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April 09, 2009


From my (rather limited) knowledge of Augustine of Hippo, I think there might be parallels to Rawls' conceptions of Christianity. One of Augustine's concerns was how to create a 'one-tier' Christian community and avoid the problems of Super-Christians (ascetics) looking down on ordinary Christians. I've seen it suggested that that is one reason for both Augustine's emphasis on God's grace and his argument that humans can never know who is saved and who isn't. (It's also why he defends marriage as good, even if not in a way that modern people are happy with). Robert Markus in 'The End of Christianity' (CUP, 1990) has a chapter on 'Augustine: a defence of Christian mediocrity', which might be a starting point for more on this.

I haven't read Rawls (I've got Freeman's book on order), but from the thesis excerpts I've read, I think the merit argument has another refutation. The thesis editors:

Rawls does not reject the idea of moral worth or merit entirely, but denies its suitability as a basis for determining distributive shares, or any of the other entitlements of persons in a well-ordered society. But it is not hard to detect a general sense that the factors usually thought to confer deservingness are not enough under our control to be the source of moral claims: “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”.

So "merit" can't mean "desert," because you don't *deserve* to benefit from factors outside your control.

And if "merit" is redefined as "value," well, value to whom? It can't be in the market sense, as Hilzoy shows. And it can't be "absolute value," or "value to the community as a whole," because there are no such values (or, at best, they are rare indeed).

"Merit" is a notion that collapses under scrutiny, which is why so many people have a vested interest in treating it as if it were self-evident.

I don't get the distinction between "the basic structure of society" and "nothing implies that an individual or company cannot decide..."

If the basic structure of society is, for example, that taller people are worth more than shorter people, would it follow that an individual or company might decide to reward shortness? What am I missing?

It seems to me if the basic structure of society is to not reward "merit", then individuals and/or companies that choose to do so would be "outside" of that society. In other words, it seems contradictory.

It seems to me if the basic structure of society is to not reward "merit", then individuals and/or companies that choose to do so would be "outside" of that society.

Oyster, as I understand it, a liberal society doesn't aim to realize a shared vision of "the Good"; it assumes that different people pursue their own ideas of what's good, and that these may indeed be irreconcilable.

So the aim is to create something like the "level playing field" one hears about, where everyone ideally would be equally free to pursue their vision.

So, if a corporation etc. wants to reward "merit" amongst its members, howsoever defined, it can do so, just as churches in that society can extol different ideas of "merit," etc.

Oyster Tea: Anderson is basically right. The idea is: Rawls' principles of justice should be used to assess the major institutions of society. E.g., should we have a Constitution that protects basic liberties? Yes. (Rawls' first principle.) Should we provide for public education, and try to make the education given to kids who are otherwise disadvantaged as good as possible, rather than tolerating massive inequalities (as we now do)? Yes (part 1 of the second principle: fair equality of opportunity.) Should we have progressive taxation? Yes (difference principle), so long as it does not remove incentives to work in ways that harm the least well off. (E.g., if we taxed the rich so heavily that no one became a doctor, started a business, etc., that would harm them.)

Those are large policies, and they set, as I said, the rules within which we all operate. We, however, can do whatever lawful things we want, within those rules. The Catholic church does not have to respect freedom of religion in its own internal affairs (e.g., in hiring priests) just because our country does. Companies can be hierarchical and non-democratic even though our country is a democracy. Etc.

I'm a undergraduate in a different department at the same institution, theoretically handing in my thesis in about two weeks. It TERRIFIES me to think that someone could be reading what I wrote 60 years from now.

Oh, and magistra: Rawls spends a lot of time criticizing Augustine. He thinks that the idea that God is an object of desire, in fact the supreme object of desire, involves having the kind of attitude towards God that we have towards things rather than persons. He takes Augustine's thought to be unduly influenced by the Greeks on this point. (Ditto Aquinas.) He is rather vehement on the subject. ;)

Though according to the editors of Rawls's thesis, he did agree w/ Augustine on the point nearer discussion:

This view comes powerfully to mind when in the thesis we encounter Rawls’s opposition to Pelagian and semi-Pelagian doctrines about salvation. He sides with Augustine in denying that we can earn salvation by our own merit – by freely choosing virtue, or by works of any kind: “There is no merit before God. 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”. This claim is theological, associated with an interpretation of divine grace.

Anderson: yes, completely. -- His attitude towards Augustine generally seems to be: how can he be so right about everything and yet so completely, infuriatingly wrong on The Most Important Thing Of All (other than belief in God itself)???

Well, desire played a pretty important part in Augustine's past; perhaps his conversion involved an erotic displacement towards God.

Will be interested to read the thesis, tho I'm going to start on Freeman (which book just came in between comments, how cool is that?). One reason I've never read Rawls is that I never knew where to start, so I'm turning to Freeman's highly-praised treatment instead.

Thanks, hilzoy -- what struck me most about Rawls' thesis was precisely what you get to at the end: his understanding Christianity as essentially about community and relationships. Not surprising -- that's a common strand in liberal protestantism of the 1960s -- but it's interesting that Rawls makes the case in such a TJ way. The communion of the saints, indeed.

I confess that I think Galston's essay is a disaster.

I don't agree with your reading of his "indispensable basis" argument. You seem to think it expresses the rather tautological, but at least supportable, claim that "if P is indispensable to Rawls's argument, people who don't accept P won't accept the argument." But that seems like far too trivial a point for Galston to be making ("duh" is the best answer to it), and it's phrased too weakly ("one may wonder") for something that's as obviously true as that interpretation.

