Warning: this post contains spoilers for John Rawls’ philosophy text Justice as Fairness: A Restatement
Yes, one statement of Justice as Fairness apparently didn’t gather the attention that John Rawls desired, so he wrote a second book in which he presented the same content and spent half of his time referencing his first book. The other half of the time he spent laboriously explaining and redefining basic concepts for the questionable benefit of the reader. My impression while reading this book was that the whole assembly is a sort of Locke wannabe that never actually manages to come up with anything original to say.
Perhaps I’m being overly critical. I will admit that I am not a formal student of philosophy – I did not study philosophy in school, aside from a single course, and although I have read a fair amount of books that would be considered philosophical, in general my appreciation of them increases with age. It seems to me that if you’re going to write a book on philosophy, you should have something truly original to suggest or contemplate, and after reading Justice as Fairness, I don’t think John Rawls had enough original content to offer to write a single book on this idea of justice as fairness, much less two intended to say the exact same thing.
I spent most of my time on the first part of the book, and mostly settled for skimming the remainder, after I stopped finding any new ideas in the text. Within that first part, Rawls laboriously takes his readers through definition after painstaking definition of basic concept and terminology as it will be applied within the text of Justice as Fairness, to a certain extent undermining the purpose of language – to provide a common frame of reference in conversations about complex ideas. If you have to present your own, ultra-narrow definition of a term like “political” in order for you idea to stand a chance of making sense to someone else, you might need to refine your ideas, or at least come up with a better way of describing them.
Unlike Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, I did not disagree with the fundamental premise of Justice as Fairness, at least not such as I gleaned from the piece. It seemed that the entire argument of the book could be boiled down to a simple statement: a thing is fair insofar as it is just, and a thing is just only insofar as it is fair. Or, in less philosophical speak: justice and fairness are inextricably linked, and a thing cannot be both just and unfair, nor fair and unjust. What Rawls attempts to then add, however, while talking around himself in circles, is to also equate the concepts of justice and fairness with deterministic equality, which did not win him any points in my book.
However, if you decide to read Justice as Fairness, I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about Rawls’ philosophy, or lack thereof. Let’s talk about the writing, which was, well, philosophical. It was philosophical in the way that the philosophy textbooks that make people hate philosophy class are: dense, overly complicated, full of circular arguments, belabored, and rather arrogant. Now, there are those who will argue the same thing is true of older works, like those of Locke, Kant, or Mill, but in those cases it was more characteristic of the style of the time (although I think that many of those philosophers also attempted to be unnecessarily pretention in their writings). With Justice as Fairness, there was simply no benefit to having so many superfluous words – and this is coming from me, who loves the English language and all its complexities.
When it comes down to my recommendation, I would put it like this. Justice as Fairness is not a bad read. It even has some mildly interesting insights, although they’re all in the first twenty five pages or so and you could probably stop after that and not miss much. I’m just not entirely sure that it’s worth your time.
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