In ‘The Times Literary Supplement’ (subscription required) of March 20, 2009, the philosophers Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel have an article (“Faith in the Community”, pp. 12-4) about how religious and spiritual the thought of John Rawls was. The article is a shorter form of an Introduction to a book about Rawls – “A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin and Faith” – soon to be published by Harvard University Press.
Rawls, as I’ve said in previous Posts, came up with a philosophical ‘system’ in 1971 that became the underpinning of much of the ‘justification’ or at least intellectual ‘cover’ that was deployed to convince those eager-to-please Democrats (the Republicans still not an established ‘power Party’) to start seriously knocking down walls in the national Edifice. Much of that ‘creative destruction’ bore consequences that are still with Us (to put it nicely) today – and, I would say, are in no small part responsible for much of the train-wreck.*
Rawls was talking of becoming a priest in the late 1930s before he started college. He wrote an under- graduate paper in 1942 at the age of 21 that is the subject of the book and the Cohen-Nagel review. He went off to war and came back in June ’45 having lost his belief in Christianity “because of his experiences in the war and his reflections on the moral significance of the Holocaust” (a nice touch to connect with the waxing ‘Holocaust’ concern in America of the early 1970s as LBJ’s 1967 decision to weld Us to the State of Israel was starting to take hold).
Yet the reviewers assert that the paper demonstrates “the intellectual force and moral and spiritual motivation” which “made Rawls what he is”.
You wonder right off what the significance of a paper about his beliefs in 1942 could ultimately be, since he recounts that he had lost his belief by the time he came back from the war in June 1945.
Worse, I think, is that you start to think of ‘disillusioned’ believers who then take up politics. Stalin was a former seminary student, and the infamous Nazi judge Roland Freisler was a diehard Communist until one day he met the Nazis and suddenly became a diehard Nazi (and diehard enemy of Communism). There is a whiff of a disillusioned but molten mind and personality. There is also the strong potential for the ex-believer to abandon only his beliefs, while retaining the intensity and heat of his characteristic ‘need’ to be a ‘true and ultimate and heroic believer’ … in whatever it is that he adopts as his belief system. None of which bodes well for participation in a democratic politics (about which more below).
That uneasiness isn’t allayed when he says that philosophy can ground a “reasonable faith in the possibility of a just constitutional democracy” (nice enough, and inspiring) but that if such a society is not possible then it leads one to wonder whether “it is worthwhile for human beings to live on earth” at all. This feels wayyy to ‘hot’ to me, molten, liquid; sort of the kind of Ultimate Stakes that leads to ‘emergency thinking’, where the ‘emergency’ is so great that it will justify just about anything. Which, in an ominous irony, is precisely the type of thinking that led Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler to ‘do whatever it took’ in order to get control of a strong government so that they might respond to the ‘emergency’ by imposing their vision of the ‘good’ society upon everybody … or else.
Rawls seeks to get people to look at look at their social world and their place in it sub specie aeternitatis, which is an old Catholic theological concept that means ‘from the point of view of God’ (or ‘eternity’). It’s always a good mental exercise for the individual soul seeking deeper understanding of life-in-God’s-world, but that isn’t at all to say that it’s the basis for a philosophy of government, especially in a pluralistic democracy where lots of folks have different illuminations about God and the world. And it starts to feel like Rawls is going to be bringing his ‘religious method’ into what is supposed to be a governing philosophy of politics, and specifically American politics in the later 20th century. Are We going to wind up here with a “Christendom without Christ”? (You could imagine both Communism and Nazism as just such an undertaking, although with ‘The Leader’ substituting for Christ – and didn’t they used to call George Bush ‘The Leader’ in hushed and respectful tones?)
So if different folks have different visions of aeternitas, what then? You will have to impose some baseline ‘view’, whether you call it that or not. And Rawls winds up doing just that: he develops the “original stance”, which turns out to be essentially what Rawls thinks any right-thinking person in God’s place would think about life and politics. So Rawls will spin an entire ‘philosophy’ if you give him the benefit of the doubt. Those who do so will be the ones who ‘get him’ and ‘get it’, and those who don’t … well, there’s always the outer darkness for them, as Scripture (and ‘the Leaders’ hath often said). No wonder his philosophy quickly attracted numerous “disciples”, who had that certain look in their eye.
