Authors Note: This is not an essay/post about Glenn Beck. The ideas below have been bouncing around my head since Fall 1999 when I was first introduced to the philosophy of John Rawls.
This is not about the crass politics of talk radio, but instead about a philosophical debate which dates back to Plato. In particular, this argument is one deeply rooted in the works of Rousseau, Hume, and Kant.
The following is still in a rough form. It represents the notes I used for my presentation at the Society for Mormon Theology Conference last month. Feel free to point out typos.
Themes related to social justice and social equality can be found in a number of places in the Book of Mormon. A challenge in applying such principles to today is that the communities found in the Book of Mormon were small, tribalistic theocracies. While the spiritual messages of ancient scripture seem relevant to us today, what about the socio-economic messages?
Attempts to craft contemporary arguments about political economy within Mormon thought have placed heavy emphasis on the early communal experiments of modern Mormonism (Arrington 1958, Arrington, May, and Fox 1976). These studies, however, are more focused on nineteenth century communalism than they are an argument about equality or the redistribution of wealth.
Warner Woodworth has attempted to use the Mormon concept of Zion to craft an approach to business ethics (Lucas and Woodworth 1999). In this work he addresses primarily the business applications of the idea of Zion, but he also addresses the differences (as he sees it) between the concept and the theoretical approaches to political economy of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. He has also used the Book of Mormon account of utopia in the Book of 4 Nephi to argue for a concept of socio-economy which is based on social cooperation (Woodworth 1994). While Woodworth makes passing reference to Amitai Etzioni, the communitarian sociologist, this is still does not approach a serious interpretation of distributive justice.
This last essay by Woodworth is similar in style (though much briefer) to the arguments about wealth and economics found in Approaching Zion by Hugh Nibley (1989). They both make interesting arguments using ancient scripture. Nibley, in particular, makes
arguments using the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament to critique concepts of greed and inequality in modern society. The primary weakness of Nibley’s works is that while they are deeply rooted in scripture and other ancient texts, they lack any form of systematic analysis. That said, Nibley does serve as an inspiration for much of the argument that follows. In particular, Nibley blasts the idea of desert as it pertains to wealth as being inconsistent with Mormon Scripture.
In analyzing the themes of equality and distributive justice found in the Book of Mormon, I want to borrow for the theoretical toolbox of Thomas Aquinas. In his writings on virtue, Aquinas uses the secular writings of Aristotle to give structure and analytical rigor to scripture, in particular the discussions of virtue found in the epistles of Paul.
While Aquinas injects heavy doses of Aristotle into his entire treatment of Christian/Catholic theology, my project is far more modest. I will be using the theory of distributive justice of John Rawls as a means of analyzing elements of distributive justice found in the Book of Mormon. The hope is that in using an analytical theory like that of Rawls to expound upon scripture, it can form the basis of a Mormon conception of distributive justice. This is the start of that project.
In looking at the question of distributive justice in the Book of Mormon from a Rawlsian perspective, I will be looking at three areas: justification, equality, and desert.
Justification and Justice as Fairness.
While fairness may not be something commonly found in the world, we can imagine what the conditions of fairness might appear like. This is what Rawls does when he introduces the original position (OP). The original position is a hypothetical situation where representatives come together to determine the principles of justice that will govern the basic structure of society (the basic structure being the political and economic institutions which impacts ones life-chances). It is these principles that would guide the development of a constitution and further development of law and policy.
In order to ensure that these principles are chosen under fair conditions. Rawls introduces the device known as the veil of ignorance. The
veil of ignorance prevents the participants from knowing the particulars of their own situation and standing in the world. They are unaware of their own wealth, gender, race, and geographical situation. They are essentially stripped of the knowledge that might lead than to pick principles of justice which benefit themselves or people like themselves rather than principles that benefit all and which could be accepted by all.
They are not completely ignorant for they are aware of, if not knowledgeable about a range of topics including law, economics, psychology, science, and sociology. In other words, they are aware of the facts needed to understand the human condition. They know that there is wealth and poverty but what they do not know is whether they themselves are poor (or rich).
