A Theory of Justice: The Musical!

Glen Newey

Justice is a toughie. It so often gets mangled in a slew of circumstance. The man who threw up beside me this week in Edinburgh at a production of A Theory of Justice: the Musical! as it revved towards climax may have not have been passing caustic comment on the show and its hymn to justice. But for me and others nearby it certainly gave the last ten minutes or so of the ‘all singing, all dancing romp through 2500 years of political philosophy’ an extra piquancy.

Unlike novels, plays, epic poems and memoirs, poli-phillers’ magna opera seldom adapt well, or indeed at all, to other genres. We’ll probably wait a while before Marsilio’s Defensor pacis gets retooled as a big screen blockbuster or Andrew Lloyd Webber tweaks the Grundrisse into show tunes. One of my long cherished projects is to put together an anthology of the poli-phil canon in pop-up form. Like all possibilities, they’re literally endless, as Hegel’s Absolute Spirit pops out of negated negation, or Platonic philosopher kings pop out of the cave for a quick hobnob with the Forms; to say nothing of John ‘Jack’ Rawls’s two principles in A Theory of Justice, rearing from the ‘veil of ignorance’ like Nell and Nagg from their dustbins in Endgame. I hope to pitch to Oxford University Press soon.

Still, the Theory of Justice songspiel exposes my lack of ambition. Rawls’s big work is no one’s idea of a libretto. Only those who have squelched through its 600-odd pages can know how quixotic it is to musicalise a text boasting all the lyric rapture of the Croydon business directory. The play’s dramatic conceit is that Jack wants to get his rocks off with Fairness by wowing her with a new theory of justice, and a serendipitous time-warp lets him travel back through time to chew the fat with philosophers past. Between bouts of moralising, Fairness turns out to be a bit of a tease, and opts for a quick one with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There’s a fine scene with a utilitarians’ barber-shop quartet (two Mills, Bentham, Sidgwick), and a tango between a vampish Ayn Rand and the acid-dropping libertarian Robert Nozick. At last Rawls’s heart and brain succumb to the suasive powers of Kant, played as a periwigged transvestite, and this seems about right. The closing chorus, a paean to justice, proved oddly inspiring.

Rawls’s thoughts about just war don’t feature in the show. He says in A Theory of Justice that when unwarranted aggression is in prospect, ‘the possibility of a just war is conceded but not under present circumstances’. What those circumstances are, of course, is a matter for debate. A veteran of the Pacific War, Rawls thought that war-making had to be squared with individual conscience. Matters get more complicated when the individual conscience is not that of private citizens but the will to righteousness of those who, though never in the front line, can back their notions of justice with force.

It’s fortunate, therefore, that the world can call on somebody who gets the Almighty’s Twitter feed. This week Tony Blair – buoyed by his humanitarian bombing triumphs in Afghanistan and Iraq – used his platform as Middle East peace envoy to plead for bombing Syria. It’s not at all clear that that’s much of an idea even in the occidental self-interested terms that Blair takes for liberal universalism: bombing Assad may let in the very Islamic radicalism whose worsting in Egypt Blair lauds in the same article.

Making war and then calling it just may leave, well, just war. Still, as Tony likes to say, whatever. Chocks away!


  • 30 August 2013 at 9:21am
    Dhubfitz says:
    I wonder if the musical includes this passage from Theory of Justice:

    "Imagine someone whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas such as park squares and well-trimmed lawns. He is otherwise intelligent and actually possesses unusual skills, since he manages to survive by solving difficult mathematical problems for a fee. The definition of the good forces us to admit that the good for this man is indeed counting blades of grass, or more accurately, his good is determined by a plan that gives an especially prominent place to this activity..."

    When I read that I thought, That's me. Probably a lot of other readers do too.