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A Theory of Justice Paperback – October 30, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0674000780 ISBN-10: 0674000781 Edition: Revised

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Product Details

  • Series: Belknap
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Revised edition (October 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674000781
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674000780
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


I don’t know of a more lucid articulation of the intuitions many of us share about what is just. (Scott Turow New York Times Book Review 2013-10-10)

In his magisterial new work...John Rawls draws on the most subtle techniques of contemporary analytic philosophy to provide the social contract tradition with what is, from a philosophical point of view at least, the most formidable defense it has yet received...[and] makes available the powerful intellectual resources and the comprehensive approach that have so far eluded antiutilitarians. He also makes clear how wrong it was to claim, as so many were claiming only a few years back, that systematic moral and political philosophy are dead...Whatever else may be true it is surely true that we must develop a sterner and more fastidious sense of justice. In making his peerless contribution to political theory, John Rawls has made a unique contribution to this urgent task. No higher achievement is open to a scholar. (Marshall Cohen New York Times Book Review)

Rawls's Theory of Justice is widely and justly regarded as this century's most important work of political philosophy. Originally published in 1971, it quickly became the subject of extensive commentary and criticism, which led Rawls to revise some of the arguments he had originally put forward in this work...This edition will certainly become the definitive one; all scholars will use it, and it will be an essential text for any academic library. It contains a new preface that helpfully outlines the major revisions, and a 'conversion table' that correlates the pagination of this edition with the original, which will be useful to students and scholars working with this edition and the extensive secondary literature on Rawls's work. Highly recommended. (J. D. Moon Choice)

[Rawls] has elucidated a conception of justice which goes beyond anything to be found in Kant or Rousseau. It is a convincing refutation, if one is needed, of any lingering suspicions that the tradition of English-speaking political philosophy might be dead. Indeed, his book might plausibly be claimed to be the most notable contribution to that tradition to have been published since Sidgwick and Mill. (Times Literary Supplement)

Enlightenment comes in various forms, sometimes even by means of books. And it is a pleasure to recommend...an indigenous American philosophical masterpiece of the first order...I mean...to press my recommendation of [this book] to non-philosophers, especially those holding positions of responsibility in law and government. For the topic with which it deals is central to this country's purposes, and the misunderstanding of that topic is central to its difficulties...And the central idea is simple, elegant, plausible, and easily applied by anybody at any time as a measure of the justice of his own actions. (Peter Caws New Republic)

With the simple carpentry of its arguments, its egalitarian leanings, and its preoccupation with fairness, Rawls's classic 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, is as American a book as, say, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Will Blythe Civilization)

About the Author

John Rawls was James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University. He was recipient of the 1999 National Humanities Medal.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

232 of 244 people found the following review helpful By Vincent Poirier on February 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
I'm astonished at the tenor and number of negative reviews "A Theory of Justice" has garnered from the right. This is especially surprising because Rawls shares with American conservatives one fundamental principle: the inviolability of the individual.

A "Theory of Justice" is a technical work aimed at professional philosophers, political scientists, and constitutional law specialists. Nevertheless, the book is understandable by laymen, provided it is read as what it is, i.e. a technical work of moral philosophy and not as a political agenda. Rawls's simple and plain style also makes this book a relatively easy read.

I suspect that the rejection of Rawls by even the more thoughtful conservatives stems from a serious misunderstanding of utilitarianism, which Rawls savagely attacks from the start. Utilitarianism is the moral principle that the TOTAL welfare of a society is the highest value. In practice, the only measure of total welfare the government has is GDP, so that's what we maximize: GDP. This makes utilitarianism attractive to laissez-faire capitalist philosophies, and because Rawls attacks utilitarianism, both the left and the right imagine he is attacking markets, industry, and capitalism. The left have made him their angel, and so the right their demon.

Rawls makes no attack on capitalism, only on utilitarianism. He asserts the inviolability of the individual as society's primary moral principle and demonstrates that this is incompatible with utilitarianism. For example, under utilitarianism, it makes sense to take Bob's heart, give it to Stan, and to give his lungs to John. You've saved two lives by sacrificing one, so society is on the whole better off with two members (Stan and John) rather than just one (Bob).
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207 of 224 people found the following review helpful By D. Craig on February 18, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the most important books on social philosophy written in the last century. As the other mis-informed reviews illustrate, Rawls requires careful reading and a conviction to work through his arguments. Basically, Rawls tries to argue for a theory of Justice based on non-utilitarian principles. How can we have a Just Society that preserves individual rights and at the same time functions above the level of anarchy? Tilting too far one way results in a Communistic state that places the group above the individual. Tilting too far the other way results in a state that is a "war of all against all".
Rawls proposes that we arrive at a conception of Justice using minimal assumptions. He uses something called the "Veil of Ignorance" to derive his principles of Justice. This "Veil of Ignorance" assumes we would act in our own self-interest, but we don't know where in society we would end up. Given these two principles, people actint in their own self-interest but not knowing what place they might occupy in society, Rawls argues that we would come up with two principles of Justice; 1) each person has the most extensive basic liberties that are compatible for everyone having these liberties, and 2) social inequalities will be arranged so that they benefit everyone and such that we all have equal access to beneficial social positions.
(Some reviews here apparently feel that Rawls was trying to describe an historical situation with the Veil of Ignorance. I would suggest that they actually read Rawls.)
What Rawls is arguing is that taking a very minimal assumption about human nature (we rationally act in our own self interest) and assuming that no one knows his or her eventual social position, we will come up with these two principles of Justice (Justice as Fairness).
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78 of 84 people found the following review helpful By ctdreyer on May 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
Surely, A Theory of Justice is among the most important and influential texts in contemporary philosophy. And it is, of course, the central text in contemporary political philosophy. Want just a few reasons to think this is an important text that you ought to read? Here you go: Rawls develops and defends a new theory of justice, he provides a new way to extend some of the basic ideas in the social contract tradition, his text was crucial in resurrecting Kantian moral theory, his work has helped to bring constructivist meta-ethical positions back into prominence, the book develops some new and influential criticisms of utilitarianism, and it includes an explication of the method of reflective equilibrium and demonstrates how it can be applied in moral theory, etc.
This is a long, intricate, and densely argued book, and there's no hope of summarizing even its main claims in this review. Consequently, I'll simply aim to give a very sketchy account of the structure of his main argument here.
Rawls's theory is a theory of justice as it applies to the basic institutions of a single society. He calls his theory "justice as fairness." It is not that he thinks justice is simply fairness, or that a just society is a fair one. Rather, people choose principles of justice in a position that is supposed to be fair; their choices in this fair position determine the correct principles of justice. The principles of justice determine the nature of a just society; they apply to the basic structure of society--to its fundamental institutions.
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