Susan Moller Okin argues that while Rawls’ theory is “sometimes viewed as excessively rationalistic, individualistic, and abstracted from real human beings,” it should instead be viewed as a “voice of responsibility, care, and concern for others.” We can find this to be the case in the original position. Since the parties are referred to as mutually disinterested it may seem that the construct is overly rationalistic and individualistic. However, Okin argues that this would be a misreading or misunderstanding of the original position because “Rawls does have to rely on empathy, benevolence, and equal concern for others as for self, in order to have the parties come up with the principles they choose, especially the difference principle.” Rawls addresses this when he says that the “combination of mutual disinterest and the veil of ignorance achieves the same purpose as benevolence. For this combination of conditions forces each person in the original position to take the good of others into account.”
Rawls emphasizes that the veil of ignorance does not impose benevolence because such a “strong condition” is not needed. Instead, what the veil of ignorance does is require the participants to consider others in their deliberation about the principles of justice. While rational self-interest plays a part in such deliberations, we are not aware of which “self” we are because of the conditions of the veil or ignorance. Okin goes as far as to say that the veil “is such a demanding stipulation that it converts what would, without it, be self-interest into benevolence or the equal concern for others” While Rawls shies away from the term benevolence, Okin argues that the veil of ignorance at least delivers a concern for others with the power of benevolence. I fully agree with Okin’s interpretation of the original position. While the original position may incorporate certain elements of rational self-interest, the primary purpose of the original position construct is to arrive at principles of justice which go beyond the mere pursuit of self interest. Since the parties are unaware of their own particular situations, the only way in which one can look after one’s own self-interest is to look after the interests of all equally.
One critique of the original position approach to determining the principles of justice is that of Michael Sandel. He questions the value of making judgments about justice, particularly if justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as Rawls claims, without an awareness of the common good. Here Sandel is drawing upon Aristotle who places a major emphasis on the common good determining our political destiny. However, I think the Sandel is getting ahead of us. The principles of justice are the common good, in that the original position provides us guiding principles that are in the good of all: the common good. While justice as fairness is neutral as to the “good life,” it is heavily committed to a conception of the common good, though it does approach the concept from a different perspective.
While Rawls’ argument for a liberal democracy may not seem to have much relevance to the council is heaven, his idea of an original position does. The council in heaven, like the original position, is a gathering where the rules (and in both cases, we are talking more about broad principles than detailed rules) that govern human existence are decided upon. Additionally the participants in the council in heaven are unaware of their fortunes like those in the original position. The notable exception, at least according to traditional LDS thought, being that they would likely have been aware of our gender in the council in heaven. In the original position, the participants would be aware of gender distinctions, but for the purposes of the moral exercise would not be aware of their own.
It is unlikely that at the time of the council that we would have been aware of their geographical destination, wealth, or race (these three things all being intertwined). Along these lines, I would argue that those at the council choose agency out of principle and not out of self-interest, the type of outcome that Rawls’ original position would hope to accomplish.
In the original position, the choice is primarily between liberal egalitarianism (Rawls), utilitarianism, and other forms of social/political justice. In the council of heaven, the choice is between moral agency and moral coercion. Like most liberal theories, Rawls’ thought sides heavily with moral agency and individual freedom (usually along the lines of what is known as Kantian autonomy). As Rawls’ work develops, he distances himself from his Kantian roots, though many critics think that he falls to do so in a very significant way. However, this leads me to wonder whether the LDS idea of agency could be compatible with Kantian autonomy.
It has been pointed out to me that one difference between the council in heaven and the original position, is that not everyone in the council agrees with the outcome. One-third strongly reject it. However, this is not how I look at it. I would argue instead, that while not everyone in the council gathering accepted the outcome, the significant aspect is that everyone on earth agreed with it.
Both Richard Bushman and Teryl Givens have pointed to the similarlity between the LDS conception of the council in heaven and the original position (with the veil of ignorance) of Rawls.
Principles of Justice
Rawls concludes that the participants would choose the following principles:
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.
I was struck a decade ago (while a junior at the University of Utah) with how closely LDS principles of agency and economic equality are compatible with Rawlsian justice. Rawls seeks to show that equality and liberty are not in opposition with each other, but they actually go together hand and hand. Ed Firmage argues that Mormonism does likewise (Firmage 1976).
