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A Theory of Justice summary

John Rawls

Liberty and Equality as an Alternative to Utilitarianism

4.2 (286 ratings)
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A Theory of Justice by John Rawls is a political philosophy book that presents a thought experiment to establish principles for a just society. Rawls argues for a society that maximizes the well-being of the least advantaged, ensuring equal basic rights and opportunities for all.

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    A Theory of Justice
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    A new social contract

    How should we organize society? How can we reconcile diverse interests and help people live harmoniously?

    For John Rawls, the answer to this question is related to the most fundamental building block of all our social institutions: justice. Society and its rules must, above all else, be fair. After all, people don’t get to choose which society they’re born in. And yet, despite the arbitrariness, we expect people to follow society’s rules – on pain of imprisonment. 

    This expectation is part of what’s known in philosophy as a social contract. A social contract isn’t a real historical contract. It’s a kind of foundational story that rationalizes how society works and specifies what individuals and society owe each other. 

    For example, seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously held that human life in our original “state of nature” – that is, without government – was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It stood to reason, then, that people would willingly give up some of their freedom to a sovereign authority if it meant they could ensure their own safety and lead decent lives. For Hobbes, this implicit bargain is what gives the state its legitimacy. 

    Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice centuries later, during the Cold War, and the book speaks to the times. It was an era in which democratic societies faced geopolitical conflict between capitalism and communism, social upheaval, and raging ideological debates.

    So what social contract does Rawl propose? What are his specific criteria for justice? Let’s look at that next.

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    What is A Theory of Justice about?

    A Theory of Justice (1971) is a seminal work of political philosophy, in the social contract tradition. One of the most widely debated philosophical works of the twentieth century, it provides a framework for evaluating societies and social outcomes in terms of justice, fairness, and rights.

    A Theory of Justice Review

    A Theory of Justice (1971) presents a profound examination of the principles of justice in society, making it a highly recommended read. Here's why this book is worth your time:

    • This book offers a groundbreaking framework for a just society, exploring the concept of fairness and laying out principles that can guide our understanding of justice.
    • Rawls carefully crafts his arguments through persuasive reasoning and draws upon a wide range of philosophical ideas, stimulating critical thinking and intellectual engagement.
    • The book raises important questions about social inequality and the distribution of goods, challenging readers to reflect on their own moral values and consider the implications for society.

    Who should read A Theory of Justice?

    • Political philosophy buffs
    • Those wishing to deepen their understanding of social inequality
    • Anyone who cares about creating a fairer society

    About the Author

    John Rawls was an American philosopher renowned for his groundbreaking contributions to political philosophy and ethics – in particular, his attempt to reconcile individual rights with social justice. Based on principles of fairness and equality, his ideas continue to shape discussions on social contract theory and the construction of just societies.

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    A Theory of Justice FAQs 

    What is the main message of A Theory of Justice?

    The main message of A Theory of Justice is that justice is the fairness of a society's basic structure and principles.

    How long does it take to read A Theory of Justice?

    The reading time for A Theory of Justice varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is A Theory of Justice a good book? Is it worth reading?

    A Theory of Justice is a thought-provoking book that delves into key questions of fairness and equality. It is definitely worth reading.

    Who is the author of A Theory of Justice?

    The author of A Theory of Justice is John Rawls.

    What to read after A Theory of Justice?

    If you're wondering what to read next after A Theory of Justice, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    • Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
    • Propaganda by Edward Bernays
    • Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson
    • Sun Tzu and the Art of Business by Mark R. McNeilly
    • Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
    • Failed States by Noam Chomsky
    • The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
    • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
    • Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters