John Rawls: From His Religion to His Theory of Justice

Paul Harvey

From the ridiculous (see the subject of the last post) to the sublime: Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, "John Rawls, On My Religion," explores the ideas found in the recently unearthed Princeton undergraduate thesis (from 1942) of the supremely important political philosopher John Rawls. The article traces Rawls's early religious beliefs, his academic exploration of them, his (later) rejection of them, but the continued vital importance of them leading to his epochal work A Theory of Justice. Rawls provides as good a starting point as any to explore the philosophical connections between religious thought and contemporary philosophical liberalism. The piece concludes,

“On My Religion” may describe the first stage of Rawls’s change of view: his study of the history of the Inquisition in the early years after the war. His rejection of orthodox Christianity went hand in hand with his rejection of its long history of using “political power to establish its hegemony and to oppress other religions”. But he remained intent throughout his writing on showing that toleration did not depend on religious scepticism: that it was compatible with faith in the fullest sense.

In developing a specifically political form of liberalism, Rawls responds to the complaint that a liberal political outlook is simply the political department of a comprehensively liberal philosophy of life – perhaps a secular and sceptical rationalism – and therefore hostile to citizens of faith. Rawls disagrees; he believes that there are different routes, none preferred, that citizens may take to endorsing common political principles. “In endorsing a constitutional democratic regime, a religious doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty; a nonreligious doctrine will express itself otherwise.” What we learn from “the history of religion and philosophy” is that “there are many reasonable ways in which the wider realm of values can be understood so as to be either congruent with, or supportive of, or else not in conflict with, the values appropriate to the special domain of the political as specified by a political conception of justice”. In his last writings, Rawls attempted to formulate his views on political justification using a concept of public reason. He meant by this a common space of political argument that could be inhabited with comparable ease by reasonable adherents of different religious confessions and moral positions. Like all of his work, this proposal has attracted strong opposition. But its motivation, like the motivation of his liberalism in general, does not come from devaluing religion, but from an understanding of its ultimate importance.

Harvard University Press will be publishing this early and heretofore unknown work of Rawls, together with a lengthy introduction; the article quoted above is an excerpt of that introduction.


Paul Marks said…
So John Rawls went from worshipping God to worshipping the collective. A well trodden path for American "Progressives" - whether of the old "Social Gospel" form or the more recent "Liberation Theology" form. It goes back to German philosophy (even before Karl Marx) - and can be summed up by the words "the collective is God".

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