The First Principle
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. I will leave this question aside for the purposes of this paper.
The first principle of justice is an absolute one. It is rooted in the conviction that certain rights cannot be violated for any reason, even if for the supposed good of society. This goes back to the initial motivation for the project which resulted in A Theory of Justice, namely to find an alternative to Utilitarianism as the dominant moral approach to political community.
These basic liberties are those liberties which are vital to the pursuit of one’s conception of the good. They include civil liberties like the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. They include civil rights such as protections against unlawful arrest, search, and torture. They also include political rights such as the right to vote, but also the right to be part of the political process by belonging to a political party of running for office.
My focus for this paper is on the distributive justice aspect of Rawls’ theory and how in intersects with Mormon thought. However, I think that it is important to emphasize that Rawls gives special priority to these liberties. They cannot be violated for any reason. Additionally, Rawls felt that a more egalitarian economic scheme would reinforce political liberties, which can be undermined by the bulk of weath resting in the hands of a few.
The Difference Principle
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 has more similarities with LDS scripture than modern ideas of individual liberty.
The difference principle gives us one example of how the distribution of wealth should look like. For Rawls, inequality is only acceptable to the extent that it improves the lot of the most disadvantaged within a political community. This means that we do not assume that inequality benefits all (like some form of trickle-down economics), but instead demand that it does. If not, it is undesirable and unjust.
Rawls have drawn criticism on the difference principle from socialists like Gerald Cohen who wonder why Rawls would so quickly abandon inequality, particularly if equality is a positive thing. This stems from the fact that Rawls is not opposed to equality, but that he thinks that inequality serves a positive purpose to a certain extent. If incentive and competition can lead to greater innovation and productivity, there will be a greater pool of wealth to redistribute. For Cohen, if incentives like greater personal wealth are needed to get the wealthy to sustain such an arrangement, it does not seem likely that they would seriously sustain any sort of egalitarian arrangement.
For Rawls, there is reason for both the disadvantaged to sustain the difference principle over equality and the well-off to sustain the difference principle over conditions of more drastic inequality. For the disadvantaged, moderated inequality has the potential to create conditions where, with distributive justice, the most disadvantaged can be better-off than they would under conditions of equality.
Jacob, the Book of Mormon prophet, laments in a speech to his people that their blessings of great wealth and prosperity have caused them to become prideful, even to the point that they “persecute [their] brethren because [they] suppose that [they] are better than the[ir brethren].” (Jacob 2:13)
This encroaching Social Darwinism, the idea that one’s wealth is somehow a sign of natural or even spiritual superiority, has been a challenge to Christians throughout time. Pride not only causes problems for the prideful, who begin to view their wealth as a result of their own effort instead of the providence of God, but also undermines the possibility of community.
One of the best descriptions of the dangers of inequality to Christian community, and I would assert any communtiy, is in the Book of Mormon. In 3 Nephi 6, we read about the condition of the Nephites around the time of Christ. Then, as in Jacob’s day, as well as during the industrial revolution or the 1990s, some achieved great wealth, while others were left behind.
(3 Ne 6:12) And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches. Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God. And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land…
This great inequality in the land undermined the church, because the people no longer viewed themselves as one. They could not view themselves as all part of the body of Christ. The challenge of inequality to social cooperation is one that is not limited to faith-communities, but is also found in political communities and economic systems. This idea has roots in the work of Rousseau who emphasizes that the social contract cannot be truly viewed as a mutual agreement if the society is marked with extreme disparity.
Rawls argued that extreme economic inequality undermines the real possibility of equal democratic citizenship. The reason for this is that the drastic gap between the very rich and the rest of us creates two types of citizens, with the rich having a much greater control over the political process because of their wealth.
How do we fix this? Taxes? Public ownership of the means of production? Jacob takes a different approach to answering this question. What we really need is not a different way of thinking about wealth. Instead we need to re-evaluate how we view our fellow human beings.
