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Public Theology: The Religion of John Rawls: An Anti-meritocratic, Egalitarian Conception of Distributive Justice
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The Religion of John Rawls: An Anti-meritocratic, Egalitarian Conception of Distributive Justice
This is an extremely interesting essay about one the foremost political philosophers of our times. Thomas Nagel is the second author of this.

By Joshua Cohen

When John Rawls died in 2002, there was found among his files a short statement entitled “On My Religion”, apparently written in the 1990s. In this text Rawls describes the history of his religious beliefs and attitudes towards religion. He refers to a period during his last two years as an undergraduate at Princeton (1941–2) when he “became deeply concerned with theology and its doctrines”, and considered attending a seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood. But he decided to enlist in the army instead, “as so many of my friends and classmates were doing”. By June of 1945, he had abandoned his orthodox Christian beliefs. With characteristic tentativeness and a disclaimer of self-knowledge, Rawls speculates that his beliefs changed because of his experiences in the war and his reflections on the moral significance of the Holocaust. When he returned to Princeton in 1946, it was to pursue a doctorate in philosophy.

Friends of Rawls knew that before the war he had considered the priesthood, but they did not know of any surviving writings that expressed his religious views from that period, and “On My Religion” does not mention any. Not long after Rawls’s death, however, Professor Eric Gregory of the Princeton religion department made the startling discovery that just such a document was on deposit in the Princeton library. “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An interpretation based on the concept of community” is Rawls’s senior thesis, submitted to the philosophy department in December 1942, just before the accelerated completion of his bachelor’s degree. The thesis is an extraordinary work for a twenty-one-year-old. The intellectual force and moral and spiritual motivation that made Rawls who he is are already there.

Those who have studied Rawls’s work, and even more, those who knew him personally, are aware of a deeply religious temperament that informed his life and writings, whatever may have been his beliefs. He says, for example, that political philosophy aims at a defence of reasonable faith, in particular reasonable faith in the possibility of a just constitutional democracy; he says that the recognition of this possibility shapes our attitude “toward the world as a whole”; he suggests that if a reasonably just society is not possible, one might appropriately wonder whether “it is worthwhile for human beings to live on earth”; and he concludes A Theory of Justice with powerfully moving remarks about how the original position enables us to see the social world and our place in it sub specie aeternitatis. Religion and religious conviction are also important as themes within Rawls’s political philosophy. For example, his case for the first principle of justice – that of equal basic liberties – aims to “generalize the principle of religious toleration”. More broadly, his theory of justice is in part a response to the problem of how political legitimacy can be achieved despite religious conflict, and how, among citizens holding distinct religious views, political justification can proceed without reference to religious conviction.

These concerns lie at the heart of Rawls’s later account of political liberalism. Rawls’s own attitudes towards religion and their development over time are thus of extraordinary interest, both personally and for the understanding of his thought. The undergraduate thesis and the later reflections are relevant to such understanding in two different ways. First, they display the profound engagement with and knowledge of religion that form the background of Rawls’s later views on the importance of separating religion and politics. Unlike many liberals, Rawls was not the product of a secular culture. Though his Episcopalian upbringing was, as he says, only conventionally religious, everything changed during his last two years at Princeton. He developed the religious convictions so vividly expressed in the thesis, which conveys a strong sense of the reality of sin, faith, and the divine presence, and which has as its first “fundamental presupposition” that “there is a being whom Christians call God and who has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus”. Rawls’s emphasis throughout his mature work on the importance in the lives of the faithful of religious convictions – he describes them as “non-negotiable” and as “binding absolutely” – and the need for a theory of justice to take them seriously drew on his personal experience of religious faith.

Second, the moral and social convictions that the thesis expresses in religious form are related in complex and illuminating ways to the central ideas of Rawls’s later writings on moral and political theory. His notions of sin, faith and community are simultaneously moral and theological, and despite fundamental differences they prefigure the moral outlook found in A Theory of Justice. The main points of contact are these: (1) endorsement of a morality defined by interpersonal relations rather than by pursuit of the highest good; (2) insistence on the importance of the separateness of persons, so that the moral community or community of faith is a relation among distinct individuals; (3) rejection of the concept of society as a contract or bargain among egoistic individuals; (4) condemnation of inequality based on exclusion and hierarchy; (5) rejection of the idea of merit.

