John Rawls’ A Theory Of Justice is a Great Book. I don’t mean it’s a fun read; it is not; it is enlightening and stimulating, but “fun” is not the word that comes to mind. I also don’t mean that it is well written; it is not that either. The prose is dense and unnecessarily repetitive and far more obtuse and convoluted than needs be. I find similarities to Kant’s literary style—which is by no means a compliment. Actually, it is not even as bad as Kant—Rawls I will stick with; Kant’s philosophy I decided long ago to get only in excerpts and via summaries from people who can tie three sentences together without making a knot. Those of you who have followed me for awhile know that I have a pretty good stomach for handling boring or dense prose, so my critique of style is not frivolous.
A Theory Of Justice is going to be an investment. It will take a few entries, several days, maybe weeks of effort. But I can already see that it will be well worth it. What the man has done here as an intellectual achievement can hardly be overstated. He has started from first principles and single-handedly built (as much as anyone standing on the shoulders of giants single-handedly builds anything) an entire social structure based on Liberty and Justice. It is a work of philosophy + sociology + government theory + economics — and those are just the overarching areas; he probably treads onto several dozen subareas wherein most professionals nowadays are content to spend their entire specialized careers.
Today, I just want to start where Rawls starts. The fundamental principle that Rawls spends the book explaining and justifying can be boiled down to this, in Rawls’ words:
“Social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are Just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.”
So there are at least two big ideas contained in the statement above: 1) inequalities of wealth and power are not necessarily unjust, and 2) a socio-economic inequality that benefits the advantaged should be allowed if it also improves the well-being of the disadvantaged.
To wedge his original idea of Justice forward through over 2,000 years of ideas from other great philosophers, Rawls has to spend a fair portion of the book showing how the other theories fail either in consistency or in providing true justice.
Reading Rawls, I was reminded of what a patchwork of notions the concept of “justice” is for most of us. We hold, rattling around in our little heads, several ideas concerning justice that may or may not be compatible with each other.
For instance, many of us accept to some degree the main ideas of Utilitarianism—that society should function in such a way as to provide “the greatest happiness to the greatest number.” But we might also likely subscribe to some variant of the Golden Rule, restated many times throughout history (including Jesus Of Nazareth and Immanuel Kant) that we should act only in ways we would wish to see universalized— in other words, do unto others as you would have others do.
Then there are the concepts of Virtue and Just Rewards—that good people should be rewarded and bad people punished. And along similar lines, there is the capitalist contention that people who contribute more should be allowed to receive more. And then, not far from this is the Might Makes Right doctrine, that the world is survival of the fittest, and he who can do well in this brutal game of thrones and groans should do well, and he deserves his spoils of war.
Not as popular today perhaps—but still an idea that probably runs around in the back of some of our heads—is this notion that a society can be judged successful if it contributes great things to humanity— great art or literature or “culture,” or material advancement, or medical breakthroughs— that sort of thing. This idea might have a nice ring to it, but it could imply that the majority of society should toil and live in relative poverty and/or slavery so that a few great minds might be allowed the leisure and the resources to excel in their noble pursuits. Nietzsche, for one, thought there was nothing particularly wrong with such a scenario.
I’ll be back with a few more posts on A Theory Of Justice. I hope to find enough time to really absorb its fundamental points and be able to report a fair representation of this astounding work. Many disagree with Rawls’ ideas on Justice – even I might myself, don’t know yet– but I am really impressed by the level of intellectual and creative achievement here. It may be the greatest single-volume work of philosophy of the last fifty years. Yeah… I just said that.
Other Hammering Shield articles on A Theory Of Justice by John Rawls: