Galston’s Response to A Brief Inquiry #rawlsreligion

William Galston’s response to A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Faith and Sin (Rawls 2010), offers a number of interest takes on Rawls and his work in general. However, it also shows a number of the misinterpretations on the part of Galston.

“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.” (Galston 2009)

Here Galston touches on something important. Can the philosophy of Rawls appeal to people those outside of liberal to moderate Chrisianity (and its secular offshoots) within a liberal democracy? Galston has his doubts. However, Rawls and his concept of political liberalism goes to pains to include those that might not share the East Coast sensibilities of those like Rawls. But Galston is not alone in viewing Rawls as overly optimistic about the possibilities of political liberalism given the real tensions and clashes between worldviews.

“It would be hasty to conclude that A Theory of Justiceis a secularized version of American liberal Protestantism (in the same

William Galston (Brookings)

way that Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is more than secularized Pietism).”  (Galston 2009)

As with Kant and Pietism, I would say that Rawls is not secularizing American liberal Protestantism. However, the similarities are not mere coincidence either. In particular, it shows that Rawls’ thought clearly has roots in liberal theology. Yet, his thought is also a rejection of that earlier thought as much as it is a secularization of it. While the moral principles are similar, the philosophical justification is significantly different.

I think that in taking into account Rawls’ explanation for leaving religion behind, one might say that this is an example of what Rawls calls in A Theory of Justice reflective equilibrium. Many of the egalitarian principles remain, but the religious foundation fails to support those principles for Rawls, particularly in light of both his personal experiences and significant world events. This is a consistent theme of Rawls’s earlier work (1951) though A Theory of Justice (1971) where Rawls focuses considerably on moral psychology. While this is not what he is popularly known for, it makes up a significant portion of A Theory of Justice.

“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.”  (Galston 2009)

I think that this is where Galston and other Straussians (Bloom 1990) make a mistake when interpreting Rawls, in particular A Theory of Justice. Justice as fairness is better understood if it is viewed as moral philosophy rather political philosophy. Take A Theory of Justice, for instance. Its primary stated purpose is provide an alternative to Utilitarianism. It does more than just that, but it is seeking knock Utilitarianism off of the high perch that had within moral philosophy at the time. Rawls focuses particularly on Henry Sidgwick and this is significant because Sidgwick is the most rigorous and systematic of the classic Utilitarians when it comes to Utilitarian moral philosophy. Rawls is not so much concern with the ideological tradition, but the philosophical school itself.

Rawls is in dialogue throughout A Theory of Justice with Kant, Hume, and Sidgwick. While he is developing a social contract theory in the supposed tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant…the inclusion of Kant as a social contract theorist is telling here. I am not disputing that Kant is a social contract theorist. However, within political theory and political philosophy “the social contract tradition” would most likely be viewed as primarily viewed as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Kant is primarily a moral philosopher who touches on issues relevant to the political realm, directly in his theory of peace and less directly in the concepts of freedom and human dignity found within his deontological moral philosophy.

Now, Kant does have a political philosophy. Yet, it is his moral philosophy that is of most influence, both in general and to the Rawlsian theory of justice. Kantian autonomy is dominant within A Theory of Justice. While Rawls moves away from Kantian autonomy in Political Liberalism, it is still very much present.

“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”?”  (Galston 2009)

While there is a utopian optimism in all of the writings of Rawls, the notion of ridding the world of sin is something which he moves away from in later works. In some ways, this is why justice is a social virtue in Rawlsian justice. Rather than focusing on righteous individuals, we are focusing on just institutions. While community plays a heavy role in Rawls’ religious thought, justice is not about making righteous or just communities either. It is only a virtue of institutions. Now individuals and communities shape those communities. However, the only thing we can control are those institutions. Hence, the sense of justice which we hope to cultivate is aspirational for sure, but it is far from the idea of ridding the world from sin.


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