A Theory of Justice

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Oxford University Press, 1999 - Ethics - 538 pages
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In this work the author argues that the correct principles of justice are those that would be agreed to by free and rational persons, placed in the original position behind a veil of ignorance: not knowing their own place in society; their class, race, or sex; their abilities, intelligence, or strengths; or even their conception ofthe good. Accordingly, he derives two principles of justice to regulate the distribution of liberties, and of social and economic goods. In this new edition the work is presented as Rawls himself wishes it to be transmitted to posterity, with numerous minor revisions and amendments and a new Preface in which Rawls reflects on his presentation of his thesis and explains how and why he has revised it.

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A book Review by Farjana Sultana Chowdhury
In "A Theory of Justice", John Rawls presents a conception of justice which, as he puts it, generalises and carries to a higher level of abstraction the
social contract theory. So, rather than dictating the exact form of government to be applied, the persons in the Rawls' original position would, in trying to further their own interests, decide upon principles of justice to regulate the basic distributive structure of society. Concerned only with institutional justice, the theory dictates that individual distributions are just to the extent that they are made through just institutions.
Rawls’ version of the social contract differs from earlier social contract theories in some regards. First, while the original position is Rawls’ equivalent to the state of nature of some earlier theories, he stresses that the original position should not be seen as a historical state, but rather as a hypothetical situation in which the goal is to decide upon a conception of justice. Second, as mentioned earlier, Rawls’ version carries the social contract theory to a higher level of abstraction. While most other social contract theories appeal directly to the judgment of the reader in deciding how society is to be organized, Rawls takes the idea one step further by asking us to imagine to which conclusion people with certain defined properties would come when placed in the original position. Third, there are some restrictions to the choices made in the initial situation. For example, Rawls takes for granted that people in the original position would rather have some form of government than, say, anarchy. Finally, Rawls assumes that the parties in the original position are all looking to securing so-called primary goods which, according to Rawls, are things that every rational person wants, no matter what his or her goals are in life, including such things as liberties, opportunities and wealth.
The concept of justice as fairness comes, Rawls argues, not from the idea that justice and fairness are the same, but from the fact that agreements and conclusions are reached in a fair original position. Thus, since the original position is fair, the agreements reached in it are fair, too. Rawls further argues that since the conception of justice agreed upon in the original position is fair, it would bring us as close as we could come to a society in which people have explicitly consented to a certain conception of justice. The idea of justice as fairness is further enforced by the participants in the original position being rational, mutually disinterested, informed in certain areas and lacking knowledge in others. The lack of knowledge about advantageous or disadvantageous natural endowments and social circumstances eliminates a biased conception of justice.
To Rawls, it is important that the idea of justice as fairness contrasts that of utilitarianism. He argues that classical utilitarianism, in only looking to maximise utility regardless of how it is divided between individuals, does not take seriously the distinction between persons. He further claims that utilitarianism would not be chosen by the parties in the original position because of the possibility of an enormously disadvantageous division of utility. While this choice admittedly would be made entirely out of self-interest, it is nevertheless effective as an argument in favour of Rawls' idea of justice as fairness.

Review: A Theory of Justice

User Review  - Alex L - Goodreads

BLEH. Never taking a political theory class again. But this book was rather odd...i liked the ideas he proposed, but it wasn't as enjoyable of a read as i thought it would be. Not really my subject matter. Read full review



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About the author (1999)

John Rawls, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, had published a number of articles on the concept of justice as fairness before the appearance of his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971). While the articles had won for Rawls considerable prestige, the reception of his book thrust him into the front ranks of contemporary moral philosophy. Presenting a Kantian alternative to conventional utilitarianism and intuitionism, Rawls offers a theory of justice that is contractual and that rests on principles that he alleges would be accepted by free, rational persons in a state of nature, that is, of equality. The chorus of praise was loud and clear. Stuart Hampshire acclaimed the book as "the most substantial and interesting contribution to moral philosophy since the war."H. A. Bedau declared: "As a work of close and original scholarship in the service of the dominant moral and political ideology of our civilization, Rawls's treatise is simply without a rival." Rawls historically achieved two important things: (1) He articulated a coherent moral philosophy for the welfare state, and (2) he demonstrated that analytic philosophy was most capable of doing constructive work in moral philosophy. A Theory of Justice has become the most influential work in political, legal, and social philosophy by an American author in the twentieth century.

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