Doing Justice to Justice: The Top Ten (er, Eleven) Books on Justice

Posted on October 29, 2013 by


It is always difficult to compile a “top ten” list of anything.  But the concept of justice is especially difficult.  Besides the usual problem of my own bias, there is also the potential for misunderstanding why something is on a list and something else omitted.  So let me briefly explain.  First I am putting this list out there because the topic is so very important to everyone and to Christians, particularly in this era when everyone clamors for justice or fairness but few know what it is or ought to be.  Second, there have been certain really important books written on justice, particularly in the last forty years, some better and some worse, but all influential.  In my list I try to include the most important, whether I agree with them or not (and I will tell you as I go).  Moreover these books are pivotal in developing theoretical foundations for a wide variety of policy issues:  immigration, health care, the environment, welfare, among others.  One more thing:  These books are by and large not bedtime reading, but they are worth the effort.  So here goes, in order of importance as I see it.

  1.  John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.  Harvard University, 1971.  Not because I agree with even most of what Rawls concludes, but because this book began to re-ignite the discussion on the topic after decades.  Rawls was a modern liberal, albeit a very bright and articulate one.  And he does give us some good insights along the way.
  2. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia.  Basic Books, 1974.  The response to Rawls from the libertarian side.  Nozick is either loved or hated, but never ignored, by anyone serious about distributional justice.  I don’t completely agree with him, but I agree a lot more with his argument than with Rawls.
  3. I go here with Friedrich Hayek’s second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, which is entitled The Mirage of Social Justice.  University of Chicago, 1976.  Nobel winner and Austrian economist Hayek takes on the term “social justice” and finds it vacuous.  If not for the above books going before, perhaps Hayek would be number one or two, but alas, he failed to match the influence of Rawls and Nozick until more recently.
  4. This is a difficult choice, but my pick here is Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice,  Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009.  Sen is one of the most important living theorists on justice and an economist by early training.  He tends to hew with Rawls but adds discussions of “capabilities” as a criterion for state redistributional action.  Of course, I disagree but respect his work.
  5. Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities:  The Human Development Approach.  Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011.  I really am choosing Nussbaum in general, but this new book represents her approach to social justice well.  She has been exceedingly influential in extending (with Sen) the boundaries of what is considered by modern liberalism to be necessary to satisfy the requirements of justice.  What began with Locke as negative rights was expanded first to positive rights, later human rights, including rights to decent housing, health care, education, a living wage, etc., and finally in Nussbaum action to create capabilities.  I am in severe disagreement with the thesis, but its importance can’t be denied.
  6. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.  Princeton University, 2008.  This is the first modern work on justice from a Christian theological standpoint, and it has exerted influence on several well-known Christian leaders, including Tim Keller.  Ultimately, Wolterstorff is disappointing in his attempt, mainly because he insists on sticking with the modern liberal approach, just using some different support.  But Christians must keep trying.
  7. John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness.  Princeton University, 2012.  An interesting and necessary attempt to justify libertarian economic thought while acknowledging the need for social supports for the truly needy.  Melds Rawls and the Nozick.  This could be the sleeper, but it is too early to tell.  I was tempted to move it up two or three slots.
  8. Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.  This is the book to read for a historical and contemporary overview of the various theories of social/distributive justice.  Sandel is fair, even though he leans Left.
  9. Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs.  Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011.  The famous legal scholar writes about justice from the modern liberal viewpoint.  Because Dworkin is (was) Dworkin, this will have an impact.
  10. Samuel Fleischacker, A Short History of Distributive Justice.  Harvard University, 2004.  I love this book, not because of its originality, but because the author traces the idea and use of the concept from ancient times to the present and does so in a readable and accurate way.  One of my own favorites.
  11. OK, I cheated.  But I have always valued Ronald Nash, Freedom, Justice and the State.  University Press of America, 1980.  This book is for thinking Christians but for that reason it has not been widely recognized.  I would love to rate it in the top five, but….

Please let me  know if you have other books on justice to add to the list or if you don’t like some I put on the list.