Some thoughts on Galston on Rawls’s religion

As promised previously, some thoughts on this essay, in fairly loose and disconnected form.

First of all, I worried in the comments to Jacob’s post, based only on the excerpt Jacob posted, that Galston was in danger of slipping too close to the genetic fallacy. Well, having read the full essay, the worries continue. In the following, for example, Galston openly flirts with what appears to be the genetic fallacy:

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 would then be an instance of what Rawls called “overlapping consensus.”) Alternatively, it may be that portions of Protestantism are tributaries flowing into the sea of what Rawls called the public culture of a democratic society–the professed basis of his political theory.

I don’t understand this at all. How are Rawls’s early faith commitments relevant to whether there are non-faith grounds to affirm justice as fairness? If religion is “unexpressed but indispensable” to Rawls’s conception, shouldn’t that have shown up somewhere in, you know, the argument? That is, shouldn’t some claim in A Theory of Justice be visibly objectionable because of the unstated theological premise? If not, what does Galston think might be going on here?

This is exactly the sort of problem that dire warnings about the genetic fallacy are supposed to guard against: if there’s something wrong with Rawls’s argument, as Galston seems to think there is, what work is all this stuff about religion doing?


Another 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? Rawls seems to be saying that we sin against God if and only if we sin against man. I have neither the knowledge nor the standing to criticize this assertion from a Christian perspective, but I’m reasonably confident that most Jews would reject it. As Jews are reminded every year at Kol Nidre, oaths sworn to our fellows are one thing, oaths before God quite another.

The point is even broader: many theologies affirm a vertical relationship with God that does not pass through our horizontal relationships with one another. An understanding of God as the supreme object of human desire guided Augustine and Aquinas, and also Maimonides, arguably the greatest religious thinker Judaism has ever produced.

Although these reflections might appear wholly theological and without import for political philosophy, Cohen and Nagel point out that Rawls’s communal, interpersonal conception of sin foreshadows his endorsement of a morality “defined by interpersonal relations rather than pursuit of the highest good.” It points to the fragile underpinnings of a political morality that pays so much attention to fairness and so little to other purposes that animate human beings and the communities they form.

If Galston has some objection to the failure of justice as fairness to take account of, say, perfectionist ends (but see all the stuff about the Aristotelian principle), or utility, or whatever “other purposes” he’s talking about, what’s the point of all this talk about vertical or horizontal relationships to god? And this seems really, really, strained anyway. Because Rawls had thought, years earlier, that sin was sin against the community, most of the central ideas in his contribution to political philosophy (like the constructivism, and the idea of society as a cooperative enterprise, and the decision to avoid contested comprehensive doctrines, all of which arguably count as the otherwise unspecified “morality ‘defined by interpersonal relations’”) are somehow more objectionable than they might otherwise be based on the ideas themselves?

At some point, this sort of thing becomes almost a Straussian exercise (that is not a compliment). Rawls said he was influenced by Kant in all of this, but, really, we shouldn’t believe Rawls’s account of his own intellectual heritage, we should insist he was smuggling in his old religious beliefs, because what he said was too craaaazy to be non-theological. What’s next, are we going to have to imagine an esoteric Rawls who is still religious? I find Rawls’s lectures on the history of moral and political philosophy to be much more enlightening, in making sense of the influences on his views (since, you know, Rawls explicitly interprets the influences on his views, often as such), than all this hermeneutics of religious suspicion.

Here’s Galston again:

There is a thread of almost utopian optimism running through Rawls’s writings. In the senior thesis he argued that in politics as well as theology and ethics, the problem is one of “controlling and ridding the world of sin.” Controlling, of course; but “ridding”? Sin is here to stay, I’m afraid–a proposition I would have thought even a lapsed Protestant should be able to affirm. In his maturity, Cohen and Nagel report, Rawls could still write that if a reasonably just society is not possible, one might appropriately wonder whether “it is worthwhile for human beings to live on earth.” That’s true only if one stands very far away from lived experience, I’m afraid. Human beings can and mostly do find satisfaction and meaning even in desperately oppressive and unjust circumstances–in family and friends, in the arts and sciences, in religious faith and worship. Human life is more than community, and community is more than justice.

This is a really strange critique to offer of Rawls. Really, I can’t do any better than just repeating Andrew’s answer:

First of all, Rawls never claimed to give a comprehensive theory of the political, or rulership, or governance, or of the good. But, more importantly, it seems to me that the whole point of constructivism and the ideas of a “reasonable moral psychology,” a “more or less just, well-ordered society,” “the fact of reasonable pluralism” and many other companion concepts is to subject one’s moral theory as much as possible to the standard of taking people as they are while still offering a moral theory. Furthermore, Rawls even wants to limit his theory to the basic structure of society, not to all political activity. Galston seems unwilling to acknowledge how much Rawls was and continues to be criticized for retreating too much from ideal theory.

But, of course, I’m speaking here as someone who is firmly in the Gerry Cohen camp on the problems of the aforementioned retreat. Others can disagree. And, indeed, as Jacob points out, it’s possible to coherently criticize Rawls for being too utopian while thinking that others who criticize him for not being utopian enough are even more wrong. But while that’s true, it misses the point: the context is Galston’s essay about how Rawls’s vestigal religiosity made him produce allegedly “other-worldly” ideas. And it’s bizarre to call a conception of justice that is consciously less utopian than the ideal theory alternatives (I mean, we’re talking about the guy who invented the difference principle here, and, ferchrissake, The Law of Peoples, a.k.a. the most infuriatingly un-utopian work of allegedly “ideal theory” ever written) “other-worldly” for being too utopian, or somehow claim that this level of utopianness is some kind of an aberration that needs to be explained by teenage religion.

Finally, Galston’s last paragraph:

But judging from the writing of his youth, the aspects of his bearing that made him so compelling as a teacher and human being were rooted in a religious sensibility that made it impossible for him to approach politics on its own terms. Even at its best, politics cannot be a branch of moral philosophy, or a kind of rational choice, or the product of deliberations among reasonable people. While politics is not without norms and standards, it must reflect the nature of the human species as self-interested and passionate as well as reasonable–and as capable of destruction as well as cooperation. Political norms and standards must also take into account the distinctive difficulties of collective action and the means sometimes needed to enforce compliance. If we look at political life from too high an altitude, we can no longer see it as it is.

Shorter William Galston: Justice as Fairness: Political, not Metaphysical.

Oh. Wait. Shit.


4 Responses to “Some thoughts on Galston on Rawls’s religion”

  1. Paul Gowder Says:

    (I wanted to end this post on that snappy note, but, just to clarify, it seems like rather a large part of the point of Rawls’s failure to pay what Galston thinks is due regard to “other purposes that animate human beings and the communities they form” is that political morality “must reflect the nature of the human species as self-interested and passionate as well as reasonable–and as capable of destruction as well as cooperation.” and “Political norms and standards must also take into account the distinctive difficulties of collective action and the means sometimes needed to enforce compliance.”)

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    One more note: this business about how Rawls’s early religion “points to the fragile underpinnings” of his mature views is pretty much exactly the genetic fallacy I worried about. How do we interpret the quoted phrase as offering an explanation rather than a critique of Rawls? We can’t.

  3. Uncommon Priors » Another post on Galston, Rawls, and the genetic fallacy Says:

    [...] I wrote the last post, I’ve been asking myself if I was too uncharitable, and if Galston’s essay can really [...]

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