The Mormon Rawls Project: Introduction

John Rawls is a prominent 20th century philosopher. While his work is well respected, it is also a great source of controversy. Much of this controversy is rooted in the fact that his work has forced those in the areas of moral and political philosophy to pay attention.

I was first introduced to Rawls my senior year at the University of Utah. My first reaction was one of confusion and frustration. It is tough reading. That semester, I read both A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). The later work on political liberalism reached out to me at first, partially because it was a bit friendlier read, but primarily because of Rawls argument that reasonable comprehensive doctrines (religious or philosophical worldviews) could accept liberal democratic principles of justice as the basis for a constitutional regime.

Rawls argues that his principles, known of justice as fairness, could represent the type of principles that reasonable world views could accept as part of an overlapping consensus. Rawls’ principles of justice are as follows:

1. Equality of basic liberties (a full range of basic civil and political liberties similar to those found in the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the US Constitution).

2a. Offices are open to all (equal opportunity).

2b. Economic arrangements must benefit all with the only acceptable inequalities of wealth be those that most benefit the least well off (this is known as the difference principle). This principle ultimately calls for and requires a radical for of economic and social equality.

Now I will be delving into these principles in more detail in future posts, but I was struck a decade ago with how closely LDS principles of agency and economic equality. In many ways, Rawls seeks to show that equality and liberty are not in opposition with each other, but they actually go together hand and hand.

Now the idea that Mormons could support a robust conception of civil and political liberty seems consistent with our deep reverence for the Constitution as a rights-protecting document. Now culturally and in practice, there might be some question as to whether Mormons actually have such a commitment. Yet, I think this would not negate the argument that Mormons reasonably could and should sustain equality of basic liberty.

The part of Rawls’ argument which is dearest to me is his argument for the difference principle (see 2b above). In many ways, this aspect of his argument is least palatable to most Mormons (and I argue that it is more radical than many assume) but in many ways it is even more supported by LDS scripture than modern ideas of individual liberty.

This project will lead to a series of posts here at FPR about Rawls and Mormon Thought. My next post will be a revised version of my first post at FPR dealing with the original position and the council in heaven. My intent is not to argue that Mormons should take a particular political philosophy, but to explain why this Mormon does.

This project is actually my dissertation, but I am hoping to gain insights from the erudite FPR readers who are willing to help me out. I would also like to share the method of my madness. Thanks.



  1. Awesome. Breath = bated.

  2. Very interesting. I have grown into liking your postings. Great job.

  3. I was hoping this would come up again, as I believe you posted on Rawls a while ago and I couldn’t think of anything intelligent enough to say in response.

    Can you clarify 2b? Maybe even provide an example?

  4. I’m very interested in seeing how this pans out. Good luck with it 🙂

  5. Can’t wait for the series.

  6. I am really looking forward to this. You’re a gentleman and a scholar, Chris, and there’s darn few of us left.

  7. Excellent. I’m looking forward to the series, Chris.

  8. I think perhaps the most compelling aspect of Rawls’ thought for Mormons is how strangely Mormon the veil of ignorance is. Justice as Fairness is grounded in a vision of the fair that derives from a thought experiment. Pretend you haven’t been born and you have no idea what your social position will be — economic class, sex, race, etc. Try to maximize your interests, using generally applicable public policy, without knowing where you’ll actually end up. Mormons, I think, are especially adept at imagining themselves in a pre-existent/pre-birth but conscious and intelligent state. The “veil of ignorance” is our mother’s milk.

    A helpful analogy for the economic difference principle is its political counterpart (Rawls himself presents this as a rationale). We are comfortable with differences in political power (i.e. we don’t demand a system in which all individuals are equally responsible for the articulation, execution, and interpretation of laws, but instead allow representatives, presidents, judges, etc., to perform such functions on our behalf), even very stratified differences, to the extent that those differences produce benefits for all citizens. Rawls understood the benefits of industrial capitalism in terms of wealth creation, poverty reduction, etc. But he was also cautious of its potential to engender insurmountable obstacles toward economic advancement for the economically disadvantaged, and argued that a political economy crafted from behind the veil would contain strong mechanisms for countering the disadvantages that would result from being born in a poor family. So he argues for things like high taxes on inheritance and a robust, well-funded system of public education that treats all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, equally.

    I think there are problems with Rawls, but this is compelling, compelling stuff. Especially for Mormons.

  9. Brad,

    Thanks for your comment. Rawls very much feels that markets have a place in a good society. But markets are not a good in and of themselves, they are only good to the extent that they achieve and advance other social goods. In many ways, most socialists, including John Roemer, have adopted this view of markets in advocating liberal market socialism. I am somewhat sympathetic to the critique of the late English socialist philosopher G.A. Cohen who felt the Rawls was too comfortable with market inequalities. However, I think that Rawls only tolerates inequalites to a very limited degree.

    The veil of ignorance within the original position is central to my interest (at least my interest in connecting these two parts of my thinking). Bushman and Givens have made remarks about this aspect of Mormon thought and Rawls. While I have thought of it since my undergrad days, their comments have encouraged me (without them knowing it) to pursue this line of study within political philosophy and Mormon Studies. I will be addressing the veil of ignorance further soon.

    All: thanks for the kind comments. Smallaxe: I will repond to you later today. I better get the daughter to pre-school.

  10. Chris, at BYU I took Contemporary Political Theory from Ralph Hancock, who is decidedly opposed to Rawls (although, if I remember correctly, he went to Harvard with the intention to study under him) — Rawls was the main theme of the course. He may be a good individual to contact for opinions on how Mormonism could be seen as opposed to Rawlsianism.

  11. Craig,

    Thanks. I am visiting (teaching for a year or two) Ralph’s department this year. He very much does not like Rawls’ theory. I think he audited a class from Rawls, though Hancock was in the government department and not philosophy where Rawls was.. Anyways, Ralph is part of my inspiration. He thinks that my argument does not work. So, I have taken that as a challenge. He is also very supportive and encouraging of me personally. His critique will most surely be vital to the success of my project, even in opposition.

    What do you think?

  12. Chris,

    Prof. Hancock introduced me to Rawls and therefore most of my reflection on the subject has been through the lens Hancock presented for me. My capstone paper there was a critique of Berlin’s two concepts of liberty using Rawls as an example in which negative liberty becomes positive. From the LDS perspective, the first troubling aspect was his exclusion of “unreasonable” religious beliefs from public discourse. (Sorry if this is vague — its been a while.)

    The second trouble that comes to mind, and the part of Rawls that leaves me undecided, is his malleable view of human nature (this is what Hancock seemed to object to the most in my recollection) — and belief that government can and should make people better or more just (this was my “positive liberty” argument, of course). On one hand is the classic LDS “Satan’s plan” analogy/argument against such an idea. On the other hand — what is so wrong with using government mechanisms to help people practice virtue and hopefully become better?

    I’m now in my second year of law school and the liberal legal bugaboo has gotten a bit of a hold on me. Or, alternatively viewed, I’ve begun to believe that many “liberal” political beliefs are more in line with the gospel than I previously expected. So I’m pretty excited to take another Rawls-based class next semester. I’m going to withhold conclusions until I’ve studied things more carefully and almost surely from a different perspective.

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