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A Special Supplement: A New Philosophy of the Just Society

A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls
Harvard, 607 pp., $3.95 (paper)


I think that this book is the most substantial and interesting contribution to moral philosophy since the war, at least if one thinks only of works written in English. It is a very persuasive book, being very well argued and carefully composed, with possible objections and counterarguments fairly weighed and considered: at the same time it conveys a moral vision and a ruling idea, and a strongly marked personal attitude to experience. Although the book is firmly within the traditions of analytical philosophy, and has the virtue of this kind, there is no pretense of a degree of precision that the subject matter does not admit; and this has probably been one cause of the dullness of much analytical philosophy in this field.

Professor Rawls often remarks that any moral theory that is enlightening and not trivial will be an approximation to the truth at some points, and will not fit perfectly all possible cases and situations. In this field, as in so many others, one obtains instructive generalities only at the cost of some looseness of fit in peripheral cases. If the moral theory is a good one, it does clearly distinguish the central cases of justice from the peripheral ones, and it does bring the central cases into a fairly precise and intelligible relation to each other, when before they had seemed a heterogeneous collection without any center at all.

The point of a moral theory, and so of philosophical ethics, is to find some very general guiding principles that explain the apparently unconnected moral beliefs that constitute a prevailing morality. Rather as a linguist and philologist may look for the general principles that determine word order and the structure of sentences in English, so the philosophical moralist looks for the general principles, or the single principle, that explain the apparently diverse arrangements that we would consider unjust and therefore wrong. If we do succeed in finding such principles, which fit the facts of our ordinary moral beliefs fairly well except in a few marginal cases, then we can use the principles as a guide in doubtful cases; just as we would use general principles of grammar as a guide in doubtful cases when our intuitions fail us or are uncertain.

But there is an even more important gain: if our moral beliefs on many subjects, and in many very different situations, are shown to be instances of a few general principles at work, then we have an assurance that our moral beliefs have a rational foundation. At least they are not just a chaos and a jumble: there is a reason why we hold the various beliefs that we do. There is a unitary policy at work, and, in spite of appearances, we are not in our moral judgments just zigzagging from one disconnected prejudice to another.

At most periods in the history of Western thought the fear that moral beliefs may have no rational foundation has been expressed, and expressed with strong feeling. Moral skepticism, familiar from Plato’s dialogues and in Thucydides, is perpetual and natural: in some periods and places it becomes an orthodoxy; usually it is a heterodoxy, but it is always there. Sometimes philosophers, for example Hume, and thinkers of lesser claims, have either overcome or have domesticated the fear by embracing the conclusion, and then trying to rejoice in it. The skeptic may proclaim that in practical matters and the conduct of life we are governed by the heart and not by the head, and that it is better so: our moral sentiments, our immediate repugnances and sympathies, secure our adaptation to an overcrowded environment and have been developed over a long history of socialization.

To look for an underlying consistency across the range of a man’s moral attitudes and judgments is, in the view of such skeptics, to mistake the sense and purpose of moral attitudes. Moral attitudes have the same kind of consistency that a man’s aesthetic and artistic preferences have: they express a particular temperament, and a particular range of feeling, which are both characteristic of their time and place and which also have features that are common to civilized men at most places and times. But there is no rational structure behind the judgments that a man makes: the explanation of the judgments is to be found not in some general principles of rational policy but rather in the largely unknown deep psychology of the sentiments.

After a long history, skepticism became an orthodoxy once again among academic philosophers influenced by logical positivism before the last war, and immediately after it. Wittgenstein had suggested that a man’s expressions of his moral opinions (as I would call them) should be interpreted as expressions of emotion; others suggested that the use of language in moral exhortation should be thought of as the emotive use of language. The word “emotive” had originally been given currency by Professor I.A. Richards as part of a theory of poetic meaning. The habit of dismissing moral arguments, and arguments about the proper ends of action, as delusive and futile was a lingering habit of social scientists also, who were strengthened by the authority of philosophers.