The most conspicuous discontinuity with the later work is the absence from the thesis of a political as contrasted with a purely moral conception of society. Ideas about rights, law, constitutions and democracy play no role in the thesis. More pointedly, there is no suggestion that conflicts of value and conviction are inevitable even among reasonable persons, nor is there any suggestion that we must put aside some of our most fundamental convictions to work out principles of justice – ideas that play a central role in justice as fairness, and political liberalism. Instead of seeing a conception of justice in part as a response to disagreements that are inevitable even under favourable social and political conditions, Rawls here says that the “chief problem of politics is to work out some scheme of social arrangements which can so harness human sin as to make the natural correlates of community and personality possible”. In theology, ethics and politics alike, the problem is “one of controlling and ridding the world of sin”.

Rawls maintains in the thesis that true Christian ethics is founded on a recognition of the fundamental importance of personality and community. It concerns the appropriate relations of persons to one another; moreover, these personal relations form a nexus, so that our relation to any one person resonates in our relation to others, including God.

Personal relations can be either positive or negative: they include hatred as well as love, envy and egotistic pride as well as fellowship among persons in community. Ethics and religion should be concerned not with the pursuit of the good but with establishing the proper form of interpersonal relations: community.

Taking up the historical framework of Anders Nygren, the thesis criticizes the infection of Christianity, through Augustine and Aquinas, by the ethical conceptions of Plato and Aristotle, according to which ethics is concerned not with interpersonal relations but with the pursuit of the good by each individual separately. In its hellenized form, Christianity treats God as the supreme object of desire. Rawls objects that this misses “the spiritual and personal element which forms the deep inner core of the universe”.

The idea that ethics is fundamentally a matter of ensuring appropriate interpersonal relations, rather than pursuing ultimately desirable ends, has close affinities with Rawls’s later view that principles of justice are not founded on an account of the good to be pursued but specify fair terms of cooperation among free and equal persons. His early opposition to a goal-directed ethical structure foreshadows his later opposition to teleological conceptions of morality, whether utilitarian or perfectionist.

Although Rawls makes only two passing references to Kant in the thesis, his conception strongly resembles the Kantian ideal that we should regard all persons as ends in themselves, and the totality of persons, human and divine, as a realm of ends. In Rawls’s later writings, the claim that “the right is prior to the good” expresses an avowedly Kantian conception of morality based on certain relations among persons, rather than on the relation of action to an end, even an end common to all persons. The right is not what maximizes the good, but what manifests an equal respect for all persons as separate individuals.

The moral importance of the separateness of persons, a fundamental theme of Rawls’s work, is strikingly anticipated in the moral and religious conception of community that lies at the heart of the thesis. Rawls proposes that the essential feature of human beings is our capacity for community, that sin deforms our essential nature and destroys community, and that faith is the realization of our nature through integration into community: our “openness” to God and other persons overcomes the terrible aloneness that issues from sin. Although the term “community” may suggest otherwise, the human fellowship in which we realize our nature does not destroy the separateness of individual persons, but is founded on an affirmation of their distinctness. Here is a revealing passage:

"We reject mysticism because it seeks a union which excludes all particularity, and wants to overcome all distinctions. Since the universe is in its essence communal and personal, mysticism cannot be accepted. The Christian dogma of the resurrection of the body shows considerable profundity on this point. The doctrine means that we shall be resurrected in our full personality and particularity, and that salvation is the full restoration of the whole person, not the wiping away of particularity. Salvation integrates personality into community, it does not destroy personality to dissolve it into some mysterious and meaningless “One”."

The importance of the separateness of persons is further expressed in the idea that we need bodies, and faces, in order to be able to communicate with and recognize one another. It is also essential for understanding the significance of the Incarnation, whose importance is that it establishes a direct personal relation between us and God.

Distancing himself from deism, Rawls emphasizes that natural religion or reason alone can tell us very little about God, and that community with God requires that he reveal himself to us in person.

