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…

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