Professor Rawls has been one of the few analytical philosophers who, by the example of their inquiries, have effectively undermined this skeptical orthodoxy. Twenty years ago, in the heyday of what came to be called Oxford philosophy, and while Wittgenstein’s later philosophy was becoming widely known, ethics was still considered an intellectually barren subject, in which no major discoveries were to be expected and no new lines of inquiry could be opened. Professor Rawls’s prolonged inquiries into the nature of justice, and into utilitarian theories of justice, first became well known through articles in philosophical journals about ten or fifteen years ago; they represented a return to the classical, nonskeptical tradition, and yet the method of argument could not be criticized as lacking logical rigor and precaution.

If no account of the virtue of justice can be given that is consistent with the principles of a utilitarian philosophy, no account that systematizes our reflective beliefs about what is just and unjust, then the utilitarian philosophy must be rejected: that was his argument, and it presupposes an underlying consistency as a requirement of rational opinion in ethics. Professor Rawls’s writings on justice are part of a recent movement of thought among philosophers away from the skepticism about rationality in ethics, and therefore in politics, a skepticism best expressed in Professor Charles Stevenson’s Ethics and Language.

The revival of philosophical jurisprudence, associated principally with Professor Herbert Hart in Oxford, together with the pressure of political events in America, has made the search for rational structure in ethics both more widespread and more urgent. Under what conditions is a war a just war? How far may the state justly require a citizen to play his part in a war which he considers unjust? What are the degrees of moral outrage by a government which justify resistance by violent, and also by illegal, means?

These questions have all been rationally debated in the last few years, and must therefore be rationally debatable. The disputants did not in fact fall back on saying: “It is all a matter of how you feel, and there is no point in discussing our different attitudes, once we have clarified the facts.” On the contrary they thought it appropriate, and even necessary, to look for guiding principles very much as lawyers would in arguing, and finally settling, their difficult cases. And this pursuit of rational structure is not only a social necessity, holding together the disputants in a liberal society by common allegiance to methods of argument, even if the methods are ineffective. It is also felt to be a necessity by individuals for their own sake. They feel the need of knowing precisely what stand they are taking, and what general principles they are invoking, particularly when the course of their lives will be disrupted by their moral convictions. They need to make clear to themselves what their action is intended to be, to fix accurately the description, and the banner, under which they are acting.

Rawls’s book is intended to show the kind and form of principle that is involved when a moral stand is a reasonable one; for he who writes about the nature of justice, and attempts some kind of definition of it, is taken to be offering a scheme of rationality for morality in general, because he is proferring such a scheme for the first of the moral virtues. So it was in Plato’s Republic and so it is again in Professor Rawls’s.

In the manner of a traditional theorist of social contract, Rawls considers the choice of a social order that would be made by a sensible and reasonable man who was ignorant of the particular endowments and opportunities, advantages and disadvantages, that he himself would possess in that social order. This imagined ignorance of his own particular situation serves to ensure that the imagined choice will have a general and representative character, as being the choice of an indeterminately characterized Everyman; and yet no special altruism, or disregard of self, need be attributed to this ideal, abstract person who chooses. Lacking any bias derived from a particular known position in the social order, he will, Rawls argues, reasonably choose a method of distribution of advantages and disadvantages that will be fair to all, and that can be agreed to be fair by all, whatever their particular position may be.

By eliminating other possibilities, Rawls shows that fairness can be realized only if two principles are observed: that each person has an equal right to the most extensive equal liberties compatible with similar liberty for all, and secondly, that all inequalities in liberty be justified only as being an advantage to the least advantaged. An enactment of a less extensive liberty must; if it is to be permissible, strengthen the total system of liberty shared by all; and an unequal liberty must be rationally acceptable to those citizens with the lesser liberty. The same double principle of distribution applies to other primary goods, such as opportunity and wealth, as well as to the first of the primary goods, liberty.

The root idea of Rawls’s theory is that an injustice is an arbitrary inequality in the distribution of good things, and primarily in the distribution of liberty. Inequalities of rights and liberty, and inequalities in the distribution of good things generally, are arbitrary from a moral point of view, Rawls argues, if they cannot be shown to produce a benefit in which all the least fortunate have a preponderant share. Aristocratic and plutocratic societies are unjust because their social orders incorporate that arbitrariness in the allocation of liberty and of other benefits which is to be expected in nature.

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