Galston On Rawls (Wonkish)

As I wrote last night, I have been reading John Rawls’ undergraduate thesis. Having almost finished it, I wanted to say a few words about William Galston’s article on it, because I think it’s wrong in several respects.

Rawls’ thesis was written during a period in which he was intensely religious, and it shows. His first basic presupposition is that “there is a being whom Christians call God and who has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus”. (Having been an undergraduate in the same department at the same institution forty years later, I tried to imagine turning in a thesis with this basic presupposition. My head exploded.) Galston notes this, and writes:

“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.”

This is true. But it’s not clear, to me at least, why one might think that Rawls’ early Christianity, which he had abandoned long before he published A Theory Of Justice, would turn out not just to illuminate that work (which it does), but to be indispensable to it — to call into question the extent to which non-Christians could accept it. For that to be the case, the arguments in TJ would have not just to be informed by Rawls’ experience of religion, but to require religious presuppositions. And it’s not clear why one would think that that is true.

Galston’s main example is this:

“Rawls famously, and controversially, rejected merit as a basis for distribution. Not only are our natural endowments unearned and beyond our control; so too is their development and use: “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent on happy family and social circumstances.” Cohen and Nagel find a theological version of this thought in the senior thesis. “There is no merit before God,” Rawls wrote, “Nor should there be merit before him. True community does not count the merits of its members. Merit is a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of.” And more: “The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit.”

Now it is possible to argue that we are all equally meritless sinners in the eyes of God (although it is hardly the case that all religions and theologies concur on this point). But does moral equality before God imply equality of merit before our fellow men? Should a God’s-eye point of view structure human relations here on earth? In the world as we experience it, some people work harder to develop and exercise their gifts than others, some people are more responsible than others, and some people contribute more to the general welfare than others. If we think of ourselves as contributing nothing to these results, for good or ill, then the core of human liberty and personhood vanishes. To live human lives, we must assume that we are more than dependent variables, more than the passive outcome of external forces, whether material, social, or divine.

In TJ, Rawls is concerned with what he calls the ‘basic structure’ of society, by which he means a society’s major social, political, and economic institutions. The basic structure sets up what you might think of as the rules by which people in a society live. And Rawls wants to know: by what criterion should we decide whether the basic structure of a society is just? When he “rejected merit as a basis for distribution”, what he said was that we should not judge the distributive effects of a given social structure based on whether or not they reward merit, or moral desert.

Note that because Rawls is only talking about the basic structure, nothing he says implies that an individual or a company might not decide to compensate people on the basis of merit, or for that matter in any lawful way they see fit. As I said, the basic structure sets the basic rules within which individuals operate; the criteria by which we decide whether the basic structure is just do not necessarily apply to individual decisions made within that framework.

Why does Rawls deny that we should judge the justice of the basic structure based on its tendency to reward merit? Well: Rawls thinks that the basic structure is just if it meets the criteria that we would choose in what he calls ‘the Original Position’. In the Original Position, people do not know various particular facts about themselves, and in particular do not know their own moral views. If they don’t know their own moral views, they cannot know what they will take merit or moral desert to be, and will therefore not be able to agree on one. Nor will they find the idea of relying on the majority view in their society appealing, since they might turn out not to share it. They will think that once they have agreed on a set of rules, people who are entitled to something under those rules (e.g., because they have fulfilled their side of a contract) should get it. But that is different from saying that they should be rewarded for their merit or moral desert.

(This is a good thing, at least if you like markets. Markets do not reward merit. You can work very hard on what you have every reason to think is a good idea, and it could just fail to catch on, and you could go bankrupt. Alternately, you could come up with some utterly dumb idea that catches on, like Pet Rocks, and make millions. It might even catch on not due to your massive efforts at marketing and publicity, but due to some utter fluke, like your sitting next to Oprah Winfrey on a plane, entirely by accident. Markets are like that.)

The basic problem with taking distribution according to merit or moral desert to be a criterion of the justice of the basic structure is that you have to ask: who gets to decide what merit is? There is no agreed-on sense of ‘merit’ available to the parties in the Original Position. Nor would they be likely to entrust someone else (the government?) with the task of determining who deserves what, if ‘deserves’ means not ‘is entitled to under the rules of the game’, but ‘deserves on account of his/her sterling character’.

This is an argument that stands or falls on its own. (I think it stands.) But it has absolutely nothing to do with Rawls’ argument about merit in his undergraduate thesis. That argument concerns not the basic structure, or any aspect of justice at all, but rather the question: are we saved by grace, or by works? Should we regard salvation as God’s reward to us for being good — as something we can earn — or should we think that if we are saved, it is due to God’s grace, which enabled us to make whatever efforts we might have made? Rawls says: it’s grace.

This is completely different from any view about how to assess the basic structure of society. One way to see just how different is to note that the reasons why one might think that distribution according to desert is a bad idea are completely inapplicable to God. I said above that the problem with taking distribution according to moral desert to be a criterion of the justice of the basic structure is that you have to ask who gets to decide what merit is. Obviously, there is no problem with God’s deciding who deserves what. He is, after all, omniscient. He knows exactly what moral desert really is, and moreover since He knows each of our inmost hearts, He knows exactly who is deserving.

Nor is there any problem with “entrusting” Him to make this call: He is, after all, perfectly good, and not liable to the kinds of corruption that afflict humans. If anyone could distribute things according to desert, it would obviously be God. And yet, reasons best known to Himself, He has chosen to let the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.

The general point is: once you stop to think about these two positions, one from Rawls’ undergraduate years and one from much later, they don’t seem to have much in common other than the word ‘merit’.

Galston’s other example:

“Rawls defines sin as the “repudiation of community,” because the essence of sin–pride–distorts human relationships. There’s something to this, of course, but it represents a truncated understanding of pride–and of sin itself. What about the story of Babel, where a united humanity seeks to usurp the place of God? What about Milton’s Satan?”

I’m not clear what this is supposed to show about TJ. In any case, though, it misses Rawls’ point. God is a person. We can be in or out of community with Him. The repudiation of community does not mean only the repudiation of human community. We can also repudiate community with God, as Milton’s Satan and the builders of the Tower of Babel did.

What’s frustrating about this is that there are really interesting points of contact between Rawls’ undergraduate thesis and his later work, and Galston is someone I would have expected to have interesting things to say about them.

To my mind, the most interesting thing about the undergraduate thesis is this. Rawls takes Christianity to be, at its heart, about relationships. The kinds of relations we have to persons are, he says, completely different from the relations we have to things. We can be in fellowship with persons, dominate them, reason with them, and so forth; we want, or are repelled by, or use, things. Having thing-like relations to persons is sin; being in a community within which all persons can fully flourish, and being willing to open ourselves to the kinds of relationships that this involves (with humans and with God), is what God asks of us.

The interesting thing, to my mind, is not that some of his religious concerns turned up in TJ. It is that Rawls’ account of Christianity shows so many of the kinds of concerns that moved him in his later work. And while those concerns are not particularly remarkable in a political philosopher, it is striking to see some of them fully present when Rawls is considering another topic entirely.

Thus, there is nothing particularly odd about a political philosopher being concerned with the question: how can we construct a community within which all persons can flourish? That’s (one way to take) one of the central questions of political philosophy. However, defining Christianity as centrally concerned with the construction of community is not, to my mind, an obvious move. (Love, yes; the nature of community, no.) What’s striking about the thesis, besides the cast of Rawls’ mind and the glimpses of his twenty-odd year old self, is not how Christian his later work was (it isn’t), but how very Rawlsian his take on Christianity is.

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