Jacob says that we should think “of [our] brethren like unto [ourselves].” If we do, then it will follow that we will “be familiar with all and free with [our] substance, that they may be rich like unto [us]” (Jacob 2:17)
I have long valued the second part of this verse, which speaks of giving to others. In particular, it clarifies that the goal of giving is not simply to keep the poor from starving but to bring them up to the level of everyone else. Of course, this is the stuff that stands out to me because my main interest is theories of distributive justice, However, I had failed to give adequate attention to the first part of this verse which says that we should think “of your brethren like unto yourselves.”
Ultimately, the obstacle that keeps us from adequately addressing our most pressing economic and social problems is our inability to see others as ourselves. Theorists of deliberative democracy have called this reciprocity, the ability to put ourselves in the position of others. Rawls referred to this as our capacity to treat others as free and equal citizens. From a Christian perspective, we must ask ourselves whether we view all human beings as valued children of God.
If we are instead driven by pride, we turn our backs on others and worry only about our own interests. I have my job, why should I worry about those who are unemployed? I have my health insurance and can afford it, why should we change it? Now, even these responses can be viewed as irrational, since everyone would benefit from a more affordable health care system. However, we seem prone, in our pride, not only to keep what is ours but also to get satisfaction out of the fact that others do not. This type of pride is the most dangerous, because we not only want more, but we also want to have more than everyone else.
If we are able to view others as like unto ourselves, the greatest benefit will be a greater ability to work together. Currently, we too often work against each other. We cannot work toward the common good.
Another key point of Rawls’ argument about distributive justice deals with the idea of desert. Do people moral deserve their place within society. Do the well-off somehow deserve to be rich? Have the most disadvantaged somehow earned being poor? Rawls strongly rejects the idea that ones place within a society is deserved. Our status along the range of economic, social, and political inequality is the result of many factors, the primary factor being where we are born and to whom are we born to.
Social Darwinism has evolved in many was to a sort of Moral Darwinism. Our status is not the result of natural superiority, but instead it is rooted in whether or not we made the proper moral choices. I think that we sometime extend this argument by claiming that our place in this world is the result of our valiance in the pre-existence.
I side with Rawls on this, largely because I view such arguments as defenses of the current state of inequality which have little evidence on their side.
I view King Benjamin’s discussion of the beggar as the ultimate Mormon discourse on desert and wealth. Hugh Nibley spoke much on the topic as well. By his own admission, Nibley was drawing upon King Benjamin.
Mosiah Chapter 4:
16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need ; and ye will not suffer that the “beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just-
18 But I say unto you, 0 man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent ; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay ; he has poured out his “Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then, how ye ought to aim part of the substance that ye have one to another.
This idea that we are all beggars is egalitarian is the sense that it views all people as needing God for these existence and wealth. Whether you are wealthy or poor, our existence depends on God. To claim that one deserves wealth, denies that God made it all possible, claimed Nibley.
For Rawls, desert in relation to wealth denies, not God, but the conditions which lead to economic well-being or disadvantage. In particular, ones wealth or poverty is heavily determined by whether one is born into such conditions. Additionally, wealth (or any form of economic well-being) cannot be accumulated or maintained without a stable and peaceful society. Rawls argues that such peace and stability can only be sustained over time if all feel that they are benefiting from the arrangement of social cooperation. Such an arrangement would be one consistent with principles of justice.
Of late, attempts to define social justice have been over simplified. My goal here has been to show that the concerns and principles of Rawlsian social justice can be found within Mormon thought, particularly in the Book of Mormon. This is not an attempt to claim that such common themes constitute an endorsement of my political economic agenda. However, I do feel that it shows that those who claim that gospel principles endorse right-wing conceptions of libertarianism are not the only ones who can find a basis in scripture and our theology.
Additionally, I reject the idea that there is a single form of exact government or economic system that has the divine stamp of approval. The attempt to justify the world around us as somehow natural or divinely instituted has been a mistake made by many great ones, even Aristotle. However, it is a flawed and unreasonable attempt to construe custom and tradition as truth. But politics and economics are not about truth. They are practical pursuits which should be aimed at advancing human liberty and well-being.
I am a Rawlsian liberal. I believe in the Book of Mormon. I am very happy to be both.