In 1971 Harvard University Press published several books of unusual importance, including E. O. Wilson’s The Insect Societies (his first book with the Press) and the landmark Notable American Women, Volumes 1-3. That year also saw the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, one of the most influential works in our history, and one of the 100 significant works we’ve selected to commemorate our centennial. Below, HUP Executive Editor-at-Large Ian Malcolm considers the book’s initial impact and enduring significance.
John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has sold well over three hundred thousand copies since its publication in 1971. It’s an astonishing number for any academic book, let alone a 600-page work of abstract and uncompromising philosophy. It’s a rare book, though, that has had such a transformative effect on its field. Reviewers immediately recognised the book as a masterpiece, the most significant work in political philosophy since the nineteenth century, and it has been indispensable reading ever since. Its future looks assured too: in a 2010 poll, philosophers voted Rawls the contemporary most likely to be read in a hundred years. Not bad for a book that Rawls thought would be of interest only to a small circle of colleagues.
When Rawls (1921–2002) wrote the book, political philosophy was in a moribund state. It was dominated by old utilitarian ideas about achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, with Marxism running a distant second. There had been no important systematic works in the field for decades. A Theory of Justice, a comprehensive defence of liberal egalitarianism, galvanized the subject. It did so in part by returning to the social contract tradition that utilitarianism had displaced, a tradition according to which political legitimacy arises from some sort of agreement between governors and the governed. But the book was no mere variation on the tradition, a modest reworking of Locke, Rousseau, or Kant. Rawls drew on the resources of modern analytic philosophy to take, step by careful step, a new approach to the moral foundations of political life, working out the implications of a thought experiment about the kind of society people would design if they had no idea where in that society they would end up. A society designed under such a “veil of ignorance,” he wrote, would guarantee that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Every person would have the right to as much liberty as is compatible with the liberty of others. Social and economic arrangements would be designed to benefit everyone: inequalities would be acceptable only if they are unavoidable in a system that, overall, raises the conditions of the worst off.
Rawls made this case with exceptional creativity, thoroughness, and with quiet moral conviction. Since 1971, his ideas have inspired hundreds of books and thousands of articles, and his liberal egalitarian perspective has become almost the default in mainstream political philosophy. Reflecting the book’s centrality, Rawls’s Harvard colleague Robert Nozick remarked soon after its publication, “Political philosophers must now either work within Rawls's theory or explain why not.”
Nozick himself is the most famous example of someone who explained “why not,” writing his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) as a major critique from the libertarian right. Others have criticized Rawls from socialist or communitarian perspectives, or out of frustration with his abstract methodology—Gerald Cohen, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, and Raymond Geuss among the most prominent. Others, friendlier to Rawls’s ideas, have lamented that for all their academic influence they have had no discernible impact on actual politics.
The apparent lack of political influence may have disappointed Rawls. He was a veteran of some of the worst fighting in the Pacific theatre in World War II, a severe critic of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when he developed his ideas after the war and in the turbulence of the 1960s, one of his aims was to find a way to contain political violence. Indeed, he wrote that it was one of the purposes of political philosophy in general to take the edge off political fanaticism, to help explain why our political institutions, imperfect as they may be, are not entirely arbitrary or uniformly oppressive.
It may be the case, though, that A Theory of Justice has done more practical good than critics suggest. If we haven’t done better (yet) to achieve the kind of society Rawls envisioned, his extraordinary intellectual influence and the generosity of spirit underlying his work have played a part in deflecting us from worse alternatives. And it is certainly no small achievement to have permanently and significantly changed the world of ideas.