A Theory of Justice, the Musical Imagines Philosopher John Rawls as a Time-Traveling Adventurer

John Rawls’ 1971 book A The­o­ry of Jus­tice—with its famous illus­tra­tion of “the veil of igno­rance”—is a rig­or­ous attempt to make egal­i­tar­i­an prin­ci­ples nor­ma­tive in polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. The work remains a high water­mark for lib­er­al­ism and a mean­ing­ful chal­lenge to right-lib­er­tar­i­ans, mean­ing that it’s gen­er­al­ly tak­en seri­ous­ly by crit­ics and admir­ers alike. Well, almost…. One cadre of admir­ers, the writ­ers and pro­duc­ers of A The­o­ry of Jus­tice, the Musi­cal (trail­er above), decid­ed to have a lit­tle fun with the very pub­lic­i­ty-shy Rawls (who died in 2002), imag­in­ing him on a time-trav­el­ing adven­ture where he meets with Pla­to, Locke, Rousseau, Mill and oth­ers to draw inspi­ra­tion for his mag­num opus. Along the way, Rawls must dodge the “evil designs” of his lib­er­tar­i­an antag­o­nist Robert Noz­ick and “his objec­tivist lover, Ayn Rand” (Rand and Noz­ick were, to my knowl­edge, nev­er so involved, but the idea is amus­ing).

The far­ci­cal pro­duc­tion promis­es “a musi­cal score that cov­ers every­thing from rap bat­tles to pow­er bal­lads.” I would imag­ine that the appeal of Rawls, The Musi­cal might be rather lim­it­ed to a spe­cial sub­set of peo­ple who get the book­ish ref­er­ences and love musi­cal the­ater. But maybe that group is larg­er than I think. Since the Jan­u­ary 30th pre­mier in Oxford this year, A The­o­ry of Jus­tice, the Musi­cal—praised by philoso­pher Nigel War­bur­ton as “bril­liant: hilar­i­ous wit­ty and pro­found”—received sev­er­al five star reviews and the ini­tial the­ater run sold out a week before open­ing. But of course, that was Oxford, not New York. The show’s pro­duc­ers do plan to take the show on the road—to Lon­don, Scot­land, and the U.S. (and they are active­ly fundrais­ing; a com­plete view­ing of an Oxford per­for­mance will cost you $9.99, and oth­er groups wish­ing to per­form the show must pur­chase a license).

The wide­spread appeal of Rawls is under­stand­able giv­en that he best artic­u­lates the idea of equal­i­ty as an inher­ent­ly eth­i­cal val­ue in polit­i­cal life. His is a posi­tion that revis­es so much clas­si­cal polit­i­cal the­o­ry and informs or infu­ri­ates so many cur­rent polit­i­cal com­bat­ants. While oppo­nents of dis­trib­u­tive jus­tice will no doubt find rea­sons to dis­agree with Rawls on prin­ci­ple, care­ful crit­i­cal thinkers will at least con­sid­er the argu­ments before mak­ing objec­tions. But if you don’t have time to read all five-hun­dred plus pages of Rawls’ mas­ter­work, you could cer­tain­ly do worse than watch Harvard’s Michael Sandel explain Rawls’ the­o­ries in his lec­ture above (fea­tur­ing some smart stu­dent crit­ics of Rawls). The lec­ture is eighth in a course called “Jus­tice: What’s the Right Thing To Do,” which was released by edX as a MOOC this past March.

Below you can find the sound­track for the Lon­don pro­duc­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michael Sandel’s Famous Har­vard Course on Jus­tice Launch­es as a MOOC on Tues­day

Alain de Bot­ton Pro­pos­es a Kinder, Gen­tler Phi­los­o­phy of Suc­cess

Mike Wal­lace Inter­views Ayn Rand (1959)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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