He’s concerned with “how political legitimacy can be achieved despite religious conflict (I imagine this means ‘conflicting moral values based on conflicting religious beliefs’) and how, among citizens holding distinct religious views, political justification can proceed without reference to religious conviction”. Well, it can’t be. You’re going to have to introduce some sort of ‘religious’ dynamic, dressed up as something else.
Yet, remarkably, Rawls will claim that it is tremendously important to “separate religion and politics”. But of course, he means ‘religion’ only in the sense of formal belief in a particular religious belief system (Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, and so on); the religious approach itself – this is what I believe and you are with me or you are not – will remain beneath the surface, hidden but verrrry active.
For he does insist that religious beliefs are “non-negotiable” and “binding absolutely” – which is precisely why the Framers, while presupposing that most citizens would believe, did not at all want the utterly unresolvable conflicts about which ‘belief’ is ‘true’ and therefore ‘must’ be allowed to define policy and law to gum up the works of constitutional machinery and fundamentally derange democratic politics.
Indeed, in his 1971 marquis book, ‘A Theory of Justice’, he is precisely looking to start from “a moral outlook”. But of course, what constituted ‘moral’ poses a huge question of definition, and that’s going to require an awful lot of deliberation to forge – if at all possible – a working consensus (there can never be an absolute and total ‘consensus’ in this world on such an non-material, ‘abstract’ concept) suitable to a democratic politics and polity. But then, if you’re addressing a ‘moral emergency’, you don’t really have the time to do all that deliberating. And if, on top of that, hot-eyed folks are using your ‘philosophy’ to justify large agendas of political and societal change that they want imposed right now, then ‘deliberation leading to consensus’ is not going to be the way they’ll go. Again, that spells serious trouble for a democratic politics and polity.
His main assumptions are: First, “a morality defined by interpersonal relations rather than by the pursuit of the highest good”. Sounds sorta nice, but that’s not enough. So human beings are not going to try to shape their lives on a quest to conform to the highest good (as best they can grasp it)? Instead, they are going to shape their morality on something of this-world: interpersonal relations. This is a Flattening of the remarkably sophisticated Western vision of existence that stipulates a higher dimension toward which humans could strive, in their personal self-development and in their societal development. You can’t ignore the activities and tasks of ‘this world’ (this dimension), but you can’t imagine that ‘this world’ is all there is – if you do, you are trapping yourself while at the same time denying that spiritual element of yourself that participates in a higher world, or a better world from whence human ideals originate. This is a lethal, a fatal, Flattening; to revert to it after the long struggles of humankind in the past millennia is not progress, but a massive regression.
Second, “an “insistence on the importance of the separateness of persons, so that the moral community or community of faith is a relationship among distinct individuals”. Each person is indeed separate, but each is also a member of a species (speaking in purely biological terms) and also shares a human ‘nature’; and in the Christian tradition (which helped shape the Western tradition) that ‘nature’ is dignified by its highest potential excellence and is also a reflection of the nature of the God who created it. You reduce people to such a profound ‘separateness’ as Rawls requires and they have nothing to connect them but ‘the things of this world’, again a Flattening and a desiccation and constriction of the horizon of human possibility in all its complex and mysterious possibility. But it’s convenient for ideologues looking to cut the rug out from under human communities and individuals; shorn of the strengths and hopes that Flatness has taken away, left only among ‘the things of this world’ human beings will be almost helpless before ‘the powers of this world’, which – come to think of it – is precisely what every revolutionary of the Left or Right has sought once the government has been taken over by ‘the revolution’. It’s also why the Framers very much did not want to squash citizens into a purely this-worldly definition of human activity and potential – it would give the ever-this-worldly ‘government power’ wayyyy too much room for “mischief”.
Third, “a rejection of the concept of society as a contract or bargain among egoistic individuals”. So there goes the “social compact” (kiss the Mayflower Compact goodbye). Individuals cannot come together and make their arrangements after mutual consensus, to the best of their abilities and according to their lights. No – so that would leave … government to do that for them, set the terms of the social structure? Well, if it’s a government that ‘gets it’, then Rawls would be quite happy. You can’t trust ‘people’; which was indeed a fear of the Framers – the ‘people’ might not reliably be up to being The People. But it’s also the view of Lenin and others, that most folks ‘just don’t get it’ and need to be led by enlightened ‘elites’ or cadres of the revolution. And while the Framers had their misgivings that people would always be up to the task, the great (so to speak) revolutionaries made it an article of faith and belief that ‘the masses’ were lumps and would never get it (and so would always need that elite vanguard to govern them as it saw fit). Oy.
