Monday, March 23, 2009

Rawls's original position?

Via Tyler Cowen, here's a TLS review of (really an abridged introduction to) a book of John Rawls's religious writings. Yes, the arch-theorist of liberalism was a devout Episcopalian in his undergraduate years ... and as the article intriguingly suggests, his political theory seems at least compatible with, and perhaps influenced by, his earlier beliefs. Here's a snippet or two:
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”."

* * *

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”."
I've someone managed to avoid reading Rawls thus far, but it looks like I'm going to have to pick up Justice as Fairness ... or Political Liberalism ... or A Theory of Justice ... but which edition? ... noooow I remember why I haven't read Rawls yet.

... Maybe the solution is to read Freeman on Rawls?

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