This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. It is hard to recall another work of philosophy, in this century or any other, which has enjoyed such immediate acclaim. The frequently acidic and usually sober Times Literary Supplement assured its readers that the book “might plausibly be claimed to be the most notable contribution” to moral theory since the great nineteenth-century utilitarian treatises of Henry Sidgwick and John Stuart Mill. From the Washington Post to The Economist, praise rained down on a shy, hitherto obscure Harvard philosopher. Nor was professional attention lacking. By 1975 Robert Paul Wolff was finding it “impossible to keep up with the literature on Rawls.” Robert Fullinwinder’s 1977 bibliography lists some two hundred articles, and since then such journals as Political Theory and the American Political Science Review show no letup in the flood of Rawlsiana.

WHY all the fuss? Rawls’s defense of welfare liberalism (with mild egalitarian overtones) was scarcely revolutionary. Yet in the wake of the trials and tribulations of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, liberalism needed an intellectual shot in the arm. The book appeared, moreover, at a time when moral philosophy had degenerated into a profession of nitpicking and jargon-mongering. Instead of offering up the same old technical language hedged in with qualifiers and footnotes, A Theory of Justice went right to the heart of the matter: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of a system of thought.” With this pronouncement, Rawls took on Utilitarianism—the reigning theory of the day. Against the utilitarian claim that justice was merely the result of summing individual preferences, Rawls advanced a theory of striking simplicity.

According to him, no system of social justice ought to reward citizens for possessing essentially arbitrary attributes like inherited wealth, level of intelligence, or even hard work (which may itself be a function of birth or position). These are not things that, morally, we deserve. Rawls nevertheless goes on to allow that rich, bright, or industrious citizens may be entitled to the fruits of their good luck. In order to argue for these claims, he creates a hypothetical situation called the “original position.”

The reader is asked to imagine a group of citizens meeting behind a “veil of ignorance” with no knowledge  of their own beliefs, preferences, or social positions: all bias is excluded. Our imagined individuals then  choose the principles of justice that will govern the distribution of goods and services once the veil is  lifted. All they have to go on is general knowledge of economic and psychological theory. They will,  Rawls claims, choose two fundamental principles: that each person have the greatest political liberty  compatible with an equivalent amount for all, and that inequalities of wealth and power are only permitted to the extent that they benefit the worst-off members of society. (Any of them might, after all, turn out to be among the worst-off.) In a striking phrase, Rawls asserts that if we could be persuaded to ignore everything that is morally arbitrary, we would have a society in which “men agree to share one another’s fate.”

He went on to elaborate these claims for six hundred pages, and in the process offered himself up as a  huge target. Kant scholars could point to the “original position” as derivative of their master’s conception of the moral self existing prior to its chosen ends. For students of social contract theory, the idea of a group of citizens gathering to agree on first principles was no more than warmed-over Locke. Aristotelians pointed to Rawls’s idiosyncratic use of Aristotle’s conception of the moral life. Economists and game theorists also had their bones to pick: the decision procedure employed behind the veil of ignorance made use of the work of Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen on choice theory and  models of rationality. All these vulnerabilities, however, only made A Theory of Justice more exciting; combining the latest in social science with the wisdom of the ancients, Rawls delivered the best that modern liberalism had to offer. Anyone at odds with the liberal vision now had to show either that Rawls’s model was internally incoherent, or that it was circular—based on the very premises it was trying to establish. Robert Nozick, whose libertarian instincts contradicted those of his Harvard colleague, spoke for the profession when he said, “Political philosophers must either work within Rawls’s theory or explain why not.”

IF A Theory of Justice were to survive the massive interrogation it invited, it would need more than fancy argumentation. It was, in the end, a plea for a certain kind of politics-and it was meant for the entire society to contemplate. Rawls believed, and on the evidence of more recent articles still believes, that his book expressed, and was designed to reinforce, something at the heart of the American political sensibility: a commitment to the twin values of liberty and equality. Accept the argument of A Theory of Justice and we will have sufficient grounds for believing that the liberal welfare state is what the United States is all about.

But can this be true? Americans may well pay more than lip service to the principle of equality, but will they buy into Rawls’s claim that the only way to be equal is to imagine themselves stripped of all their worldly attributes? In the land of Horatio Alger, how can the attribute of industriousness be dreamt away as morally inconsequential? As was made clear to me on several occasions when I tried to introduce guests at my local bar to Rawls’s theory, Americans are attached to the notion that they deserve what they earn. This Main Street reaction points to one of the severest responses to Rawls’s work. In the words of Robert Paul Wolff, “What results [from the “veil of ignorance”] … is not a moral point of view but a non-human point of view.”

Although the “original position” was just a metaphor, it had to be morally persuasive. Wolff was suggesting that the description of the self in the “original position” left so much out that there was no self left to persuade. And there was a suspicion that only those who (impermissibly) carried an attachment to the welfare state into the “original position” could find it sympathetic. As of now, at least, however widely accepted Rawls is among liberal intellectuals outside philosophy, the verdict of his  professional peers is closer to that of my friends in the Plough and Stars. There has been much less working within Rawls’s theory than explaining why not.