Fourth, “condemnation of inequality based on exclusion and hierarchy ”. But the Framers realized that given the state of human nature as it had manifested itself throughout recorded history, there would always be ‘hierarchy’ of some sort. All the animal world separated itself into some sort of hierarchy, so some sort of hierarchy seemed built into the nature of things. But human beings were more than animals, and surely had potential that no human power could foresee or determine, so the Framers built in the concept of ‘equality of opportunity’, allowing space for humans to achieve what they might, to aspire. Greed and the lust for power would always lead some to take from others, and by Teddy Roosevelt’s time it was clear that ‘corporate’ wealth and the power it bought required the government to do something to ensure that the economic balance was not seriously deranged; he sought to regulate corporations and their wealth, as did his distant cousin Franklin 30 years later.
At the same time, across the pond, Lenin was taking Marx to an awful but ‘practical’ conclusion by making it an article of faith and belief, a historical ‘law’, that only government could ensure the distribution of material goods and wealth – but that didn’t work out so well, in the end, after stupefying blood and death were imposed upon entire populations. The Framers of the American approach, Lenin was sure, did not go far enough – and they didn’t, because they knew that they weren’t gods, nor would any human government ever reliably function as a benevolent deity. And they also knew that if you tried to squeeze humans into such a scheme, they would – it was part of their nature – eventually ‘push back’. So the Framers settled for a machinery to conduct an ongoing ‘balancing act’ and hoped (and prayed) that subsequent generations would be up to the task of handling the machinery well enough.
Fifthly, “the rejection of the idea of merit”. Well, if you can’t aspire to achieve and – yes, acquire stuff – then why get up in the morning? Stalin solved the ‘motivation’ problem by erecting a police state where ‘malingerers’ got a one-way ticket to Siberia; Hitler and Imperial Japan had ‘block wardens’ and spies and employers who were required to make sure that everybody worked hard on what they were told to work on, and all citizens were encouraged to report on anybody who didn’t. And children were ‘heroes’ if they reported on their parents. Lovely. “O brave new world, to have such people in it!”
And ‘excellence’? To strive to be all you can be? Why? Monks can do it, sometimes, simply out of love of God and humanity, or out of a desire to perfect the soul and the self – but the Framers rather shrewdly figured that most people weren’t up to being monks (they’d seen what happened when the Puritans tried it, and didn’t intend to go back to a Bible-police state). Rawls, I think, is heading toward a ‘Theory of Justice’-police state. I don’t see the progress here. I’m not feeling the progress.
Stunningly, Cohen and Nagel admit that “ideas about rights, law, constitutions and democracy play no role” in Rawls’s thesis. Lord, is this a man whose thought should be erected into a Plan by the national government of these United States? When ‘the vision’ takes precedence over law, constitutions, and democracy itself … isn’t this exactly what the Communist, Fascist, and other government-heavy visions demanded? And isn’t this the ‘religious’ dynamic that underlies all totalitarian visions: that ‘this’ vision (whatever it may be for the particular governing elite) must be accepted as absolute truth and you’ll get if in the neck if you disagree? Is it any wonder that We have seen so much ‘constitutional’ dysfunction in the past few decades? The Beltway is in thrall to this sort of thinking. And the law schools. And the universities. Go in hock so that you can pay 50 large a year so that your kids can ‘learn’ this?
Then they go on about Rawls saying that “the chief problem of politics is to work out some scheme of social arrangements which can so harness human sin as to make the natural correlates of community and personality possible”. Which is nice, but it’s pretty much what the Framers thought too. And they still made room for – fundamentally depended on – ‘rights, law, constitutions and democracy’. Which Rawls doesn’t. Indeed, he imagines that his ‘disciples’, suitably ‘educated’ and full of righteous zeal, will constitute an elite cadre that is ‘justified’ in doing an end-run around all that slow, inefficient, clunky machinery and just going for the ‘vision’ – imposing it, actually. Uncle Sam might be forgiven for ejaculating with Edward G. Robinson: Mother of Mercy, is this the end of little Rico? And at this point, so might We all.
“Ethics and religion should be concerned not with the pursuit of the good but with establishing the proper form of interpersonal relations: community”. Ach. So in the service of the Volksgemeinschaft religion and ethics should be willing to abandon anything not-of-this-world and just go with the approved flow. This frakking idea has been tried before. No wonder organized religion has been taking such a hit – as it has many times before, especially in the blood-soaked, very this-worldly 20th century.
