Justice: John Rawls Vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy

"Justice: John Rawls Vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy," review of A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 69, No. 2 (June 1975), pp. 648-662.


John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has attracted more attention in the Anglo-Saxon world than any work of its kind in a generation. Its vogue results from two facts: It is the most ambitious political project undertaken by a member of the school currently dominant in academic philoso-phy; and it offers not only a defense of, but also a new foundation for, a radical egalitarian interpre-tation of liberal democracy. In method and substance it fits the tastes of the times. Professor Rawls believes that he can provide persuasive principles of justice that possess the simplicity and force of older contract teachings, that satisfy utili-tarianism’s concern for the greatest number with-out neglecting the individual, that contain all the moral nobility of Kant’s principles, that will re-sult in a richness of life akin to that proposed by Aristotle, and that can accomplish all this without falling into the quagmires of traditional philoso-phy. This is a big book, not only in the number of its pages. but in the magnitude of its claims, and it deserves to be measured by standards of a se-verity commensurate with its proportions.

Liberal democracy is in need of a defense or a rebirth if it is to survive. The practical challenges to it over the last forty years have been extreme, while the thought that underlies it has become in-credible to most men living in liberal democracies. Historicism, cultural relativism, and the fact-value distinction have eroded the bases of conviction that this regime is good or just, that reason can support its claims to our allegiance. Hardly any-one would be willing to defend as truth the natu-ral right teachings of the founders of liberal democracy or of their philosophic masters, as many, for example, defend Marx. The state of na-ture and the natural rights deriving from it have taken their place beside the divine right of kings in the graveyard of history. They are understood to be myths or ideologies of ruling classes. One need only recall the vitality of the thought of liberal democracy’s great opponents, Marx and Nietzsche, and reflect on the absence of compa-rable proponents to recognize the magnitude of the crisis. A renewal in the light of these chal-lenges, theoretical and practical, is clearly of the first importance.

But, disappointingly, A Theory of Justice does not even manifest an awareness of this need, let alone respond to it. In spite of its radical egali-tarianism, it is not a radical book. Its horizon does not seem to extend to the abysses which we have experienced in our own lifetimes; the horrors of Hitler and Stalin do not present a special or new problem for Rawls. Rather, his book is a correction of utilitarianism; his consciousness is American, or at most, Anglo-Saxon. The problems he addresses are those of civil liberties in nations that are already free and of the distribution of wealth in those that are already prosperous. The discus-sion is redolent of that hope and expectation for the future of democracy that characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forgetful of the harsh deeds that preceded it and- made it possible, without anticipation of the barbarism that was to succeed it.