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Review of A Theory of Justice - John Rawls


From the very beginning, John Rawls intentionally employs an obfuscated style to argue his theory of justice. Rawls’ purpose, after all, “is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant” (199) . Immediately the style and tone for the entire essay is established: that of philosophical abstraction. This style necessitates the loss of clarity in favor of an added layer of complexity, or as Rawls prefers to call it, “abstraction”.
The abstract tone leads to a sense of detachment from reality, and a strong bias towards the ideal and quixotic. For example, the “veil of ignorance” sounds great at face value, but is it possible, or yet another utopic vision? Moreover, Rawls overlooks one of the most practical counterexample to his claim that individuals are “rational and mutually disinterested” (201). What about the most basic human societal group: families? Most Parents could be anything but disinterested in their children.
Perhaps Rawls is purposely idealistic, thereby implying that true justice is an ideal. It is definitely difficult to tell, since the sentence structure Rawls uses is often complex. Unless read at least 3 times, most of Rawls sentences are incomprehensible due to their inherent complexity. To make matters even worse, Rawls uses abstract terms that form very complex statements. For instance the following sentence is hard to follow:
“Justice as fairness begins, as I have said, with one of the most general of all choices which persons might make together, namely with the choice of the first principles of a conception of justice which is to regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of institutions.” (200)

Unless a firm grasp of every idea and definition is held, a reader will have immense trouble following Rawls’ argument.
While Rawls’ style lacks clarity, he does systematically move his argument of justice as fairness forward. First he defines this principle, then extensively elaborates on its application. If only Rawls wrote in a more direct and straightforward manner, then his argument would be much more convincing.

Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers refer to Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas, New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins 2006.




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