The Left Should Reclaim John Rawls’s Theory of Justice

Despite his towering academic reputation, John Rawls’s ideas have had little impact outside the university. That’s a shame: as the failures of neoliberalism have become increasingly stark, Rawls’s egalitarian theory of justice has much to recommend it.

Striking United Parcel Service (UPS) workers and local Teamster Unions picket outside a UPS distribution center, August 4, 1997 near downtown Los Angeles, California. (Bob Riha Jr / Getty Images)

John Rawls is widely considered one of — if not the — most influential American philosophers. Rawls’s work, and work on his work, has been cited thousands of times. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton (one of the few commendable decisions Clinton ever made), and there is a veritable library’s worth of introductory guides and YouTube explainers on his work.

Rawls’s academic influence has been so pronounced that political philosophers across the spectrum have either written long critiques of his work or tried to show how, say, Marxism is compatible with his theory of justice as fairness. This, even though Rawls was legendarily modest, and not a particularly good writer — not to mention that Rawls’s thinking never obtained the interdisciplinary sweep of his libertarian rival Robert Nozick or contemporary political philosophers like Martha Nussbaum or Jürgen Habermas.

Despite these achievements, Rawls is an odd and even, in a way, tragic figure. For a long time, his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, was rather crudely praised or condemned as offering the most systematic defense of the mid-twentieth-century liberal welfare state. While this seriously understated his radicalism, the irony is that even this moderate welfarism was being rolled back by the time Rawls published Theory in 1971.

Richard Nixon’s paper-thin victory in 1968 was the harbinger of the conservative turn that would begin in the 1970s and kick into cocaine-fueled high gear in the “Greed Is Good” ’80s. By the 1990s, the same Bill Clinton who gave Rawls a medal was also declaring that the “era of Big Government” was over and was competing with Republicans to see who could put more minorities in jail faster. By most accounts, Rawls was aware of how the United States was becoming a less and less just society, and there is a feeling of gloomy resignation in his later books like Justice as Fairness (2001)

Yet the generations that have grown up witnessing regular major recessions in 2008 and 2020 have begun rediscovering Rawls’s work and putting it to the more radical purposes it was intended for. This makes the new collection Rawls’s A Theory of Justice at 50, edited by Paul Weithman, a welcome contribution.

Reintroducing John Rawls

I identify as a liberal socialist academic, and I’m currently writing a book entitled The Political Theory of Liberal Socialism that opens with a quote by Rawls and includes a long chapter on him and his critics. So Rawls’s A Theory of Justice at 50 is very much a book for readers like myself.

It is very much an academic volume that surveys a range of scholarly views on Rawlsian philosophy. It includes contributions from well-known philosophers including Elizabeth Anderson, Samuel Scheffler, Samuel Freeman, and Joshua Cohen. Given this, potential readers should be warned that this is most definitely not an introductory volume; an extensive background in his major works and the debates around it is presupposed. But the book does take time to showcase the power of Rawlsian philosophy to address real-world problems and even manages to be inspirational at points (a rare feat for texts analytic philosophy).

It’s tough to review a collection of essays on a major thinker since each author brings their own interests and specialities to bear. This means that a reader will naturally gravitate to the essays that most align with their own interests, and that was very much the case with me: the essays that grabbed my attention most were those on economic and racial justice, along with the quite moving concluding paper on how Rawls speaks to contemporary political problems.

David Brudney’s “The Theory Rawls, the 1844 Marx, and the Market” stresses the overlap between the young Karl Marx’s humanist critique of capitalism and Rawls’s criticism. Brudney points out how both authors were deeply sensitive to how the competitive ethos generated by capitalist markets could corrode ties of solidarity and undermine the social bases for the working classes’ self-respect — particularly by broiling alienation, indifference, and rivalry. The essay is tantalizingly short, and even Brudney admits that the tale he “wants to tell is a long one. Unfortunately . . . it has to be several compressed.”

But he is surely onto something with this analysis. Books like Rodney Peffer’s Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice and the more recent Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism by Tony Smith have shown the power and creativity of Rawls/Marx fusions. Hopefully Brudney decides to take his compressed tale and turn it into an epic.