The later, secular analogue of this conception of community as a system of relations that upholds the moral importance of separate individuals is found in Rawls’s opposition to aggregation, maximization and interchangeability of persons in moral and political theory. “The reasoning which balances the gains and losses of different persons as if they were one person is excluded.” That is because morality requires a certain relation to each person as a distinct individual, rather than to the aggregate of persons. To be sure, essential elements of Rawls’s account of individuals in liberal political morality are nowhere suggested in the thesis: for example, the idea that persons are self-authenticating sources of valid claims, with a capacity to form and to revise a conception of the good, and the capacity to take responsibility for their ends. Still, Rawls’s later insistence on the importance of the distinction between persons generalizes his claim in the thesis that personal relations are “I-thou” relations, and that the “thou” is not interchangeable.

The thesis does not offer much detail about the condition of fellowship and interpersonal openness that delivers us from sin and aloneness. In particular it does not present a worked out positive morality, either individual, social, or political. Nevertheless the thesis makes some strong negative points that are consonant with Rawls’s later views.

One of these is the attack on social contract theories, which the young Rawls understood as claiming that society is founded on a bargain among self-interested individuals. “The idea of justice expressed in the political theories of Hobbes and Locke, the view of Adam Smith that we best serve our fellow-men by enlightened self interest, are all false views of community. Any society which explains itself in terms of mutual egoism is heading for certain destruction.”

In his later work, Rawls is not a social contract theorist in this sense. His account of justice as fairness uses the idea of a contract under a veil of ignorance – which keeps us from knowing our class, sex, native talents, ambitions, race, or religion – principally as a device for representing the value of fairness and the equal freedom of moral persons. The well-ordered society of justice as fairness is not founded on a bargain; it is a social union in which institutions that express our social nature are valued as good in themselves. What attaches people to those institutions, according to the later Rawls, is not self-interest but an allegiance to principles of justice founded on respect for one another as equals. This respect is shown by a willingness to abide by principles that would be chosen under fair conditions in which individuals are assumed not to know their place in society or the particulars of their endowments or convictions.

The thesis also makes an important point against traditional social contract theories that was one of Rawls’s reasons later on for developing his own distinctive version, with the veil of ignorance: namely that persons are not persons apart from the social world that forms and sustains them. Therefore we cannot understand society as a contract among individuals whose aspirations and identities exist independently of it. Oddly, Rawls has sometimes been accused of ignoring the essentially social nature of persons. But he never advocated the sort of individualism that he criticizes in the thesis: as he says in explaining why his contract view has a distinctive shape, “not only our final ends and hopes for ourselves but also our realized abilities and talents reflect, to a large degree, our personal history, opportunities, and social position. There is no way of knowing what we might have been had these things been different”. Despite these similarities, however, the conception of community in the thesis is very different from justice as fairness. The thesis suggests that the problems of society could be overcome by controlling human sin.

Sin is defined as the “repudiation of community”. Egotism – the desire to dominate or exploit others – lies at the root of sin because it necessarily disfigures human relationships. The egotist worships himself and treats others as potential worshippers, all subservient, an audience for preening self-display. Egoism – understood as a concern with one’s own interests and projects – can also turn sinful, particularly when it is enlisted by egotism in the exploitation of others. But Rawls strongly resists the idea that sin is the result of natural desires, even egoistic natural desires: nature is good, he says, the body is the spirit’s temple, and the appetites are neither pro-social nor anti-social. All explanations of sin in terms other than the disfigurement of our own social nature – all efforts to blame “outside sources”, including our natural appetites – are variants on the Manichaean heresy.

Rawls seems to have believed that appropriate relations of community can only emerge, and will emerge, if egotism (and with it, deformed egoism) is brought under control. That requires God’s grace and efforts by the elect to bring others into a community of faith. A true community, he says, is “one integrated in faith under God . . . . It is the sin of one group which seeks to dominate another group that gives rise to the fear of communal dependence; but in community as such, and in the heavenly community, we have no such fear”.