The theory has been subjected to a double barrage from the right. First came the charge that it offered too little to be taken seriously. Followers of the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss compared Rawls’s view of politics to the vision they found in Plato’s Republic and, predictably, found it wanting. Straussian Alan Bloom, in a blistering attack on A Theory of Justice, argued that it represented a humiliating retreat from any attempt to ground politics in man’s higher aspirations. Bloom and those of his persuasion believe that a certain kind of life, as lived by the seeker after wisdom, is morally superior to just any life. The philosopher, they maintain, has a responsibility to illustrate through his teaching the beauty of wisdom and the possible ways of pursuing it, and this teaching has to be based on a true understanding of human nature. Rawls, by contrast, conceives of an agreement undertaken by imaginary people whose only desire is to minimize future (imaginary) risks. For Bloom, he constructs “an artificial happiness of an artificial man”; he can teach us nothing of what our lives might consist of, nothing to help us turn off the television set for the sake of something better.

Where the Straussians charge Rawls with doing too little, the libertarians see him going too far. In Anarchy, State and Utopia, the most impressive of the libertarian assaults, Robert Nozick provides philosophical comfort for those who want to believe they deserve the fruits of their labor. What has to be justified, Nozick argues, is not their right to keep what is theirs (so long as they did not steal it), but rather anyone else’s right to take it away from them. He goes on to argue that the free market offers a  far more secure system of protecting citizens’ rights, abilities, and possessions than does the welfare state. His book has itself received considerable attention; for libertarians its sophisticated celebration of private property was warmly welcomed. Liberals responded that Nozick was merely elevating fortune into a moral principle—and the debate unfolded along predictable political lines.

WHAT can we conclude from this brief foray into the Rawls industry? Simply that Rawls’s theory is too remote from the real world. However beautiful, A Theory of Justice needs to enlist the moral instincts of those not already committed to liberal egalitarianism. But in the effort to get everyone to agree to share “each other’s fate,” Rawls so deprives us of our individual identities that little remains to attract us to his position. If he fails to secure a vantage point for determining the deserts of humankind, we are in trouble. Justice becomes merely a matter of personal opinion.

Theorists who have presided over the deconstruction of the Rawlsian model have been reluctant to accept this conclusion. Instead, a desperate scramble has begun for a moral philosophy which would both emerge from the human condition and offer the hope of a progressive politics. The most important of these efforts has been Alaslair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, which used Aristotle’s conception of “the virtues” to motivate a program of individual and collective moral development. MacIntyre argues for grounding the moral sensibility in our personal history and in the community which has nurtured us. Linking practical reason to concepts of moral behavior, he contends that the life worth living is a life dedicated to a certain telos, or goal, within the structure of a political community. Understanding that my own identity is bound up with those of my fellow citizens, I am brought to see that my beliefs about justice are dependent on the life patterns and values of that community and on the goals it has made available to me: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the newdark ages.”

MacIntyre situates the circumstances of justice not in a heuristic metaphor like the “original position”  but in our families, cities, and states. These institutions generate our identities, our life prospects, and our moral dilemmas. This is an attractive portrait, but it raises more questions than it settles. When faced with a moral crisis, I seek to understand myself as a product of those with whom my identity is bound up. But who are they? How can I decide what the relevant community is? As MacIntyre himself has admitted, his account does “indeed presuppose a systematic, though here unstated, account of rationality.” When we perceive a culture in which women jump onto funeral pyres (as they did in Bali), should we leave the practice alone on the grounds that it makes up an accepted and integral part of that community’s self understanding? Something inside us says no: when the claims of family, city, state, and humanity conflict, I yearn for higher ground, for a perspective from which I may renounce all I am in the name of a justice which as yet has no home.

MacIntyre’s muddy contextualism seems a far cry from the abstract ether of A Theory of Justice. But  perhaps in response, Rawls has in recent essays and seminars watered down certain of his stronger claims; he now holds, for example, that the “original position” can be defended only insofar as it truly reflects the assumptions of modern Americans. Should it turn out that we are not primarily motivated by the twin desires for liberty and equality, Rawls has nothing to say to us. Thus, as MacIntyre and his communitarian fellows struggle for some criterion of judgment, Rawls is rushing to relocate his within every individual’s own experience. The positions, in short, are collapsing into each other: respect the life plans of those around you, make positive contributions to their lives, and our foremost moral  theorists will applaud pointlessly from the sidelines.

TO the Straussians, this can only represent the bankruptcy of modern ethical theory—but they may be wrong. Rawls and Maclntyre attempt to make sense of our common moral experiences by making those experiences transparent to us. Each finds hope in the freedom we enjoy to choose our own life projects, and in different ways each lauds the American experience which has generated that freedom. When times are good, we Americans tend to celebrate both the fundamental values of liberty and  equality that unite us, and the local diversity which generates our unique identity. More than anything else, A Theory of Justice offers to many a persuasive vision of the ethical principles these values commit us to.

But what of those Americans who find Rawls’s treatise, or his premises, unconvincing? Should they be bothered by the fact that no formal justification may exist for their beliefs? There must be a strong temptation to ignore the opaque ramblings of political philosophy and to get on with the pursuit of happiness. But the very phrase reminds us that this country was created not just by the force of arms but through powerful theoretical argument. This nation undertook its struggle for independence with the conviction that it could justify that struggle to reasonable men everywhere. One can only wonder about the consequences if such an effort is today beyond us.