And who will do the ‘approving’? Funny you should mention that.
Proceeding in a theological vein, the reviewers note that the theology of Anders Nygren decried the “infection of Christianity, through Augustine and Aquinas, by the ethical conceptions of Plato and Aristotle, according to which ethics is concerned not with interpersonal relations but with the pursuit of the good by each individual”. But Christianity has never held that seeking God was a zero-sum game: either God or interpersonal relations. Indeed, if God created all human beings, then to genuinely participate in the life of God is to participate automatically in the life of God’s children. It’s a tripolar circuit: Self-God-Others.
Rawls has followed Nygren down the inadequate path of bipolarity and feels that the zero-sum approach of an ‘infected’ Christianity misses “the spiritual and personal element which forms the deep inner core of the universe”. But it’s Nygren’s inadequate reading of Christianity that does that, not genuine Christian doctrine itself.**
“Christianity treats God as the supreme object of desire”. This, to Rawls, is wrong. Desire, in Rawls’s Flattened universe, is only appropriately aimed at the things of this-world. But the Framers accepted that they were only trying to put together a machinery for a workable human government in this life, and nothing more. They weren’t trying to build an alternative Church (blasphemy, that would have seemed to them) that would comprehensively encompass all of human desire. And if humans beings participate in some beyond-this-worldly ‘life’, then how can such desire be thwarted or refused? To do so would be a monstrous deprivation of the human birth-right.
And if God (however defined or conceived) is not present as a pole-star to illuminate the fogs and mists and dusts of this-worldly existence, then human beings have been knocked back further than even the cavemen. This is progress? This is Liberal? This will constitute grounds for hope and confidence?
Again, Rawls apparently believes that “appropriate relations of community can only emerge, and will emerge, if egotism is brought under control”. Well, that sounds right, and a fine theological and religious principle it is. But how does a government go about ensuring such a desirable state of affairs? Not without becoming a theocratic police state, I think. (And isn’t that what all the fuss with ‘Islamofascists’ is about?)
Achieving such a state of affairs “requires God’s grace and efforts by the elect to bring others into the community”. So far so Christian, and it’s nice to see a modern intellectual assert a positive and vital role for God’s grace. But it’s that “elect” that bothers: are We back to the Puritan polity here? And “elect” evokes “elite”, as in the elite Party cadres that ‘get it’. And is that wise? To combine the Puritan theocratic and virtuous police-state with the Flattened, materialist, secular totalitarian states of the Communist ‘left’ and the Fascist ‘right’? And, Rawls being Rawls, it also evokes the disciples who prove their elite-ness and elect-hood by having the wisdom to agree with him and accept his teaching. Ach. Oy.
“The thesis suggests that the problems of society could be overcome by controlling human sin”. Well, that’s hardly a new insight. Of course things would go better in this vale of tears if ‘sin’ were controlled. But how do you go about doing that? How does a government do that?
Marx suggested in effect that the greatest sin, and only sin, is economic and that a government should control the economy in the name of the whole people. Lenin took it further and said that only a vanguard elite can administer the government which rules the people toward the glorious end of economic fulfillment. Stalin simply defined sin as opposing the Party and the State and proved very adept at controlling that form of ‘sin’. Hitler went Stalin’s route, defining ‘sin’ as any opposition to the State that governed in the name of das Volk, and the marvelous Leader who governed that State (if he did say so himself). None of these illuminations offer much of value to a democratic politics grounded upon the transcendent dignity of its citizens as human beings created by God.
So I’m saying that Rawls is simply giving Us a Christianity without Christ, but with himself as His prophet. A secular Christendom.
Worse, he is saying that in the service of his great vision, the clunky and slow machinery of deliberative democratic politics and governance are merely obstructions to be gotten around.
No wonder We are where We are these days.
*In emergency room lingo, a ‘train-wreck’ is a patient with numerous injuries or problems, all of them serious and potentially lethal, that are so interlocked that if you try to solve one you will exacerbate one or several of the others. At that point, the doctors have no easy, perhaps no ‘good’, choices.
**Of course now, the Protestant Reformation went and removed the conductor from the orchestra and since then various of the instrument groups have tried to play the entire symphony at the beat and tempo they think best – so when you go after “Christianity” you have to do some clarifying right off the bat. Otherwise your simply blaming Beethoven because of the way the Podunk High School Band is playing his Fifth at the graduation ceremonies.