Another post on Galston, Rawls, and the genetic fallacy

Jacob suggests that Galston’s essay on Rawls is not an example of the genetic fallacy, because:

If that were meant to be a sufficient argument against Rawls’ account of merit, there’d be a genetic fallacy. But I think Galston probably thinks that there have plenty such arguments, and that this is a possible *explanation* for why Rawls held such an unusual view.

Since I wrote the last post, I’ve been asking myself if I was too uncharitable, and if Galston’s essay can really be read as an attempt at explanation of why Rawls held the views he did, rather than as a critique on the grounds that it’s all really protestantism. But I just can’t come up with such a reading. Everything Galston says seems to be directed toward showing that Rawls is mistaken in part because his views were driven by religion.

The two prime examples of this are passages I’ve already quoted. First:

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.”)

I can only imagine two interpretations of this passage*, and they hinge on the word “indispensable.” The first interpretation is that “indispensable” means “the argument doesn’t go through without it.” If that’s the meaning we are to give the word, then Galston’s point in this passage is as follows, where P means “early faith commitments”:

If Rawls’s argument can’t go through without P, then one may wonder whether those who don’t endorse P will accept his argument.

I can’t believe that’s what Galston means by that passage. Apart from being a triviality, it is far too weak. If Rawls’s argument doesn’t go through without P, then one need not wonder whether those who don’t endorse P will accept his conception of justice as fairness (which is inextricably linked to his argument**): obviously, they won’t.

The only other interpretation I can come up with is that “indispensable” means “critical to Rawls’s thinking,” not “critical to the argument.” Then we can rewrite the passage as follows:

If Rawls has to have thought P when he wrote the argument, then one may wonder whether people who don’t endorse P will accept that argument.

And that reading is precisely the genetic fallacy.

Second passage, which follows a critique of Rawls’s conception of sin:

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.

Presumably, the “it” in the last sentence there means the theological reflections, for what else could the word refer to?

I noted this before in the comments to the last post, but there isn’t even a conceivable way of interpreting a line like “points to the fragile underpinnings” other than as a claim that the fragility of the underpinnings of Rawls’s argument are revealed by an analysis of his religious beliefs — that is, that knowledge of his religious beliefs gives one more reason to reject the argument. Again, the genetic fallacy comes to full flower.

Yes, some of Galston’s points seem to be intended as explanatory (the discussion of the equality of merit — or, as it were, lack of merit). But the essay as a whole is obviously intended to offer a critique of Rawls, not as an explanation of why Rawls said things that were the subject of some external (or internal) critique. (Note, for example, the subtitle: “Why it’s dangerous to think of politics as more than politics.” Also note the last two paragraphs, which are almost entirely polemical.) And he clearly uses Rawls’s previous or vestigial religious beliefs as a reason for us to reject parts of his argument.

* Incidentally, I am an atheist. Yet I, personally, can accept the following claims from Rawls, both of which Galston seems to think are fundamentally manifestations of the “religious sensibility,” without any indispensable religious premises:


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.”

I daresay that this can be supported by quite a lot of non-religious premises, and even by premises that are anathema to most religious people, like a rejection of the sort of libertarian (in a philosophy of mind not a political sense) free will that many theologians want us to have.


if a reasonably just society is not possible, one might appropriately wonder whether “it is worthwhile for human beings to live on earth.”

And that passage can be supported by a perfectly atheistic reading of, for example, Aristotle. Why can’t the non-religious believe that we’re (evolved to be!) a political animal, and, consequently, that though Galston is right that “[h]uman life is more than community, and community is more than justice[,]” political justice is nonetheless an essential part of our well-being? I’m always citing this article, because I think it gives a wonderful contemporary account of how the notion of us being political animals might make a difference for what we value in political theory, so I’ll cite it again here: Josiah Ober (2007), “Natural Capacities and Democracy as a Good-in-Itself” Philosophical Studies 132:59.

** I use “conception” and “argument” interchangeably, because, while Rawls obviously thought there could be an overlapping consensus on justice as fairness, I think the best reading of Theory is that he also thought there could be an overlapping consensus on at least the brunt of his argument for it, minus the overly-Kantian bits — that, for example, there would be an overlapping consensus on the considerations giving rise to a rejection of utilitarianism as the grounds for a distributive principle. I suppose Galston could be using them differently — he could, for example, be taking Rawls’s claim of overlapping consensus to be that people could agree on justice as fairness without agreeing to very much at all of his argument. Then, Galston could be saying something like
If Rawls’s argument can’t go through without P, then one may wonder whether those who don’t endorse P will accept the conception supported by that argument, but that would be a very silly claim: on that interpretation of overlapping consensus, the (alleged) fact that others could not accept Rawls’s argument would be almost irrelevant to whether they could accept justice as fairness.


One Response to “Another post on Galston, Rawls, and the genetic fallacy”

  1. Uncommon Priors » Hilzoy joins in the Galston on Rawls fun Says:

    [...] to take the “indispensable to the argument” reading of the first problematic passage noted previously, and then notes one additional problem with it: the notion that religious presuppositions are [...]

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