A Theory of Justice Summary

John Rawls

A Theory of Justice

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us contact us.

A Theory of Justice Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is a dense political text centered around the problems that arise with distributive justice, in system in which goods are allocated fairly in a society. In this book, Rawls discusses how equality and freedom are not mutually exclusive, continuing by stating that all citizens must have the same rights in order for justice to truly work. In doing so, he establishes the core principles of justice. Firstly, each person must be extended the same basic freedoms when compared to others. Secondly ,he states that social positions (as well as economic positions) should be available to everyone for a society to truly flourish equally.

To be able to clearly discuss distributive justice, Rawls must first discuss the significance of ethics in society. He begins by bringing up an example about “the veil of ignorance,” where people are placed in an “original position.” They are given the most basic information regarding society and are supposed to continue only based on their morals, without any specific knowledge about their own selves or laws. This causes the “players” to basically abide solely by extremely generalized rules and laws of morality. Rawls says: “Moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint of positing, a moral outlook merely by pursuing one’s own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints.”

After this “experiment” regarding the veil of ignorance, Rawls concludes that anything that the players would have come up with or agreed on behind the veil, based only on their morality, should be reasonable principles. He is careful to concede that this doesn’t mean that people are all the same. In fact, each person has vastly different goals in life. However, under this moral blanket principle, each person is awarded the same opportunities to develop their skills to follow their dreams or objectives. Rawls argues that instead of an individual competition, society should be a team game, where everyone cooperates to make sure all reach the same reasonable life goal, all on the same level.

This does not mean that people should forgo their own goals and focus solely on others. In fact, it means that citizens should all strive for equal opportunities for all, so that everyone gets an equal slice, regardless of how ambitious or modest their goals may be. And when, in the veil of ignorance, each person strives for the same opportunities, it means that each person will also be equally moral. How a person will choose to use this opportunity is up to the individual.

The veil of ignorance illuminates how society would function if everyone was stripped of privilege and status, subject to the same laws and given the same opportunities. Rawls also posits that this version of justice would obviously not be favored, if implemented in today’s world. If institutions and businesses, who often receive preferential treatment under the law, were suddenly rendered equal, the previous injustices would become clear.

Rawls extensively discusses how beneficial these new equality rules would be in today’s society. Along with the acceptance of this form of justice – equality and identical opportunities for all—comes a moral obligation for people to accept this justice for their fellow humans. Within this acceptance, the world would become a better place, not only morally, but successfully, as people will become equal in their place and their desires.

Rawls advocates for creating a level playing field. This would not eliminate completion—on the contrary, there would be healthy competition. When individuals start from the same position, without advantages based on race, class, or stature, these differences can become an asset to their individuality, in a fair justice system. The moment an “external opinion” is set into the works about one of these differences, the system falls apart.

A Theory of Justice is described by some as “magisterial.” By using political science and analytical philosophy, Rawls puts all current law systems to shame, giving readers a new outlook on all the different possibilities that could occur by changing the current stagnant system. Using arguments and philosophies by philosophers such as Kant and Hume, Rawls puts together the most succinct argument against inequality when it comes to the politics of life. Over the years, A Theory of Justice became so popular was even adapted as a musical. For all of us to have the same liberties, then all of us need to have the same opportunities, and that is a small thing to ask for the successful achievement of humankind.