Revisiting John Rawls's A Theory of Justice

Covid-19 has shown some of the limitations of the lauded intellectual's philosophy, writes Jesse Norman. But A Theory of Justice is a monumental achievement
October 7, 2020

Imagine a human society not so very different from our own, on which a cataclysm is about to fall. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people will die. Many others will lead shorter and less happy lives; the financial and human costs will be felt for decades, if not forever. Looking in from the outside, and thinking in terms of big ideas such as equality, justice, fairness, human rights and the rule of law, what kind of society would you want to emerge from this catastrophe? What core principles should lie at its heart?

Covid-19 has thrown these fundamental questions of political philosophy into stark relief. In their scale, complexity and level of abstraction they form a sharp contrast with everyday ethical issues of honesty, integrity and the like; indeed we may sometimes wonder whether philosophy as such can make any difference at all in political contexts dominated by health, economics and party rivalries. Yet help is at hand in the life and work of John Rawls, who did more than perhaps any thinker since the Second World War to connect the practice of political philosophy with its most basic principles. His thought, inspirations and influence are explored by Katrina Forrester and Andrius Gališanka in recent books, which have achieved new relevance in the shadow of the pandemic.

*** The name of Rawls may not strike much of a chord today. But for three decades after the publication of his first and greatest book, A Theory of Justice, in 1971, he set a benchmark for political philosophy: substantively, methodologically and linguistically. Woe betide the exam candidate who confused the “difference principle” with the “veil of ignorance,” or other key terms in the Rawlsian argot. As Robert Nozick remarked in 1974, “political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory, or explain why not.” And sure enough, Nozick made his own reputation in part by attacking Rawls vigorously in his own book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

To many people today, Rawls will seem the quintessence of privilege: a privately educated white male who taught a subject rooted in a canonical western tradition for more than half a century at a succession of elite institutions, latterly as holder of a named chair at Harvard. A modest and self-aware man, Rawls would not have contested this description. He might rather have highlighted the advantages he received in early recognition of his ability, the support of senior colleagues, and the extraordinary scope he was given to work out his ideas over time. At the age of 50, before A Theory of Justice, his reputation rested on little more than a few well-received articles. As Immanuel Kant, one of his greatest influences, had done after publishing The Critique of Pure Reason in his mid-50s, Rawls then devoted his final decades to a series of works that largely refined and extended his original theory. Such a life was unusual in its time; it is all but unimaginable today, given the ever-present pressures for publications and quantified “impact” that beset much higher education.

If Rawls himself appeared not of his time, nor did A Theory of Justice. It was published in the dying years of the Vietnam War. Gone were the high ideals of Kennedy’s Camelot and Johnson’s Great Society; the airwaves were dominated by the war, conscription, student unrest, radical protest and the escalating movements for racial and sexual equality. Commentators today often bemoan the loss of the centre ground in politics: the question in Rawls’s time was whether politics was possible at all.

His answer was a resounding yes. For Rawls, humans are broadly rational and reasonable beings, and politics is about how they can live together in mutually respectful ways. The task of political philosophy is to clarify under what conditions this is possible, given the diversity of people’s views, beliefs, interests, loyalties and talents. A society in which all could agree how best to live together would automatically have a legitimate state, according to Rawls, and the fact of people’s agreement would make both society and state self-sustaining over time.

How, then, to procure that agreement? And what principles should be chosen to order such a society? Here Rawls offers a fascinating thought experiment. Clearly, if Jane knows she is rich, clever and healthy, she will have an interest to opt for rules that favour the rich, clever and healthy. But what if she doesn’t know that? What if none of us knows it, about ourselves or others? How would we want a society to be structured if we were in what Rawls calls the “original position” and were choosing different principles, in a normal, broadly self-interested way, from behind a “veil of ignorance”?

No one would have a superior bargaining position, or the ability to consult their personal or group interests before choosing. There would be no coercion or deception. As with a game, everyone would start from the same point, first agreeing to and then being bound by the same universal rules. Rawls’s beguiling idea is that such a society would be a just one.

