Philosophy Weekend: Singing Out For John Rawls

A musical play about ethical philosophy called A Theory of Justice, loosely inspired by John Rawls’s book of the same name, is causing a mild sensation after opening in Oxford and Edinburgh. Written by four Oxford students named Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, Tommy Peto and Toby Huelin, the musical is apparently a spirited spin through the history of ethics, focusing on the debate between Rawls and Robert Nozick and featuring appearances by Plato, Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Benthan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Immanuel Kant. A symbolic female figure named “Fairness” (she is singing a duet with Rousseau in the photo on this page) provides an anthropomorphic representation of John Rawls’s favorite concept, signalling the fact that these Oxonian playwrights are Rawlsians, or something close.

If the musical ever plays on Broadway I will surely see it, and until then I’ll have to satisfy myself with an interview by Nigel Warburton and a lively review by Glen Newey in London Review of Books, who says this:

Rawls’s [A Theory of Justice] 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.

I watched the play’s trailer and listened to some excerpts from the songs on iTunes. I’m very impressed with the concept, though the jury’s still out about the music. My own Platonic ideal of musical theatre is a lot closer to Pal Joey or The Fantasticks than Cats, but this is British musical theatre and therefore shows a strong Andrew Lloyd Webber influence. We know what this means: grand melodies, big vocal crescendos — and a complete absence of jazz or syncopation. (But then, this is the problem with British musical theatre, not specifically the problem with A Theory of Justice: The Musical).

The song excerpts I’ve heard are bright and funny, though I fear the humor may be corny. For instance, Ayn Rand’s vamp number is played in a Russian style, reflecting her accent and the circumstances of her birth, but this doesn’t reflect anything about Rand’s thoroughly pro-American philosophy, and is too obvious a joke. I have no idea why Immanuel Kant would be a transvestite. A barbershop quarter made up of Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick and the utilitarian Mills, pere and fils does not harmonize with as much technical skill as the barbershop quartet in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. That classic musical shows by example that four-part harmony, like ethical philosophy, is not as simple as it looks. I hope the music in A Theory of Justice: The Musical is as good as the concept. I will have to see it to find out.

And what of John Rawls’s ethical philosophy itself? The great argument between John Rawls and Robert Nozick encapsulated between Rawls’s 1971 book A Theory of Justice and Nozick’s 1974 rejoinder Anarchy, State, And Utopia is certainly a keystone of modern ethical debate. I have never been particularly drawn to the professorial approach of either Rawls or Nozick, as I’ve never been drawn to the project of proving anything at all about ethical philosophy through academic channels. It appears to be the mission of John Rawls to guide a liberal, progressive and humane ethical philosophy through the treacherous narrow channels of scholarly debate. It appears to be the mission of Robert Nozick to counter this by pointing out the ways that individual freedom may always stand in possible opposition to community-oriented progressivism.

To the extent that Rawls vs. Nozick maps out the major fault line in current ethical philosophy, I stand on John Rawls’s side — however, I tend to prefer a psychological approach to ethics to a legalistic one, and on this fault line I find that both Rawls and Nozick stand on the same side. I certainly wouldn’t try nearly as hard as John Rawls has tried to define the word “justice”, or any other word. This seems to me a pointless way to approach the problems of ethical philosophy.

But it’s not pointless, I suppose, if it leaves audiences happily humming the scenery after a fun night of musical comedy. I hope this interesting theatrical experiment will eventually open on Broadway so I can check it out. If any of my overseas readers have seen A Theory of Justice in Oxford and Edinburgh, please do tell us how you liked it.

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