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.