To do any credit at all to the field of environmental justice, it is necessary first to catch up with philosophers and political theorists who, at least since John Rawls’s important Theory of Justice (first published in 1971, since revised), have dominated the literature in that realm. Rawls argues that justice is best understood as the appropriate division of social advantages. His real innovation was in describing what that appropriate division is. To do that, he offers a thought experiment: one should abstract away one’s particular strengths and weaknesses, and one’s place in the overall social scheme, and under those strictures decide how best one would organize the society in which one would want to live. Under that condition of ignorance about one’s own position in society, he argues, one would choose social institutions that respect the rights of each individual equally, and that would treat social and economic inequalities as justified only insofar as they benefit everyone, and particularly the least well off. In his later Political Liberalism, Rawls expands this idea to show that classical liberalism is compatible with political pluralism, or the competing, apparently inconsistent values that exist across a society. Rawls revised and updated many of his ideas in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, edited by his student Erin Kelley. Here, Rawls gives special attention to the role of the Kantian notion of public reason as potentially distinguishing political positions from divergent philosophical or moral positions. The importance of Rawls’s innovative position cannot be overstated, and this literature is important reading for anyone interested in developing or considering a position regarding applied theories of justice. In Rawls Sam Freeman provides a concise outline of the development of Rawls’s ideas through these three works. Rawls attempted to apply this theory to global, cosmopolitan political structures in his final book, The Law of Peoples.
As a central figure, Rawls has been criticized from every perspective. A well-known critic of Rawls’s Theory of Justice is Robert Nozick, who, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, contradicts Rawls’s claims that the state has an interest in promoting equality. Rather, Nozick argues, the state’s involvement should be minimal, limited to roles such as policing violent crime, maintaining national defense, and protecting contracts. To do any more, Nozick argues, risks violating a person’s fundamental rights of property and liberty. Marxist critics of Rawls include Gerald Cohen, who in Rescuing Justice and Equality argues that internal commitments by Rawls are inconsistent with his view that economic inequalities are just if they benefit the least advantaged; rather, Cohen argues, applying those provisions to individual choices and actions requires a much more equal distribution of social goods than Rawls would have accepted. Important feminist critics of Rawls include Susan Okin, who, in Justice, Gender, and the Family, argues that major political theories of equality, such as those of Rawls and Nozick, ignore the dynamics of the home and family or, worse, assume that traditional family roles are unjust.
It is important to think about these issues, since it is impossible to have a comprehensive theory of environmental justice without first having a theory of justice. Though not all or even most of what follows agrees with Rawls’s dominant position, or intersects exactly with these critics, most of it is influenced by the model of distributive justice inherited from the literature written in the forty-five or so years since Rawls first published Theory of Justice.