Rawls is widely recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. He was born in Baltimore in 1921 and went to Princeton as an undergraduate. He considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but lost his faith after his experiences fighting in the Pacific theatre in World War II. Eventually he ended up at Harvard where he taught for more than 30 years. Amongst his students are some of the leading names in American philosophy -- Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Neiman.
Rawls’s incredibly influential first book was A Theory of Justice published in 1971. Nearly 600 pages long, it has been translated into 27 languages. Only ten years after its publication a bibliography of articles on the author had more than 2500 entries. Personally, he was a modest and unassuming man but he became a one-man academic industry.
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempted to derive the fundamental principles of justice for a liberal, democratic political order from nothing but “our own considered judgments.” The first task he set himself was to express what the citizens of a liberal democracy already believe implicitly. To do this we must imagine ourselves deliberating under a “veil of ignorance,” that is, with no knowledge of the individuating particulars of history and biology, no knowledge of the age, sex, class, wealth, status, philosophical and religious views, etc. of our deliberating partners.
In this “original position,” we would discover the right principles of justice to which we could consent as free and equal citizens in the society in which we live.
Rawls’s critics pointed out that this notion of justice was the product of a particular, comprehensive worldview. Specifically, they discerned in his ideas a Kantian conception of human rationality and moral autonomy which is not shared by all citizens in today’s liberal democracies.
In his 1993 response, Political Liberalism, Rawls claimed to have articulated a theory of justice which is genuinely universal and acceptable from our present, pluralistic, political perspective. It is “political, not metaphysical,” that is, absolutely detached from any particular comprehensive doctrine, religion or secular.
The “new” Rawls contended that the principles of justice governing the coercive force of the government in a liberal democratic society like America must be based upon principles of justice to which every citizen could freely consent.
Since we do not agree about what the good for man is, these principles have to be derived from a political and not from a metaphysical conception of justice. It would not be a good for a powerful elite to establish utilitarianism, or Marxism, or Judaism, or Protestantism, Catholicism or even secular humanism as the official religion from which the principles of civil justice would flow.
Political Liberalism appears to deal with the fact of religious pluralism fairly and justly. Rawls assures us that it poses no threat to the integrity of religious belief: “Political liberalism does not question that many political and moral judgments of certain specified kinds are correct and it views many of them as reasonable. Nor does it question the possible truth of affirmations of faith. Above all, it does not argue that we should be hesitant and uncertain, much less skeptical, about our own beliefs.”
However, despite Rawls’s good intentions, his influence has been pernicious because it separates justice in society from the truth about man. It is fundamentally an attempt to shape an orderly society based on moral relativism. To show this let me examine the three main features of Rawls’s system: the “priority of the right over the good,” “reasonableness,” and “the inevitability of ideological pluralism.” These ideas are now firmly ensconced in American politics and culture.
The priority of the right over the good
Here is what Rawls means by the priority of the right over the good: “We should not attempt to give form to our life by first looking at the good independently defined... For the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it… We should then reverse the relation between the right and the good proposed by teleological doctrines and view the right as prior.”
If members of society accept this, Rawls believes, the danger of religious persecution, discrimination, or any other societal threat to one’s religious identity and integrity vanishes.
However, this is morally disastrous for individuals. Could one hold both the religious identity of Christian (or Muslim or Jew) and also the moral identity of an autonomous self who must “freely choose” the meaning of his existence? This would be a kind of schizophrenia. Christians and Jews believe that God loved us first, and so are morally obliged to respond to this love. They cannot choose otherwise and still consider themselves good persons. The theist’s “self,” then, is not chosen in arbitrary freedom, but recognized in grateful love.
The second major component of Rawls’s system is what he calls “reasonableness.” This is the primary public political virtue and the necessary complement to the primary, private moral virtue of the “right over the good.” Rawls writes: “What justifies a conception of justice is not its being true to an order antecedent to and given by us, but its congruence with our deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations, and our realization that, given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us”.
Rawls admits that there may very well be a God’s-eye view of things which is more ordered to justice than our strictly political (not metaphysical) conception of justice. But to establish this kind of revealed order in a religiously-pluralist society would be “unreasonable.” Even if the vast majority of citizens believed in it, it would still not be compatible with the political priority of the right. The priority of the right over the good is a political non-negotiable.
Reasonable persons, as Rawls puts it, “are not moved by the general good as such but the desire for its own sake a social world in which they, as free and equal, can cooperate with others on terms all can accept.” He continues: “A fundamental difficulty is that since under reasonable pluralism the religious good of salvation cannot be the common good of all citizens, the political conception must employ, instead of that good, political conceptions such as liberty and equality”.
What are we to make of this? For a “reasonable” citizen it might seem virtuous to proclaim the right of citizens to deny their religious faith, but vicious to proclaim the absolute good of unwavering adherence to it. It would seem more courageous to shout from the rooftops that the citizen who apostatises from his religion is still “reasonable,” than to shout the truth that God exists!
Rawls might respond by saying that one is not required to hold the priority of the right over the good in one’s private life but only in political life. Reasonableness is required of a person a citizen, not as a religious believer. These values need not have any place at all, let alone priority, in one’s sacred books or magisterium.
Here is an even more difficult question. Is a theist who believes that our nation should truly be under God reasonable? A consistent follower of Rawls would probably say No. If the right has priority over the good, a commitment to God’s commandments, in both private and public life, is “unreasonable.”
The inevitability of ideological pluralism
In the Rawlsian framework, the right-over-the-good is the irrefutable, theoretical first principle; the desire for consensus is the hallmark of a secular saint; and a belief in the inevitability of religious pluralism is the sign of the true believer.
Rawls writes: “The diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away; it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy… This pluralism is not seen as a disaster but rather as the natural outcome of the activities of human reason under enduring free institutions… A continuing shared understanding on one comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrine can only be maintained by the oppressive use of state power.”
Rawls is convinced that religious pluralism is the inevitable condition of a society that is just, that permits and promotes religious and political freedom. The absence of an agreed truth is the touchstone of a just political order and the triumph of the right over the good. To stay “reasonable” one would have to reject being “under God” in any real way—past, present, and future.
It seems to me that it is difficult to square Rawlsian pluralism with Christianity.
Surely if the Church could keep its members united on a specific conception of the good without unjust coercion for 2,000 years, a political order, if constituted by a vast majority of Christian citizens, could do the same. But once one denies a priori the possibility of justly managed, societal religious unity in truth, the historical fact of the Church’s religious unity begins to smell unjust. A Christian Rawlsian would feel obliged to subvert this unity and to reject the traditional Christian project of evangelisation.
A mirror of injustice
In a society which is becoming increasingly diverse, intellectuals are grasping for a guide to negotiate the reefs of potential conflict. For many of them, John Rawls serves as a pilot. He is often quoted by politicians and lawyers, and even by judges. I think that Judge Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic member of the United States Supreme Court, gave a good example of Rawlsian thinking in public in his opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” American academic J. Judd Owen unmasks Rawlsianism for what it really is: “The irony is that the proposal of the so-called religiously-neutral state as the only way to deal with deep pluralism itself establishes a religion and a set of values. This is the religion of liberalism.”
Thaddeus J. Kozinski is assistant professor of humanities and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College and the author of The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It.