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