines people's opportunities in life, and how it structures the institutions in which people acquire wealth and income.
The fair position for choosing these principles is what Rawls calls "the original position." His argument has the following structure: he describes the original position, and then he argues that parties in the original position would choose a particular set of principles of justice. The principles chosen constitute the correct theory of justice.
The first part of the argument is a detailed account of the original position. Parties in the original position are placed behind a veil of ignorance, where they are stripped of certain types of knowledge. In particular, they lose all the knowledge of the contingent facts concerning their own standing in life and the details of life in their society. Furthermore, they lose knowledge of their particular talents, desires, psychological traits, skills, etc. Why prefer this as a position in which principles of justice are to be chosen? The main idea is that it allows us to see the people as coming to fair terms for social cooperation, for this is supposed to be a fair situation for selecting the principles. Parties behind the veil are unable to rig the principles of justice to benefit themselves rather than others; they aren't allowed to use their position or talents to strongarm people into selecting principles that aren't to those people's benefit; and they aren't allowed to craft the principles to suit their actual needs, aims, desires, etc. However, parties in the original position do possess the sort of general knowledge about human psychology, human societies, and the natural world that would be required to choose between principles of justice.
Now, importantly, placing individuals in the original position depends on a particular moral view; this is supposed to reflect our considered judgments about justice and fairness. It is a way of drawing out what we actually think about these things. This is not a historical argument: the original position isn't supposed to be a description of some situation people were once in. Nor is this an argument grounded in some account of human nature and psychology: the parties in the original position aren't supposed to reflect something of importance about human psychology. (One should see section 40 for an account of this as a Kantian conception of justice, though. Here Rawls may be resting his theory on an account of us as beings of a certain sort. But, again, this is a philosophical and moral account of persons; this isn't the sort of thing you're going to find out about by doing ordinary sociology, anthropology, or psychology.)
In the next part of his argument Rawls claims that parties in the original position would agree upon the following principles of justice. The first principle is that individuals are to possess greatest amount of basic rights and liberties compatible with similar rights and liberties for others. The relevant rights and liberties are the right to vote and to hold public office, freedom of thought, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to own property and to avoid unreasonable search and seizure, etc. The second principle is that there is to be fair equality of opportunity with respect to positions of authority and responsibility, and that inequalities in wealth and income are be for the benefit of all, and particularly for the benefit of the worst-off group. The first principle is to be satisfied before the second one, so rights and liberties cannot be sacrificed in the interest of securing more wealth or income for any or all people. And one should notice that these principles do not clearly imply anything about how the institutions in which people acquire wealth and income are to be ordered or regulated. This will depend on which set of institutions would actually meet the requirements set by the second principles, and this will depend on empirical facts about how the world works. Moreover, it should be pointed out that many ways of ordering and regulating these institutions will be ruled out by the first principle, irrespective of how well off they would make the worst-off group.

This, clearly, should be read by anyone interested in contemporary analytic philosophy, and it is an absolutely crucial text for people studying ethics or political philosophy.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Misreading Rawls 17 May 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
John Rawls' masterful "A Theory of Justice" doesn't need to be defended by me, but I honestly doubt whether many of the far-right Amazon reviewers who attack the book have actually read it. They certainly misunderstand or willfully misrepresent its arguments. Take Mr. Walt Byars of Tampa, for example, who dismisses Rawls as a "bad philosopher" and then writes: "Much of the veil of ignorance relates to getting the person in the original position to choose what is best for the average man." As anyone who has actually read "A Theory of Justice" knows, the original position rules out utilitarian results and generates principles of justice that protect the worst off members of society, not the average members. How someone could read the book yet get this fundamental point wrong is amazing (unbelievable, in fact). To paraphrase Amazon reviewer C.T. Dreyer (who has read and understood Rawls), "Just read the book!"
48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
The starting point for contemporary political philosophy 30 July 2001
By Julian Sanchez - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
It seems as though an enormous number of the reviews here are from amateur philosophers who rate the book according to how closely they agree with its conclusions, and if the level of agreement is low, go on to give an argument (usually involving a shallow misreading of Rawls) instead of a review. I suggest not taking these into account too heavily. FWIW, I'm among those who thinks Nozick's response to Rawls is brutally on target -- but ToJ is nevertheless a subtle and important piece of political philosophy. If anything, the book is valuable precisely because in seeing why it goes wrong (which is hardly as simple as some of the other reviews make it sound) we get a clearer notion of what features an adequate account of justice would need to have.
Rather than accepting some glib dismissal, I suggest picking up the book and grappling with the arguments yourself. Rawls is not exactly exciting to read (as opposed to, say, Nozick) but this is in part because he is admirably rigorous and methodical, taking pains to distinguish opposed views (he considers several different versions of Utilitarianism, for example, rather than treating it as a monolithic theory) and outline precisely how and why they differ from his own. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, ToJ is absolutely a prerequisite for almost any serious engagement with contemporary political philosophy, which takes place very much in the shadow of Rawls.
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