Elizabeth Anderson’s “Rawls’s Principles of Justice as a Transcendence of Class Warfare” sees her taking the socialist tradition increasingly seriously. I still think her analysis would benefit from some infusions of Marxist dialectics, particularly regarding the forms of domination that emerge that are specific to capital. In Mute Compulsion, Marxist philosopher Søren Mau reminds us that it is peculiar to capitalist society that power operates in the three different forms of direct coercion, ideological manipulation, and the imposition of market imperatives on both workers and bosses. A comparable analysis would enrich the account of power in the Rawlsian tradition Anderson works in.

Nevertheless, her situating Rawls in relation to Ricardian, Fabian, and Christian socialism fills in important history. And her argument that Rawls’s “principles of justice attempt to end class society by preventing inequalities in income, wealth, education and occupation from consolidating into distinct and heritable class identities” provides one of the clearest expositions yet on why the “welfarist” view of Rawls was simply wrong.

More painful reflections on Rawls’s legacy are provided by papers from Henry Richardson and Tommie Shelby on the question of race. Inspired by the late great Charles Mills, both Richardson and Shelby affirm that Rawls was unjustly silent on matters of racial oppression and the extent to which white supremacist doctrines continued to permeate American society as systematic racism. These charges hit home, and they demonstrate the extent to which Rawls’s ideal-theoretic approach to political philosophy needed to be more attentive to material relations of power and history.

Richardson and Shelby argue that Rawls’s approach can be rescued as a theoretic weapon against racism by reconfiguring core ideas like the “original position” to take account of the history of racial oppression. I agree, but would add that Rawlsian moral theory will be fundamentally incomplete without a systematic critical theory to complement it. Black radical Marxism à la Cedric J. Robinson would be an especially helpful supplement, as would the decades of critiques of neoliberalism by authors from Wendy Brown to Quinn Slobodian.

The Enduring Relevance of A Theory of Justice

We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971

My favorite paper in the collection was the very last one: “A Society of Self-Respect” by Leif Wenar. Analytic philosophy, including Rawls, has an unfortunately deserved reputation for floating above the particularities of actual political controversies. Wenar gestures to this when he points out how even though Rawls occupies the ninth circle of academic heaven, very few of his core ideas have trickled down into the public culture. Ask anyone on the street where the idea of “class conflict” comes from and they’ll say Marx, and most people think of Friedrich Nietzsche when they hear “God is dead!” But despite its analytical simplicity as a thought experiment, even most very educated people could probably not tell you what the “original position” was all about.

Wenar thinks this is a real shame, since the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and abroad showcases why Rawls’s ideas are so necessary. As he puts it, many members of the white working class voted for Donald Trump as a middle finger to the establishment. While misguided, their reaction is at least partially the fault of centrist liberals and technocrats who long ago gave up the idea of a fighting liberalism that centers the least well-off. Wenar ends by imagining a conversation with an Uber driver in a Rawlsian society, who is proud of how his country is a fair place, where inequality is largely a thing of the past and the least well-off in society are at the center of our political concerns.

It’s a beautiful vision, rendered haunting by the contrast with our current neoliberal regime, characterized by both complacent centrists and surging authoritarian populists. Reading Rawls’s A Theory of Justice at 50 appropriately makes one think back to all the major social and political developments of the past fifty years. The conclusion is a grim one: the United States has moved further and further away from being a just society and has helped drag much of the world with it.

Since the heyday of the already inadequate liberal welfare state, we’ve endured generations of neoliberal governments claim the banner of liberalism for themselves. Under its auspices, they pushed policies that rolled back welfare for the most vulnerable, decreased union density and undercut the labor movement, backed neoconservative imperialists in their illegal wars, and advanced carceral measures as mechanisms to ameliorate social discontent. The result is a cruel society where the ruling orders largely feel they owe little to anyone, and the working and lower classes are made to feel responsible for their own subordination.

As Samuel Moyn has chronicled, the liberalism that Rawls defended as a radical ideology that prioritized the interests of the least well-off drank ever deeper from the well of conservative thought — becoming skeptical, wary, and unhopeful. We’ve all enjoyed the dark fruit of this failure of imagination and will for too long.

Rawls tells us justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is to systems of thought. Our society is not just or virtuous — but it could be if we rediscovered the courage to make the world anew. Taking Rawls’s own ideas seriously, and attempting to apply them to the real-world problems of our time, may be a good place to start.