It had been known for some time that during his last two undergraduate years at Princeton, John Rawls had immersed himself in Christian theology and considered studying for the Episcopal priesthood. More recently, a professor in Princeton’s religion department stumbled on Rawls’s senior thesis, “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An interpretation based on the concept of community.” This discovery moved two noted philosophers, John Cohen and Tom Nagel, to explore possible links between his youthful theological speculations and his mature political philosophy. They make a plausible case that many of the doctrines for which Rawls later became so well-known were prefigured in his early religious commitments, which he abandoned after military service in World War Two.
These finding raise a number of intriguing issues. If it turns out that early faith commitments constitute the unexpressed but indispensable basis of Rawls’s thought, then one may wonder whether there are other grounds on which those of different faiths, or no faith at all, can affirm the validity of his conception of justice as fairness. (This would then be an instance of what Rawls called “overlapping consensus.”) Alternatively, it may be that portions of Protestantism are tributaries flowing into the sea of what Rawls called the public culture of a democratic society--the professed basis of his political theory.
It would be hasty to conclude that A Theory of Justice is a secularized version of American liberal Protestantism (in the same way that Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is more than secularized Pietism). Still, one has to wonder whether the residuum of religious belief helped Rawls affirm the basics of his philosophy with more confidence than he otherwise could have mustered. Otherwise (and more bluntly) put: Rawls’s religious background may account for the aspects of his political philosophy that I and many others find oddly other-worldly.
Let me give an example. Rawls famously, and controversially, rejected merit as a basis for distribution. Not only are our natural endowments unearned and beyond our control; so too is their development and use: “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.” Cohen and Nagel find a theological version of this thought in the senior thesis. “There is no merit before God,” Rawls wrote, “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.” And more: “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.”
Now it is possible to argue that we are all equally meritless sinners in the eyes of God (although it is hardly the case that all religions and theologies concur on this point). But does moral equality before God imply equality of merit before our fellow men? Should a God’s-eye point of view structure human relations here on earth? In the world as we experience it, some people work harder to develop and exercise their gifts than others, some people are more responsible than others, and some people contribute more to the general welfare than others. If we think of ourselves as contributing nothing to these results, for good or ill, then the core of human liberty and personhood vanishes. To live human lives, we must assume that we are more than dependent variables, more than the passive outcome of external forces, whether material, social, or divine.
Another example: Rawls defines sin as the “repudiation of community,” because the essence of sin--pride--distorts human relationships. There’s something to this, of course, but it represents a truncated understanding of pride--and of sin itself. What about the story of Babel, where a united humanity seeks to usurp the place of God? What about Milton’s Satan? Rawls seems to be saying that we sin against God if and only if we sin against man. I have neither the knowledge nor the standing to criticize this assertion from a Christian perspective, but I’m reasonably confident that most Jews would reject it. As Jews are reminded every year at Kol Nidre, oaths sworn to our fellows are one thing, oaths before God quite another.
The point is even broader: many theologies affirm a vertical relationship with God that does not pass through our horizontal relationships with one another. An understanding of God as the supreme object of human desire guided Augustine and Aquinas, and also Maimonides, arguably the greatest religious thinker Judaism has ever produced.
Although these reflections might appear wholly theological and without import for political philosophy, Cohen and Nagel point out that Rawls’s communal, interpersonal conception of sin foreshadows his endorsement of a morality “defined by interpersonal relations rather than pursuit of the highest good.” It points to the fragile underpinnings of a political morality that pays so much attention to fairness and so little to other purposes that animate human beings and the communities they form.
There is a thread of almost utopian optimism running through Rawls’s writings. In the senior thesis he argued that in politics as well as theology and ethics, the problem is one of “controlling and ridding the world of sin.” Controlling, of course; but “ridding”? Sin is here to stay, I’m afraid--a proposition I would have thought even a lapsed Protestant should be able to affirm. In his maturity, Cohen and Nagel report, Rawls could still write that if a reasonably just society is not possible, one might appropriately wonder whether “it is worthwhile for human beings to live on earth.” That’s true only if one stands very far away from lived experience, I’m afraid. Human beings can and mostly do find satisfaction and meaning even in desperately oppressive and unjust circumstances--in family and friends, in the arts and sciences, in religious faith and worship. Human life is more than community, and community is more than justice.
Many of Rawls’s students regarded him as a secular saint, and he may well have been. But judging from the writing of his youth, the aspects of his bearing that made him so compelling as a teacher and human being were rooted in a religious sensibility that made it impossible for him to approach politics on its own terms. Even at its best, politics cannot be a branch of moral philosophy, or a kind of rational choice, or the product of deliberations among reasonable people. While politics is not without norms and standards, it must reflect the nature of the human species as self-interested and passionate as well as reasonable--and as capable of destruction as well as cooperation. Political norms and standards must also take into account the distinctive difficulties of collective action and the means sometimes needed to enforce compliance. If we look at political life from too high an altitude, we can no longer see it as it is.
William Galston is a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.