80 of 83 people found the following review helpful
Rawls set himself the difficult task of accomplishing for political philosophy what Kant attempted for moral philosophy; developing a systematic logical rationale for an intuitively attactive body of thought that raises this body of thought to new levels. Kant attempted to find a rational basis for the Pietist Christian ethics that he grew up with; Rawls attempts to find a rational basis for modern democratic polities. Both Kant and Rawls struggle not merely to rationalize existing arrangements and beliefs but to extract the best features of these intuitively attractive systems, to place these features on coherent and rational foundations, and to logically derive important new features of these systems from the described foundations. Rawls made this project his life's work. His output includes his magisterial 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, which set out most of the basis of his theory, the subsequent Political Liberalism, which introduced important qualifications into his scheme, and a large number of essays. Justice as Fairness is an attempt to summarize his views at the end of his remarkably productive career. This book is the best way available to enter Rawls's work in its final state. Having said that, I have to acknowledge some substantial drawbacks of Justice as Fairness. Rawls is not a gifted writer and this book derives to a large extent from lecture notes from one of his courses. Rawls has apparently been ill in recent years and this book was not completed by him. This is doubly unfortunate because Rawls's extended thoughts on some the issues discussed would be worth reading. The last couple of sections of the book are relatively sketchy, reflecting his inability to flesh them out. Since this book is an effort to abstract thousands of pages of prior writing, it is still rather dense. Still, because of the importance of Rawls's ideas, this book is very welcome and the reading public owes a debt of gratitude to Erin Kelly, the editor of this book.
Rawls espouses an ingenious social contract theory, an intellectual device in which we are asked to imagine the basis for government behind a "veil of ignorance". This "original position' prevents us from knowing what our position would be in the new regime or even from knowing what our native endowments (intelligence, heatlth, etc.) would be. In this situation, Rawls proposes that we would rationally proceed to developing a society where certain civil and property rights are guaranteed and have priority, where basic institutions are constructed to permit equal opportunity and certain minimum guarantees for education, health care, and economic support. Rawls construes his system as requiring the development of a "property owning democracy" in which basic institutions are constructed to prevent the development of large concentrations of wealth and political power. Rawls' system does not ban inequality but he insists on the existence of the difference principle, a rule that structural inequalities are permitted only if they rebound in some way to the advantage of the less advantages. An important modification of A Theory of Justice that Rawls introduced in Political Liberalism is the emphasis on pluralism and a reduction in some ways of the scope of his system. Rawls points out that modern democracies are pluralistic and contain many who legitimately disagree about the ends of society. Since Rawls original conception of political society can be construed as sponsoring a complete moral system (one of its attractions fo many of his followers, Rawls modified his ideas to insist that his scheme is restricted to political issues. This is a stronger scheme in many ways because it allows Rawls to argue that by restricting the scope of his system, it actually enfranchises citizens to pursue their own diverse ideas of ultimate good.
Rawls' ideas have been and will be debated vigorously. Many will object that despite his effort to narrow the scope of his system to political ideas, it still has important aspects of a complete moral doctrine. For example, in this book, Rawls himself points out that his system has signficant impact on the organization of family life. The difference principle has always been controversial and will continue to be so. Rawls himself points out one problem. He argues that it would not greatly impair economic efficiency but this may not be true. Indeed, I suspect that a property owning democracy, even if tenable, would be less efficient than a modern capitalist welfare state and consequently such a state can arise only after the development of capitalist welfare states. I suspect that one of the reason's Rawls wanted to produce this book is that he hoped a more accessible version of his ideas would spur the development what he regards as a more just world.
71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2003
Rawls has done a marvelous job condensing the theory first presented in his massive A Theory of Justice into 200 lucid, succint, beautifully-argued pages.
Since the work is essentially a restatement, any review must take into account the effectiveness of that which was restated. For this, I would like to mention one area that Rawls ammended; subsequently, I would like to comment on how this change provided a complete new hermeneutical framework for the book.