The later Rawls was also concerned about egotism – more generally with the social damage wrought by a preoccupation with relative position. But he thought that a just society could forestall the damage by establishing “equality in the social bases of respect” – specifically, by ensuring equal basic liberties, establishing fair equality of opportunity, and allowing only those socio-economic inequalities that provided greatest benefit to the least advantaged. All of this could be achieved without conversion founded on grace or a community of faith. Moreover, in the social union of justice as fairness, citizens accept that conflicts of ultimate value are inevitable and that the most intractable conflicts are not egoistic or egotistic but are due to conflicting ideals. In Rawls’s mature theory the conflicting interests and ideals that create the need for a specifically political conception of justice are not an expression of sin, but the consequence of human reason and judgement working under favourable conditions.

Although this political aspect of Rawls’s later liberalism is absent from the thesis, the ideal of equality is very much present, expressed in the close association between egotism and pride, the cardinal sin. Pride seems to be understood here not – as in Milton’s depiction – as an aspiration to divinity and the root of rebellion against a divine order, but as a sense of superior worth to other persons, expressed in a demand for servile admiration. So understood, pride fosters more familiar vices like selfishness and a refusal to share, because possessions are a badge of superiority. Selfishness and the desire to accumulate possessions are based not in a morally unrestrained appetitiveness, or in simple indifference to the fate of others, but in a sinful embrace of the deformed personal relations of superior and inferior. This is the pride of the capitalist, whose egoism reflects a deeper, more destructive egotism.

Pride also leads to the formation of closed groups, which express and reinforce a sense of group superiority. There have been religious, economic and cultural closed groups, but now we are faced with a particularly virulent form of pride: “In Nazism we find that what condemns us or exalts us is what sort of blood we have in our veins. This last closed group is pride in its most demonic form” – demonic because in its wholehearted embrace of exclusionary egotism, it turns the root of evil into its own good. These comments of the young Rawls about Nazism prefigure his later remarks in The Law of Peoples that Nazism advances a “demonic conception of the world” and is in “some perverse sense” a religious view, offering salvation and redemption. Pride is not, however, the monopoly of the demonic. It is pervasive, and particularly likely to infect the upright, the law-abiding and the pious: “There is always a tendency to call the lower groups of society the worst sinners. The street-walkers, the beggars, the outcasts, the robbers and the drunkards are the usual scapegoats. The real sinners, however, are those who pride themselves on being otherwise”.

This brings us to a particularly striking continuity between the thesis and Rawls’s later views: the rejection of merit. One of the most famous and controversial claims of A Theory of Justice is that a just social order should not aim to distribute benefits according to desert. Rawls does not reject the idea of moral worth or merit entirely, but denies its suitability as a basis for determining distributive shares, or any of the other entitlements of persons in a well-ordered society. But it is not hard to detect a general sense that the factors usually thought to confer deservingness are not enough under our control to be the source of moral claims: “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent on happy family and social circumstances”. This view comes powerfully to mind when in the thesis we encounter Rawls’s opposition to Pelagian and semi-Pelagian doctrines about salvation. He sides with Augustine in denying that we can earn salvation by our own merit – by freely choosing virtue, or by works of any kind: “There is no merit before God. Nor should there be merit before Him. True community does not count the merits of its members. Merit is a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of”. This claim is theological, associated with an interpretation of divine grace. But consider the following passage:

"The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”."

These reflections, though linked here to revelation, can be given a purely secular significance, and they lead directly to the moral sensibility that underlies Rawls’s later anti-meritocratic, egalitarian conception of distributive justice.

As we have said, the ideas of pluralism and good-faith conflict among reasonable people are essential to Rawls’s liberalism, but absent from the thesis. Its ideal of community implies a degree of harmony and a universality of interpersonal regard that would make politics unnecessary, and perhaps justice as well – for both are concerned with collective decision in the face of conflicting interests and convictions. In Rawls’s published work, by contrast, the search for justice and legitimacy reflects the inevitability of such conflicts, even among people of good will. We cannot pursue a just society merely by eliminating sin, because justice is not a response to sin, nor to egotism, nor indeed a remedy for any human failing at all.

