A Theory of Justice Book Summary - A Theory of Justice Book explained in key points
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A Theory of Justice summary

John Rawls

Liberty and Equality as an Alternative to Utilitarianism

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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.

    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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