At its core, the theory proposed by Rawls is based on a Kantian understanding of human persons and human freedom. Any familiar with Kant's political philosophy will remember the concept of the 'transcendental self', the self that is so completely free of human encumberances and entanglements that he is actually and literally free. This person literally has an autonomous free will and consequently has the capacity to be completely self-legislating. This is, of course, necessary if a person is to abide by the categorical imperative. Kant believes that a person cannot be free unless his will--his capacity to choose--is grounded in something pre-empirical. Rawls seems to believe this too. However, he understands that the idea of the 'trascendental self' is so shrouded in the obscurity of German Idealism as to be unhelpful for the average person. So, he sets out to bring the self to the earth and give it an imaginable, even a empirical, basis. And this is the function of the original position: to bring Kant's 'transcendental self' to the earth and provide a basis for it. This should be kept in mind throughout the reading.
While I enoyed the book thoroughly, I have a number of issues. First, Rawls himself says that the work can be read independent of any prior knowledge, and I take this to be true. Nonetheless, reading Justice as Fairness without preliminary familiarity with A Theory of Justice is bound to make the reading considerably more difficult. The reasons for this are many, the most notable being that Justice as Fairness is a restatement of a theory presented in an earlier work. Its job, essentially, is to fill gaps, answer arguments, and provide clarification that lacked in the original version (not to be confused with the 'original position'). While Rawls alludes to the problems he intends to fix, it's almost impossible to fully grasp without a cursory understanding of A Theory of Justice.
In sum, the work is an excellent piece of analytical philosophy, one that is sure to be around for a while. Nonetheless, I would encourage anyone ready to dig into it to to read--or at least become familiar with--A Theory of Justice.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2014
In 1971 John Rawls wrote a book called A Theory of Justice that caused quite a stir. Thirty years later he wrote Justice as Fairness that reiterated the main themes of his prior work while also expanding upon, clarifying, and defending his carefully crafted political philosophy (a concept of justice that works in a pluralistic society).
The subject of "justice" is a complex one. Rawls draws upon not just his previous writings, but also his years of teaching at Harvard to develop this dense discussion on justice as fairness. He explains that, in his opinion, "the most reasonable principles of justice are those that would be the object of mutual agreement by persons under fair conditions."
Whether you agree with the views presented in Justice as Fairness or take a different stance, it is an important book to explore if you are interested in law and/or philosophy. However, it is a difficult read, even if these are topics you are familiar with. If you are not, you will likely find yourself a bit lost. Have you read Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal?
44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2001
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Rawls' theory of justice, almost all contemporary moral and political philosophy takes place in its shadow. If not for A Theory of Justice, generations of grad students would still indulge in tired debates over the meaning of Kant's categorical imperative and whether analytic philosophy merely defines the words we use to talk about philosophy. Luckily, this was not the case and we now have this book that expresses the most refined exposition of Rawls' views on justice to date. Attempting to address the criticisms leveled by Sandel, Walzer, Habermas, and others at his initial theory, Justice as Fairness integrates the concepts of "reasonable pluralism" and "stability for the right reasons" (the core concerns of Political Liberalism, although not in those words) articulated in articles scattered throughout journals over a span of three decades with the comprehensive philosophical doctrine in A Theory of Justice. Whether he succeeds in fully rebutting their objections is certainly up for debate, but Justice as Fairness should be essential reading for anybody interested in the philosophical underpinnings of a liberal, property-owning democracy.
That said, I would agree with the previous reviewer that a reader should at least be conversant in Rawls' ethical theory as described in A Theory of Justice to get the most out of this book. However, to those uninterested in the evolution of his thought and how its shortcomings have been repaired, Justice as Fairness is still a momentous work and will probably be used in introduction to ethics or political philosophy classes everywhere.
An obligatory note, since another reviewer is certain to mention Nozick: Nozick eventually became convinced that the Lockean proviso of justice in acquisitional holdings did not possess the requisite stability that would ensure that liberties owed to free and equal persons would be preserved and recanted some of the conclusions in Anarchy, Utopia, and State. As for Hayek's brilliant works, nobody seriously disagrees with his thesis that central economic planning leads inevitably to abuses as state oversteps individual liberties and that the mechanism of prices in a free market is the best aggregator and distributor of preferences. I just don't see what this has to do with libertarianism. Hayek is too fine a thinker to be shoehorned into such a confining box.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
In "Justice as Fairness," John Rawls summarizes, restates, defends, and, in places, corrects the argument of his epochal "A Theory of Justice." Rawls' basic aim is to articulate a conception of justice appropriate for a pluralistic democratic society. He is largely successful: many parts of "Justice as Fairness" are profound and gem-like. However, other parts are sketchy, digressions abound, and, weirdly, Rawls' argument flows backward, with the conclusions identified and unpacked before the premises (the "original position") are set forth. It's no surprise that "Justice as Fairness" began life as lecture notes. Bottomline: the book is a must read for anyone who enjoyed "A Theory of Justice." However, other readers might get lost or wonder what the fuss is about.
on March 25, 2013
This book is a revelation. It shows thought (beyond Marx) behind egalitarian principles of democracy. Heretofore I had observed egalitarianism to be based only on mindless altruism. Rawls presents interesting basis and contrast for his thought in the work of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Hegel.
Rawls draws distinction between private ownership of property and government control of the means of productive. He appears to approve of both. He claims moral realism and justice as fairness as a political concept. His concept of the 'veil of ignorance' as a thought experiment certainly serves to separate ethical from political considerations but doesn't seem a practical basis for any conclusions. However, the concept is difficult to understand and further thought could serve to change my mind.
The 'difference principle' as justification for distribution of resources is another rather vague concept. Rawls is not a proponent of absolute equality, but is very concerned with the condition of the least advantaged. Who are the least advantaged is asked, but not answered. How did they get that way or, moral deserts is not considered a legitimate inquiry for social justice. He rejects moral hazard out of hand. Equality of opportunity is considered, but 1971 was not too early to observe the trend toward equality of outcome that is now accelerating.
He doesn't consider ethics in population growth or history of failure or ethics of surplus and deficit economics. The ethics of distributing a surplus is very different from the ethics of distributing a deficit, where surplus and deficit are relative to subsistence levels. It is necessary to put generation of a surplus ahead of distribution. He hasn't negated Ricardo's 'Iron Law of Wages'.
Use of Pareto efficiency is puzzling, especially since derivations of the two diagrams in the book are never explained. Much, but not all, is explained in the footnotes. Clearly more study is needed. I wish Rawls was still available as a tutor.
Rawls divides governments into five forms ranging from laissez-faire capitalism to socialism, then purports to use his methods to make the most ethical selection. It seems to me that mixing capitalism and socialism, as Rawls does, is not a viable approach. Socialism is a system of governance while capitalism is an economic philosophy. Governance of capitalism is mostly financial repression.
Rawls's legacy appears similar to that of J.M. Keynes. Where Keynes's ideas have been hijacked and perverted by political pundits with economic pretense, Rawls is simply ignored. My admiration for Rawls enhances my contempt for current political environment that is still based on a mindless populist concept of democracy. The main lesson I take from Rawls is that ethics is not the best primary basis for politics and probably not for economics. On first reading at least, it would seem that John Rawls's intellectual approach to ethics has even less basis for the rejection of capitalism than does Marxist history.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2010
John Rawls (1921-2002) was perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the second half of the 20th Century, though his books were read almost exclusively by academics, and even among academics chiefly by students of political science, law, and history. His writing style is not attractive to casual readers. It's dense, abstract, sometimes verbose, always composed in the special vernacular of the academic social sciences. Nevertheless, his ideas have percolated through the social and political discourse of the USA and Europe, and have seeped even through the limestone skulls of politicians who might not recognize his name.
Rawls studied at Princeton and Oxford, taught at Cornell, MIT, and for forty years at Harvard. He was teaching there when Barack Obama was a stiudent at Harvard Law School. Obama was unquestionably acquainted with the man himself and familiar with his writings and lectures. The most insightful intellectual biography of Barack Obama currently available is "Reading Obama" by Harvard professer James Kloppenberg. That book examines the influence that Rawls and other thinkers Obama encountered at Harvard must have had on Obama's political concepts, and makes a strong case that Obama's own writing, speaking, and decision-making reflect ideas that are in accord with Rawls's philosophy of Justice.