It seems rather to be an instance of the genetic fallacy -- we should really read it as the claim "if P is indispensable to Rawls's thinking, it somehow casts aspersions on the argument." (Plug: I've elaborated this interpretation in some detail here) And it's not the only instance of the genetic fallacy in Galston's essay. See, for example, the bit about how some theological claim about our vertical relationship to god "points to the fragile underpinnings" of Rawls's theory.

"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."

I think this is all very Augustinian, though obviously not identical to Augustine. Cf. Augustine' distinction between "uti" and "frui," and more generally his focus on caritas. Humans for Augustine can be characterized as a bundle of loves, both rightly and wrongly ordered; the "rightly ordered" manifests itself w/r/t both God and other humans.

I was reading (early parts of) a recently published book the other night on Augustine and modern politics that argued, if I remember correctly, that modern liberal Augustinians have come in three flavors: those that emphasize love (preeminent example: Martin Luther King); those that emphasize hope (Reinhold Niebuhr); and those that emphasize justice (Rawls). I think seeing Rawls as a specific type of Augustinian, through and through, may make sense of the fact that the same guy wrote the early thesis (which I haven't read, I hasten to say) and his later works.

p.s. How awesome is it to have ethics folks hanging out together on a politics site? Thanks for this post, hilzoy. More wonkishness!!

The reviews mention that Rawls later "abandoned his orthodox Christian beliefs."
This made me think of Orthodox beliefs, which are not the same as the Episcopalian-orthodox beliefs which he presumably espoused. The Eastern Orthodox Christians have a very strong emphasis on community, that seems to me quite similar to Rawls' views. I wonder how much Eastern mysticism he had read ?

This rapidly disappears into theological infinitudes, but see for example

Doug K: he wasn't orthodox, but he wasn't Orthodox either. At any rate, he claims (in the later essay 'On my religion', from the same book) that in the years after the war he came to think that many Christian doctrines were "morally wrong, in some cases even repugnant. Among these were the doctrines of original sin, of heaven and hell, of salvation by true belief and based on accepting priestly authority. Unless one made an exception of oneself and assumed one would be saved, I came to feel the doctrine of predestination as terrifying once one thought it through and realized what it meant. Double predestination as expressed in its rigorous way by St. Augustine and Calvin seemed especially terrifying, though I had to admit it was present in St. Thomas and Luther also, and actually only a consequence of predestination itself."

Also, after learning of, and reflecting on, the Holocaust: "I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil."

"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.)"

I think that's because Christianity, in North America, has been viewed through the individualistic lens that is fundamental to our worldview.

Consider St. Paul, for example, who sometimes places "reconciliation" at the very heart of the Gospel message. It may be a reconciliation of God and humanity (2Co. 5) or a reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2). The latter construct is emblematic of all humankind being reconciled to one another.

Or consider Acts, which depicts the early church in Jerusalem as holding property in common, and speaks of a daily distribution of food to believing widows -- modelled on a similar practice among Jews.

I don't want to generalize too much. There is no agreement among scholars with respect to the essence of the New Testament message, or even the essence of St. Paul's doctrine. Indeed, scholars maintain that there were competing gospels in the first century.

I'm arguing only that there is a clear path to Rawls's conclusion that Christianity is centrally concerned with the construction of community. Stated the other way around, Christianity is not centrally concerned with the individual believer in splendid isolation with his or her God, though that's the way the Gospel is typically presented in our, very different, culture.

This counts as wonkish?

I studied political philosophy and ethics in undergrad; my career in law doesn't allow time for much philosophy now. But I really appreciate well written posts like this that are accessible to a generalist. I think this sort of wonkishness is good for civil discourse at a time where rants from Limbaugh pass for serious political thought in our country. Please do more!

Perhaps Rawls read Martin Buber's "I and Thou" as a youngster. I wonder if he cites it.

"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.)"

Stephen is too reticent; this is just wrong. Acts and the Pauline letters in particular are immensely concerned with the nature of communities. That is not controversial statement in biblical studies. Where exactly do you think all this "love" takes place anyway? The early Christians would not only have rejected, but also have been unable to understand, our modern notion of individualist Christianity.

I don't know that I want to defend Galston; his essay looks like something he jotted down on the toilet. But I'm not very impressed with what you have to say either. I think the point Galston's really making, or perhaps the one he should've made, is that Rawls's conclusions in TJ are perhaps the product of his theological views, and that the veil of ignorance, the dubious claim that people in the O.P. would be terribly risk-adverse and decide on the basis of a maximin rule, etc. is a jury-rigged setup designed to arrive at the conclusion he wants, a conclusion that's really a secularized brand of Rawls's idiosyncratic take on Protestantism. I don't think that Galston's saying that the arguments in TJ and the thesis are somehow one and the same; they're quite obviously not, and you didn't have to go to the trouble of showing that.

I've read the Galston review, but haven't read the new Rawls book, so I'm playing with (at best) half a deck in this discussion.

But it seems to me that Galston's own philosophical background as a student of Leo Strauss bears mentioning somewhere in this thread, both in regards to the central and peculiar tension between "Athens and Jerusalem" in Strauss's thought and because of the centrality of notions of natural human difference/hierarchy in Strauss's view of philosophy and politics.

Stephen is quite correct, and that's exactly the point about Eastern Orthodoxy - its traditions are those of early Christianity, which are far more communitarian than the latter day Protestants: so much so, that it's almost a different Christianity.

Per the quote above - Orthodoxy does not have any of the doctrines listed, except for the question of heaven and hell. However even in this case the view of hell is a lack of community:
"St. Macarius learned that hell's greatest torment is the denial of the sight of another human face. It is the experience of not being able to relate to anyone else... Without relationship, without koinonia, our faces are like flowers in the dark. In facing others, we find our own face, our own personhood, our own prosopo, revealed. "

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