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Religious Faith and John Rawls

Among the things that people behind the veil of ignorance didn’t know was what Rawls called their own “conception of the good.” Such a conception determines people’s aims and interests and what they value, including their loyalties to people and institutions. They were well informed, by contrast, about general social and historical questions, and so they would know, for example, that many people have religious faiths, and that their faiths would be connected with different ideals of life, different conceptions of the good. As a result, each of us would want to design a system that made it possible to live by whatever conception of the good we happened to turn out to have.

Notice that the Rawls of A Theory of Justice doesn’t assume that people in the original position know there is one correct conception of the good. On the contrary. If we did know the right account of the good, we should presumably want to design a society that gave people lives that were good according to that conception, just as, presumably, we should want to rely on the correct economic theory, rather than aiming to produce a society that would be satisfactory to people whatever economic theory they happened to have.

The young Rawls, by contrast, had not just a personal conception of the good but a conviction that he had the correct such conception. On that conception, each human personality depends on a community for its moral development. But that dependence on community does not mean that we are dissolved into society. Rather, “true community…makes…personality possible.” As a result, the young Rawls argued, “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.” Granted that sin, for the young Rawls, derives largely from our desire for superiority to others, political institutions will have the task of shaping people to treat each other as equals.

In denying the occupants of the original position access to a personal conception of the good, Professor Rawls claimed to be starting from assumptions that were “widely shared and yet weak.” But his own Brief Inquiry shows that there are some—intelligent, well-educated, morally serious—people who do not share the assumption that we can get the right account of politics from an argument that rules out appeal to a substantive conception of the good. The purportedly methodological abstinence from appeals to conceptions of the good in the original position looks like it simply begs a question against views like the one he had once held himself.

In Political Liberalism, however, the story has changed. Now, the ideals to which Rawls appeals are supposed to be derived from the shared consensus of democratic citizens with differing conceptions of the good as they are held in their own time and place. In this respect, both A Theory of Justice and the Brief Inquiry—one appealing to the universal truths of reason, the other to the eternal claims of Christianity—stand apart from Political Liberalism.

In Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition, James Kloppenberg, one of America’s foremost intellectual historians, persuasively argues that this transition in Rawls’s work reflects a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals. Kloppenberg’s own endeavor, in surveying the work in political and legal theory that seems to have shaped President Obama’s thinking, is to argue for the coherence, the Americanness, and the plausibility of Obama’s approach to politics and to the Constitution.

I am not sure that the words of a politician who has never written a work of political theory should be invested with quite the resonance that this book finds in them, however intellectually gifted the forty-fourth president may be. But you do come away from the book reminded of the centrality of Rawls’s work, and with further reason, therefore, to be interested in his intellectual development, not least the intellectual vectors that culminated in his late theories about political legitimacy and public reason.

In Political Liberalism Rawls argued that, in discussing constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, citizens, qua citizens, ought to avoid appeals to controversial religious and philosophical claims. Before, a conception of the good played no part in thinking behind the veil of ignorance; now, elements of our private conceptions of the good are to be kept at bay even in real life. So legislators, judges, presidents, and mayors ought to rely only on public reasons, reasons that appeal to the shared stock of public values and shared methods of arriving at truth. Voters, too, in deciding what people or policies to support, ought to ask themselves whether there are adequate public reasons for their choices. And we all should do this not because the law requires it—Rawls was in favor of very broad freedom of political speech—but out of a sense of respect and “civic friendship” toward our fellow citizens.

As a result, in these basic matters, there would be no reliance on what Rawls called “comprehensive doctrines,” which cover “the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner” and draw on “a tradition of thought and doctrine.”5 For, given the difficulty of finding our way to the right answers on these questions (which Rawls called the “burdens of judgment”), reasonable people would recognize that other reasonable people would not share their views. Rawls truly thought that, when it came to thinking about matters of fundamental justice, a liberal was, as Robert Frost used to say, someone “too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Much happened between the Brief Inquiry and the mature work: Rawls got a graduate education in modern analytic philosophy and spent a good deal of time thinking about questions of method in moral argument, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. But he also lost his religious faith. In this country, many people seem to believe that religious faith is a prerequisite for moral seriousness. (In a 2002 Pew Research Center poll, 47 percent of subjects said that you had to believe in God to be moral.) Americans are inclined to share Ivan Karamazov’s belief that if God is dead, everything is permitted. What John Rawls exemplifies in a particularly dramatic way is how moral seriousness survives the loss of faith. I mentioned earlier that Rawls’s religion was not troubled by the skeptical doubts of metaphysical naturalism. And perhaps it is not so surprising, as a result, that when he left his Christian convictions, it was a moral argument that moved him.

In “On My Religion,” an essay that Rawls wrote at age seventy-six and that is printed along with the Brief Inquiry, he reports three moments in his loss of faith, all of them connected with his experience during the war. In the first, he was appalled by a Lutheran chaplain who preached that God was aiming “bullets at the Japanese” while protecting Americans from Japanese fire. Private Rawls courageously upbraided the padre, a first lieutenant, for these “falsehoods about divine providence.” The second was an episode in which, as a result of an arbitrary contingency, a friend (“a splendid man”) with whom he had shared a tent was chosen over him for a mission that proved fatal. And the third was hearing about the Holocaust. “How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?” And he went on:

To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as…hideous and evil.

I know there are paths around this conclusion. But I confess I find something bracing in Rawls’s straightforward refusal to take them.

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    John Rawls, Political Liberalism, expanded edition (Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 59. 

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