Rawls first captured the attention of the intellectual world with his 1971 book "A Theory of Justice." That book has remained the most commonly studied of his texts, an unfortunate fact, since his later books clarify, amplify, and sometimes rectify his basic philosophy. In 1993, he published "Political Liberalism" and in 1999, "The Laws of Peoples." His last book -- Justice as Fairness: a Restatement -- is based on lectures he delivered while teaching at Harvard. It is by far the clearest, most concise, most readable of his works (teaching had obviously sharpened his verbal skills) and the best choice for non-academic readers who want to know what his influence has been.
First let me simplify Rawls's thought to a single sentence: Without Fairness, there is no Justice, and without Justice there cannot be a Just Society, and an Unjust Society cannot and should not be stably sustained. [Oh boy, I can hear the howls of outrage from academic readers at such a cartoonish simplification.]
Erin Kelly, the editor of this volume, says it far better in a Foreward:
"According to justice as fairness, the most reasonable principles of justice are those that would be the object of mutual agreement by persons under fair conditions. Justice as fairness thus develops...from the idea of an [implicit] social contract. The principles it articulates affirm a broadly liberal conception of basic rights ... and only permit inequalities of wealth and income that would be of advantage [also] to the least well off."
"Under the political and social conditions of free institutions, we encounter a plurality of distinct and incompatible doctrines, many of which are not unreasonable. [Rawls's later book] Political Liberalism acknowledges and responds to this `fact of reasonable pluralism' by showing how a political conception can fit into various and even conflicting comprehensive doctrines: it is a possible object of an overlapping consensus between them."
Overlapping consensus! That's a key phrase in evaluating what pragmatic advice one might look for in Rawls's philosophy. Another pragmatic outcome of his theory of justice would be the idea of `deliberative democracy' or `discourse' as the enabler and stabilizer of the `evolving but never utopian' Just Society.
The most significant new explications to be found in Rawls's final book are focused on first clarifying that his `theory' is intended as a political and not as a moral doctrine and then on justifying his premises of `justice as fairness' in a real world of divergent and perhaps irreconcilable beliefs and values. He writes: "... I belive that a democratic society is not and cannot be a community, where by a community I mean a body of persons united in affirming the same comprehensive, or partially comprehensive, doctrine. The fact of a REASONABLE PLURALISM [capitals mine] which characterizes a society with free institutions makes this impossible. This is the fact of profound and irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable and comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world, and in their views of the moral and aesthetic values to be sought in human life."
Rawls's thought is obviously in the tradition of the same political philosophers -- John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington -- who overwhelmingly influenced the "Founding Fathers" of the American revolution and the Framers of the Constitution. In fact, James Madison would have found little or nothing to disagree with in Rawls's final formulations, and one could easily trace links between the perceptions of Alexis de Tocqueville and both John Rawls and Barcak Obama.
I know that I've scarcely begun to present a coherent precis of the political philosphy of John Rawls. I can only hope that I've stirred up some interest in this book. If you need further input before committing yourself to a perhaps difficult and tedious encounter with his `theory of justice', I suggest taking a quick look at the articles about him on wikipedia and, better yet, in the Online Encyclopedia of Philsophy. The book "Reading Obama" by Professor Kloppenberg also summarizes many of Rawls's seminal ideas in the plainest and simplest language.
18 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2001
Exactly a year later and after a second reading, I'm happy to revise my two star signal that this book might not stand alone. I'm now happy to give it the full praise it deserves. Rawls is a rigorous, systematic thinker who demands a focused and patient reader with a copious memory. Nevertheless, this restatement of pathbreaking earlier work sets a model for generous consideration and cogent response to the best objections raised over three decades by the most competent critics any author could desire. If you only have time to read one book by the foremost political philosopher of our time, read this one several times.
on January 5, 2013
Dr. Rawls' logic is admirable. His arguments are systematic, logical and inspirational. I find this book to be a piece in effective Western government.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2014
Reading this book is like walking through mud, but the effort is worth it. If you are going to be reading and writing about justice, this is one of the books that you need to know. However, be warned that this is difficult reading. Rawls' ideas are good, but his ability to write clear and understandable sentences leaves a lot to be desired. I had to read several of his sentences or paragraphs 3 or 4 times before I could figure out what he was trying to say. Nonetheless, the book is worth struggling with, because so many other authors refer to Rawls' ideas.