He allows that there are many potential conclusions to such a thought experiment. Even from behind the veil a strict utilitarian, for example, might still opt for rules that aim at the greatest good for the greatest number, regardless of their effect on a minority. But Rawls thinks we would and should reject this approach, according to which some unlucky minority might have to make intolerable sacrifices for the benefit of the majority, as incompatible with human dignity and autonomy. Rather, he suggests, we should choose three principles: first, a principle of freedom, ensuring equal basic liberties for all; second, a principle of equal opportunity; and thirdly—and most notably—what he calls the “difference principle,” that policies leading to social and economic inequalities should only be permitted insofar as they benefit the least well-off. Amid a plethora of detail, the broad picture is that there are some liberties that cannot be traded off for economic or social gain, and that inequality should only be tolerated where it helps the most disadvantaged. It is, in Rawls’s words, a theory of Justice as Fairness.

Among much else, 1971 was the year of the Pentagon Papers, the My Lai massacre convictions and Nixon’s détente with China. It seems astonishing in retrospect that A Theory of Justice, all 587 carefully chewed pages of it, should have attracted much attention. But from the start it was a huge success, as Forrester notes, reviewed in a dazzling array of academic journals, many outside its purported discipline, and quickly acclaimed as the greatest work in its field since Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics in 1874. Ten years after its publication, a specialist bibliography on Rawls counted more than 2,500 works devoted to various aspects of his thought, and the pace of acclamation did not slow for many years after that.

In retrospect it is not hard to see the reasons for this appeal. The book stood in perfect counterpoint to the times: impeccably high-minded in its goals, meticulous in execution, optimistic in its view of humanity. It was big philosophy, philosophy that looked to the horizon. It aspired not merely to offer guidance to the perplexed and even resolutions to real political dilemmas, but to put the great doctrines of utilitarianism and moral intuitionism in their place—and to do all this not harshly, but gently and in a spirit of reconciliation. It was original, substantive and rigorous.

The actor John Houseman—famous across America for playing an archetypally stern college professor—sonorously proclaimed in a banking advertisement of the time: “Smith Barney make money the old-fashioned way—they earn it.” So it seemed with Rawls. He was a throwback: a philosopher who not only did philosophy, but who actually had a philosophy. And Rawls’s rather saintly demeanour only added to the effect. The young Michael Sandel recalled his first days at the Harvard Philosophy Department: “Shortly after I arrived, my phone rang. A hesitant voice on the other end said: ‘This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S.’ It was if God himself had called to invite me to lunch, and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was.”

But over and above the book’s sweep and quality, there were more specific reasons for the success of A Theory of Justice. Its basic ideas were not too hard to get one’s head around and they contained something for everyone. Philosophers rejoiced in the book as a new Ground Zero for political philosophy, indeed as a vindication of modern philosophy itself. Historians of ideas admired its lineage, drawing on Aristotle, Hume and Smith, Rousseau and Kant and Wittgenstein. Political libertarians found succour in Rawls’s worries about state intervention, while socialists saw in the difference principle nothing less than a new ratification of the welfare state. Economists delighted in Rawls’s immersion in the theories of games and rational choice, as well as his emphasis on welfare. Wonks addressed themselves to the book’s putative policy implications.

Better still, all could find points of disagreement. There were papers to be written, refutations to be published, careers to be made. The book was presented as an idealisation of human choice, purged of the contingent, the morally accidental and idiosyncratic. As such, it paid little apparent attention to the outside world—including the specific realities of being poor, and the particular experiences of women and people of colour, or of the infirm or other vulnerable groups whose status and wellbeing the difference principle was intended to protect. And it seemed to display a high-constitutional understanding of politics keyed to established political institutions, rather than to the informal, raucous and rapidly fragmenting reality of its time.

The explosion of Rawls-related commentary soon found substantive grounds for concern within the theory itself. Was it really coherent or fair to start from a position that ignored people’s specific talents and skills, themselves often the product of long labour? Were Rawls’s principles really as fundamental as he claimed? Could they in fact, in certain circumstances, allow for societies so unequal they could hardly be called just? Was he right to believe that a Rawlsian society would be self-sustaining and remain legitimate over time? What was this core notion of justice, anyway? To critics of power and privilege, or those for whom all politics is disguised violence, Rawls’s insistence on the possibility of rational consensus could seem absurd—or an elite and deliberately self-entrenching political position.