The recognition that political life presents a distinct moral problem is therefore a decisive break in Rawls’s development, and it would be interesting to know when and how it occurred. Rawls says in the Introduction to Political Liberalism (1993) that A Theory of Justice (1971) did not draw a distinction “between moral and political philosophy”. He was, however, concerned from early on with the special moral problems of political society. As early as his doctoral dissertation (submitted in 1950, and addressed to the role of reason in ethical argument), his philosophical work was animated by a sense of the political that is not evident in the undergraduate thesis. Thus he says in the dissertation that a “democratic conception of government . . . views the law as the outcome of public discussions as to what rules can be voluntarily consented to as binding upon the government and the citizens”. For this reason, he continues, “rational discussion . . . constitutes an essential precondition of reasonable law”, and an investigation of the “rational foundation of ethical principles” serves as “an addition to democratic theory, as well as to ethical philosophy”. The close association here of issues of philosophical ethics with concerns about public argument in a democracy marks a sharp departure from the view in the thesis, and anticipates the idea that justice as fairness is “the most appropriate moral basis for a democratic society”. Yet while Rawls came to see that a just society could not be a community “integrated in faith under God”, his personal knowledge and experience of religion were important for the formation of his later view, in particular his views about the kind of public reasoning that we could reasonably expect in a democratic society. Rawls’s liberalism, unlike that of many liberals who know very little about religion, is founded on a vivid sense of the importance of religious faith and an understanding of the difference between genuine and merely conventional religion. He knows what he is talking about when he says in Political Liberalism that the Reformation “introduces into people’s conceptions of their good a transcendent element not admitting of compromise”, that “this element forces either mortal conflict moderated only by circumstance and exhaustion, or equal liberty of conscience and freedom of thought”; and that political thought needs to understand “the absolute depth of that irreconcilable latent conflict”. By insisting on the importance of a terrain of political justification that is consistent with such ultimate commitments but does not depend on them, Rawls was not devaluing religion. On the contrary. The importance of liberty and of separating the state from religion is that they make possible the commitment of all members of a pluralistic society to common political institutions and a shared enterprise of public justification, despite their ultimate disagreements about the nature of the world, the ends of life, and the path to salvation. Such disagreement, he emphasizes, is not a disaster, but the natural consequence of reason’s exercise under free conditions.

“On My Religion” may describe the first stage of Rawls’s change of view: his study of the history of the Inquisition in the early years after the war. His rejection of orthodox Christianity went hand in hand with his rejection of its long history of using “political power to establish its hegemony and to oppress other religions”. But he remained intent throughout his writing on showing that toleration did not depend on religious scepticism: that it was compatible with faith in the fullest sense.

In developing a specifically political form of liberalism, Rawls responds to the complaint that a liberal political outlook is simply the political department of a comprehensively liberal philosophy of life – perhaps a secular and sceptical rationalism – and therefore hostile to citizens of faith. Rawls disagrees; he believes that there are different routes, none preferred, that citizens may take to endorsing common political principles. “In endorsing a constitutional democratic regime, a religious doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty; a nonreligious doctrine will express itself otherwise.” What we learn from “the history of religion and philosophy” is that “there are many reasonable ways in which the wider realm of values can be understood so as to be either congruent with, or supportive of, or else not in conflict with, the values appropriate to the special domain of the political as specified by a political conception of justice”. In his last writings, Rawls attempted to formulate his views on political justification using a concept of public reason. He meant by this a common space of political argument that could be inhabited with comparable ease by reasonable adherents of different religious confessions and moral positions. Like all of his work, this proposal has attracted strong opposition. But its motivation, like the motivation of his liberalism in general, does not come from devaluing religion, but from an understanding of its ultimate importance.

This essay appeared in The Times Literary Supplement on March 18, 2009. A longer version of this essay will appear as the Introduction to A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: With “On My Religion”, by John Rawls, to be published by Harvard University Press. The book will also include a commentary by Robert Merrihew Adams.

Joshua Cohen is Professor of Ethics in Society and Professor of Political Science, Philosophy and Law at Stanford University where he also directs the Program on Global Justice. Volume one of his Selected Papers is forthcoming. He wrote this essay with Thomas Nagel who is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. His books include Mortal Questions, which appeared in 1980, What Does It All Mean: A very short introduction to philosophy, 1989, and Concealment and Exposure: And other essays, 2004.

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Date Added: 3/19/2009 Date Revised: 3/19/2009

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