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A Theory of Justice

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  10,298 ratings  ·  201 reviews
Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book.

Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition - justice as fairness - and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, wh
Paperback, Original Edition, 824 pages
Published March 31st 2005 by Belknap Press (first published January 1st 1971)
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3.93  · 
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 ·  10,298 ratings  ·  201 reviews

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Jan 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Fans of Philosophy, Politics
Recommended to Tyler by: Book's Reputation
Shelves: philosophy
What strikes me most as a non-philosopher reading this book is what Rawls doesn’t talk about. Libertarian ideas, the staple of American political and social discourse, receive no attention as such in this book. To the extent that libertarianism factors in at all, Rawls dismisses it so peremptorily he practically laughs at it. Yet his oblique approach does take on its precepts, as I‘ll mention later.

A Theory of Justice takes up a problem that goes back to the Enlightenment: If rights inure to ind
Jan 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The book that I wound up reading most often in college (my major was Ethics, Politics and Economics). It shaped my worldview and politics perhaps more than any other book ever. I am elevating it from 4 stars to 5 stars because of that, in spite of the fact that it can be a bit of a slog. With this book, Rawls reignited political theory after a period during which not much of anything new had been said for decades, but he's not exactly a brilliant prose stylist.
A long involved theory of justice - create a society where you would be treated fairly, if you do not know what position you would occupy in such a society.
My beef with John Rawls is twofold. First, there's his seriously questionable method invoking the "veil of ignorance," which is just a spiffier version of the easy-to-discredit social contract theory. Second, he seems to arrive at remarkably dull conclusions, that liberal democracy is the best possible way of dealing with human relations. OK, so first you're assuming all the assumptions that Western post-Enlightenment classical-liberals have, and then using those assumptions to inform a spurious ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
This book came out of the debates in the Seventies between Rawls a defender of the postwar welfare state and later in the decade Robert Nozick who defended the (right wing) Libertarian conception of society in "Anarchy, State, and Utopia". Rawls theory of Justices is an exercise in the Lockean social contract tradition with the idea of the society and its conception of justice put together by its members by agreeing on principles which the society is to be based. The social contract. It doesn't ...more
Farjana Chowdhury
Dec 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 i ...more
Nov 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
So, first off: this is a work of academic philosophy. I think it's very readable and entertaining for a work of academic philosophy, but this is probably not a book to take to the beach. It also helps if you've had a basic course in philosophy, or have recently read a book like Michael Sandel's Justice, because the book will be very hard going if you don't have at least a glimmer of an idea about utilitarianism or Kantianism.

So, why read Rawls? It's often asserted that Rawls's work is the philo
Apr 14, 2014 rated it did not like it
Although he's liberalism's pet philosopher, the important concepts in this book are completely misguided: Not understanding economics, he basises justice on a "fairness" (the famous "veil of ignorance") dis-coupled from economic reality and markets. It fails to account for progress, productivity, and the possibility of change. In the end, Rawls was neither a philosopher, nor a moralist--he was a liberal scold, who (regrettably) lives on providing aid and ...more
Jan 12, 2012 rated it it was ok
John Rawls presents the reader with a thought experiment based on the social contract, original position, and his very own "veil of ignorance."
So this thought experiment is a hypothetical situation that is really just a very dull gambling scheme where the players must make decisions about the structure of society. The thing that's supposed to be so revolutionary is that these players aren't aware of their position in society and they don't really know anything about their own identity, except t
Jan 26, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: own, read-for-school
Ok, I didn't read all of this one. Basically he argues that society should be based in a way that any good should help everyone. Against exploitation of the poorest for the benefit of the rich, which is a fair argument. However, he also argues that growth should not happen just for the rich while leaving the poor behind. Too much equalization of opportunity at the tax payers' expense for my liking. His political theory is however integral to understanding the trend of government over the past 50 ...more
kiran Banerjee
Jan 28, 2008 rated it it was ok
On page 432 of this hefty work, Rawls writes:

"Imagine someone whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas such as park squares and well-trimmed lawns. He is otherwise intelligent and actually possesses unusual skills, since he manages to survive by solving difficult mathematical problems for a fee. The definition of the good forces us to admit that the good for this man is indeed counting blades of grass, or more accurately, his good is determined by a p
Mar 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: No-one
If Rawls had understood expected utility theory this book would be better -- and unrecognisable. His response to decision making under uncertainty is iconoclastic, and absurd.
Anthony Buckley
Aug 19, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy, useful
I’ll start with just a word of complaint. There is no reason at all why an intelligent person like John Rawls should write so badly. One does not expect Mark Twain, George Orwell or even J K Galbraith. However, Rawls could have put in some examples, so that the reader did not sink into a bog of abstract nouns, and it would have been good if he had injected an occasional flash of wit to dissuade the reader from falling off his chair.

This having been said, the book is useful and interesting. It p
Twerking To Beethoven
Read this while writing my Ph.D. thesis back in 1998. Time flies.
Tijmen Lansdaal
It's crazy what you can make out of rationalism. Read the first chapter in order to get a rough summary of what in principle the theory consists in. It's a very impressive book that picks up some substantive argumentations further down the road, but still it's not quite my cup of tea.
Jul 29, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
John Rawls' magnum opus 'A Theory of Justice' (this copy was the 2nd ed.) is such a staple of contemporary political and moral philosophy that it is difficult for an amateur like me to review it. Given the nature of the project Rawls sought to accomplish, it is only good and proper that a dozen years' research into both this and his other (and better, in my opinion) opus, 'Political Liberalism', would produce a decent review of Rawlsian Justice as a whole. However, as somebody who takes many of ...more
Jul 25, 2015 rated it did not like it
I read this ... gosh, about fifteen years ago now. Something about it always bugged me.