*** These two new books tell the Rawls story in complementary ways. Both are works for specialists, as they say. Gališanka focuses on Rawls’s own formation as a philosopher and the intellectual prehistory of A Theory of Justice, while Forrester scrupulously examines the book’s reception and its wider impact on academic, political and social debates. And they have different ambitions, for while Gališanka’s is a fairly straight work of intellectual archaeology, Forrester writes with more polemical intent. Her suggestion is that, for all its merits, Rawls’s pre-eminence had the effect of overshadowing and disabling other strands in liberal thought, even as his work lost its wider relevance. Her closing chapter is a muted call to arms for egalitarians to reach back to the past and out to other disciplines; and thereby breathe new life into a universalising liberal project, adrift and divided in part because it has for too long dragged behind the single giant figure of Rawls.

We must wait to see what radical new inspiration may bring, though current academic conditions are hardly propitious to carefully constructed grand theories. But the yearning to universalise perhaps itself misses another possibility. A crucial feature of A Theory of Justice is the priority it gives to the conditions of choice over its substance. Rawls’s society is one of free and independent individuals exercising rights to choose. It does not reflect any specific conception of human good—indeed it cannot, since to do so would infringe the conception of human autonomy that lies at the core of Rawlsian liberalism.

But this is also a frailty. Consider us, the British, as a concrete example. Any genuinely universalising theory must struggle to engage with a vast range of the unchosen institutions, attachments and obligations that, historically at least, have made us who we are, from the Church of England to the monarchy, the football club, the pub and the pantomime. Equally so with the hotly contested histories of empire, slavery and colonialism. Our attitudes towards these things are typically not rational, or rationally chosen, and yet they define us.

These legacies and continuities, for good or ill, can be obliterated by a liberal focus on memoryless choice and self-actualisation. The real question may be not whether the liberal project can be revived, but whether some post-liberal political philosophy—a philosophy which better acknowledges the facts and experiences of particular societies and particular identities—may not do more to elucidate and enlighten human life and human possibility. Paradoxically perhaps, by stimulating an exploration of liberalism in its loftiest, clearest and most comprehensive modern expression, John Rawls’s most enduring bequest may be to have opened the way to a post-liberal future.

Now, however, circumstances have thrust the questions Rawls asked back to centre stage. The pandemic has afflicted us all, yet some far worse than others: women, the young, the infirm, the less well-off and those of BAME origin. It has highlighted the dependence of society on public services, carers and manual trades, while profiteers and rentiers have been reviled. Governments across the world have been forced to take measures that would be deemed repressive in normal times, in the name of public safety. For many, Covid-19 marks an inflection point at which we must ask, collectively, what principles we regard as fundamental to a good society.

In all this, Rawls’s theory retains its value as a thought experiment. But in substantive terms the pandemic has raised the stakes, in three ways. First, it has undermined faith in the present liberal order. People have shown a natural but perhaps unexpected willingness to prioritise their health over their freedom, while questioning a system so free it can allow a lethal virus to spread rapidly around the world. These views suggest limits to the core liberal idea of the primacy of rational individual choice. This gives liberal theories that rely on that principle, including Rawls’s, additional ground to make up.

Secondly, the present crisis raises a more specific concern about the difference principle, the most distinctive of Rawls’s rules. The book’s apparent acceptance of inequality—provided it is to the benefit of the least well-off—raised questions in the 1970s, when US CEO pay was 25 times the average worker’s. Today that ratio is 280 times, and we are far more aware of the impact of material inequality and status differences on human wellbeing. It is easy to imagine that people in the original position today might wish to choose a stronger egalitarian principle. More broadly still, we might say, if there is little more agreement about what is fair than about what is just, then it is not so clear how useful it is to define justice in terms of fairness.

Thirdly, and most deeply, the very idea of freedom as a superior value may be coming to seem less the logically inevitable result of a Kantian insistence on moral autonomy, than the transitory product of a particular moment in western society. In 14th-century Britain, a Rawlsian process of reflection—if such a thing can be imagined—might perhaps have yielded a devout adherence to the Catholic Church and the importance of knowing one’s place in the great chain of being. In the 21st century, it might yield principles of maximal inclusion, the primacy of identity and the avoidance of harm or offence to others. In this evolving context, the questions of what freedom is, what it should be, and what institutions are needed to sustain it are the ones that need to be addressed, the conclusions argued for with renewed intensity and energy.

But one thing remains clear: Rawls’s theory continues to provide both a compelling framework within which such basic principles can be debated, and a flexible but robust defence of liberal human values. That is a monumental achievement.