Though intelligence separated humanity from the animal kingdom, allowing us to invent the tools that would eventually steer us onto a new, evolutionary course of profound self-discovery and world domination, intelligence is but the key to a much greater lock, a necessity for the grander goal of society. For it is society that harnesses that raw intellect and capitalizes upon it, chronicling its many inventions and innovations and putting them to widespread use not only for the general advancement of all, but so that others might improve upon what came before, creating an endless chain of advancement that will one day elevate us to the stars. Without society, the genius of one is never remembered, savored only by those he happens to encounter. His death causes his knowledge to pass into the ether, obligating humanity to sputter along at a level not much higher than the apes from which we branched.
Being that society is critical to our development, it would be advantageous to discover society's ideal form. What rules should it enshrine? What principles should it uphold? Should it favor one class over another, or should everyone be equal? Should innovation be the cornerstone, or should it be the acquisition of knowledge that begets wisdom? Mr. Rawls, a famous 20th century philosopher, grapples with these vital questions in this his classic 1971 treatise on the ideal society.
From the principles of justice to the Veil of Ignorance, from the ethics of civil disobedience to the sins of freeloading, A Theory of Justice is Mr. Rawls' systematic attempt to logic out society's most beneficial form. To do so, he requests that the reader join him in a most detailed thought experiment. The reader is asked to imagine that he is society's ultimate architect, free to work upon a blank and perfectly malleable canvas. He is free to set any rule, to impose any right, to pass any law, to harbor any prejudice. He may shape and contort his society to his heart's content. However, there is one critical stipulation that he must adhere to while he molds his world.
Upon the completion of his experiment, when it comes time for the reader to enter his ideal society, he will do so without any knowledge of where, in that society, he will appear. He does not know what job he will hold, what family he will have, what class he will belong to, or what talents he will possess. He may be the highest of the high, or the lowest of the low. Over this one aspect of his experiment he has no control. With this veil of ignorance in mind, what will his original position be? Will he engineer a society that is fair, fearing that he might enter it as a drudge in need of external support? Or will he engineer an unequal society, trusting himself to rise on the back of his natural abilities? Will he enshrine equal rights to all as insurance against his position at the bottom, or will he opt for unequal rights, confident the powerful will not need such flimsy protections?
Though A Theory of Justice is a challenging read, written more for the benefit of the author's colleagues than it is for the layman, it is nonetheless a powerfully persuasive piece of political philosophy. The Veil of Ignorance, an idea as revolutionary for philosophy as Einsteinian Relativity was for physics, is surely one of the 20th century's most powerful thought experiments. For it forces the reader to recognize that birth is random, that the extent to which we succeed is at least partially based on the luck of the draw, and that opportunity has a huge bearing on our quality of life. Taken altogether, these principles demand that we examine anew our successes, not only to be thankful for the moments in which we were helped by others to achieve our dreams, but in order to recognize that whatever we are is as much to the credit of others as it is to the credit of ourselves. This notion has widespread implications for our future and the societies it will birth.
As much as this work is understandably dominated by the Veil of Ignorance experiment, it is as much a 600-page logistical construct that makes a profound and profoundly simple argument for equality. While we know that society cannot grant us all equal shares of resources or income -- endeavoring to do so is nightmarishly complicated and utterly senseless --, we do all wish to live in a society with equal rights to liberty, to conscience, to life. So how do we justify creating a society that has equal rights but not equal opportunity? By creating a society whose laws, institutions and instruments are designed to consider first the least among us. For to do otherwise is to not only consign the most vulnerable among us to short, pain-filled lives, it is to abandon even the conceit of the notion that society is based on logic and reason.
A Theory of Justice is, at times, interminable and insufferable, a volley of intellectual arrows fired at targets most of us will never meet or know. But within its megalithic logic there are shattering truths that possess the power to reform the reader's conception of society and fairness. In this, it is deeply and enduringly transformative. (4/5 Stars)