Rawls is trying to build on Kant's theory of ethics. Kant's thing was classic Enlightenment: trying to divorce morality from Christianity. Rawls' development is the veil of ignorance - essentially a social contract based on the Golden Rule.

The question is, what's your foundation for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? Rawls doesn't argue from Christianity, of course, nor natural law, but se
Christopher Roberts
I'll just say, like a good number of philosophers, Rawls is not a good writer. His book is repetitive and not anywhere near as concise as it could have been. I was actually rereading it this time out, having read it in school, and was not as taken with it this time out.


1. The Veil of Ignorance is a great thought experiment, one of the all time greats. Rawls establishes the Kantian idea of autonomous action perfectly. Too bad he quickly abandons Kant and instead creates something more sim
Roger Lohmann
Dec 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is truly a modern classic. First published around 1970, it is the fountainhead of the modern renaissance of political philosophy and theory which is still going strong four decades later. It is built around the choices Rawls believes people would make if they were behind a veil of ignorance - unable to see the consequences of their choices. This device has by itself provoked a huge response, including Robert Nozick's very interesting Anarchy, State and Utopia with its argument for at l ...more
Apr 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics, philosophy
Have only skimmed it - need help in understanding it so have bought Rawls by Freeman who is apparently an expert. My OU Masters Course is helping me to understand it more thoroughly - it does present difficulties for the current conservative libertarian approach. About to start his later works where he apparently clarifies many of his ideas. As a starting point for a fully systematic approach to creating a more complete normative theory of political society it cannot be beaten. I suggest it is r ...more
Nov 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
"What is needed, then, is not a general pacifism but a discriminating conscientious refusal to engage in war in certain circumstances. States have not been loath to recognize pacifism and to grant it a special status. The refusal to take part in all war under any conditions is an unworldly view bound to remain a sectarian doctrine. It no more challenges the state’s authority than the celibacy of priests challenges the sanctity of marriage."
Mar 24, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, philosophy, law
And they say that America, like Rome, has no indigenous philosophy!

Oddly, this is considered a classic, even though Rawls doesn't really answer any of his own questions, but uses a handy thought experiment to avoid doing so. That said, I feel like he establishes a better basis for government than any of the European competition. That's amazing, but this book is still ponderous and boring as shit.
Pierre Franckx
Jul 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Difficult to read, but worth the effort, as the idea of a veil of ignorance is very interesting. Rawls takes pain to elaborate his idea, which is good, but it takes quite some effort to read. I don't know if this is due to his style, the subject or just me. The references to Aristotle, Hegel and Freud are surprising, but i guess these were the days...
Steven Peterson
May 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
What is justice? Plato addressed this question in his epic work "The Republic." John Rawls explores this question more recently. His is acclaimed as a major work on the subject. It has produced considerable debate in philosophical circles. He uses the metaphor af a "veil of ignorance" as his starting point in exploration. An important essay on the subject of justice. . . .
May 17, 2012 rated it liked it
If only the world actually ran according to the principles of justice that Rawls envisions.
Aug 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
not for the faint of mind!
Jan 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Political Science and Philosophy students
Recommended to Cami by: professor
Shelves: philosophy
While I don't subscribe to John Rawls theories I have to recognize the genius that he is. Changed the way I look at things, but not my opinion of what social justice really is.
Oct 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Why You Should Actually Read A Theory of Justice

If pressed for the most simplistic one-sentence answer to how I viewed my understanding of this work I would not hesitate to exclaim, “The most conclusive qualitative argument for ‘justice as fairness’”. Notwithstanding, this simplistic exclamation needs to be supported in a way that encourages others, who are inclined, to relish the challenge of critical discourse on the imperative questions of political philosophy raised by John Rawls.

As part of

Scriptor Ignotus
May 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy, politics
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls puts forward a systematic alternative to utilitarian conceptions of justice with his own formulation: Justice as Fairness. Rejecting the utilitarian notion that justice consists of adopting whatever arrangements ensure the greatest benefit for the greatest number, Rawls argues that the practical application of utilitarian ideas, the search for the most "productive" arrangement rather than the most "just", undermines the sanctity and inviolability of the individual, ...more
Dec 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Reading A Theory of Justice back for the first time in a few years, I’m shocked at how left-wing I originally perceived this book to be.

Rawls’ theory of Justice as Fairness works by defining the right prior to defining the good. In order to do this, he relies upon what he calls pure procedural justice, because he believes that a just and rational procedure will always result in a just, or at least not unjust, outcome. Therefore, without even accounting for what individuals believe to be their o
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John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard. His magnum opus A Theory of Justice (1971) is now regarded as "one of the primary texts in political philosophy." His work in political philosophy, dubbed Rawlsianism, takes as its starting point the argument that "most reasonab ...more
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” 53 likes
“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” 47 likes
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