Friday, August 14, 2009

Rawls' religion, revisited

Paul Weithman, a Notre Dame philosopher who writes consistently engaging and important work on ethics, philosophy, and religion, ran across our discussion a while back about the publication of John Rawls' senior thesis on religion. (To be clear, I still haven't read that work.) He thought that blogreaders might be interested in his review of the volume. An excerpt:
As Adams notes, Rawls's reading of Augustine "is neither persuasive nor fair". (p. 43) This difficulty with the critical part of A Brief Inquiry raises a question that would be asked about this book anyway, the question of why Rawls's senior thesis is interesting enough to publish.

Though the ambition, systematicity and achievement of the thesis are extraordinary for someone in his early twenties, A Brief Inquiry would not have been worth publishing if Rawls had not later accomplished what he did. Nor would the thesis hold the interest that it does if the subject matter were not so surprising. Rawls's doctoral dissertation was on a philosophical rather than a religious subject. As far as I know, there are no plans to publish it; if the dissertation were published, it would be the object of far less fascination -- and would elicit far less comment -- than Rawls's undergraduate thesis.

Unlike Rawls's dissertation, A Brief Inquiry fascinates because it shows that someone whom many philosophers thought they knew well through his published work once had a very different intellectual and spiritual life. The thesis also extends a tantalizing invitation to engage in counterfactual history. Reading it in conjunction with "On My Religion" does not exactly convey the poignancy of a lost innocence that might have been kept, since there is very little innocence in A Brief Inquiry. Rawls was well aware of the war he was going off to fight after graduation and of the "demonic" character of the foe against whom it was being waged. (p. 197) But if innocence was not lost, deep religious conviction was. We cannot help but wonder how differently a great man's life would have gone had the events of mid-century affected him otherwise.

Not all readers are tantalized by counterfactual history. Even those who are not are bound to experience some pleasure in finding familiar Rawlsian ideas -- such as the natural lottery and the rejection of merit -- in unexpected places. (p. 240) Further, those who know Rawls's work well may be interested to learn that claims they find puzzling were present in Rawls's thought from the start, rather than accepted later on the basis of arguments that can eventually be recovered from his mature writings.


A Brief Inquiry may anticipate some of Rawls's later claims and arguments. But are we really going to read Rawls's later philosophical work differently in light of his undergraduate thesis?

The answer depends in part upon who "we" are. Among scholars of religious ethics, Rawls is often read as defending a thoroughly secular liberalism. That he defends secular liberalism, and does not systematically engage religion in his published works, is thought to show that he is dismissive of it or antagonistic toward it. Furthermore, his dismissal of or antagonism toward religion is assumed to be rooted in his ignorance of it. A Brief Inquiry definitively refutes the charges of ignorance and dismissal. "On My Religion" puts to rest the charge of antagonism. Acquittal of these charges clears the way for a much more sympathetic reception of Rawls's work by religious ethicists who were previously suspicious or hostile.[8]

What publication of the thesis offers all readers of Rawls -- and not just religious ethicists -- is a helpful corrective to some common interpretive errors. The Rawls of Theory of Justice is sometimes read as having ranged widely if not self-indulgently over problems in ethics that are only loosely connected to political philosophy, especially in Theory of Justice, Part III. Moreover, some readings of Rawls's move from Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism treat that move less as a transition than as a rupture caused by a fundamental shift of concern. Together, these two readings suggest that Rawls produced a body of work that, while hardly incoherent, lacks a unity of focus and underlying motivation. Those who read Rawls's work this way may find their reading reinforced by the addition of A Brief Inquiry to Rawls's corpus, since his political philosophy seems quite far removed from the self-described religious orthodoxy and evident piety of the senior thesis.

I believe, on the contrary, that Rawls maintained a disciplined focus on a few questions he took to be central. Continuities of concern and motivation tie his mature work together, and -- as Nagel and Cohen stress in their introduction and as Adams argues in his essay -- there are marked continuities between that work and A Brief Inquiry. Moreover, once we identify claims in Rawls's later work that are continuous with views he held very early on, we will be drawn to readings of justice as fairness that give those claims an importance or centrality they might not otherwise seem to have had. In this way, at least, A Brief Inquiry promises to change how Rawls is sometimes read and to blunt criticisms that are sometimes made.

Highly recommended.

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