A closer look at another Galston-on-Rawls claim

Yes, I’m still steamed about Galston’s essay on Rawls. I’ll stop obsessing soon, really. But the essay is just wrong on so many things.

Let’s take another look at one paragraph in particular.

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.

As Galston aptly points out, ridding the world of sin is not something that Christians ordinarily think is possible. Sin is with us, the Christians say, until the second coming and so forth. So Galston makes that accurate observation, and then, in the next sentence, he leaps to the Rawlsian proposition that “if a reasonably just society is not possible, one might appropriately wonder whether ‘it is worthwhile for human beings to live on earth.’” What’s the move being made here? I submit that it’s an attempt to equate (or at least claim as closely related) the following two propositions:

1) We ought to rid the world of sin.
2) If we can’t make reasonably just societies, we might wonder whether it’s worthwhile for human beings to live on earth.

Further support for the notion that this is the move being made can be gleaned from Galston’s use of the phrase “Rawls could still write” (emphasis added) to connect the two propositions, as if the second is some kind of vestige of the first. At a minimum, Galston seems to think that both propositions express the same kind of “almost utopian optimism,” and Rawls’s belief in the second proposition is supposed to come, in some way, from the religiosity giving rise to the first.

But the two propositions are not equivalent or, even, obviously related. The first is an assertion of something that might fairly be taken to be a theological impossibility. The second is a claim about the consequences to our well-being and sense of our own value of the failure to achieve some level of goodness. And the second proposition isn’t about ridding the world completely of sin, but about producing a reasonably just society, where a reasonably just society will doubtless still have some amount of personal as well as political sin.* There’s no reason to believe a reasonably just society is impossible in the same way there’s (theological) reason to believe a sinless world is impossible, so the objection to the first proposition doesn’t apply to the second. I daresay that as far as I can tell, the only thing the two propositions have in common is the endorsement of the aim “let’s make the world better in some fashion,” to which, I take it, Galston doesn’t object?

More importantly, however, note the fundamental non-religiousness of the second proposition. An ordinary Christian would never wonder whether it’s worthwhile for human beings to live on earth. After all, on standard Christian doctrine, god put us on the earth, presumably for a purpose, and gave the earth to Adam. Or, to put it a slightly more traditional form:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

The worry about whether it’s worthwhile to be on the earth might be part of a “religious temperament,” as Cohen and Nagel say, but it is not itself a religious proposition, or, at least, not a recognizably Christian one, and Galston goes wrong to equate it to the mission of eliminating sin allegedly in Rawls’s early Christianity.

And what is so optimistic or utopian about worrying whether life is worth living if we can’t produce a reasonably just (if still flawed) society? That sounds pretty pessimistic, actually, given the recognition of the injustice that exists in the world right now. It’s extremely weird to call a nod to the proposition that life might not be worth living “optimistic.”

(Is anyone actually reading these long and wonkish posts, or am I just talking to myself?)

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* Consider, in this context, Rawls’s acknowledgment in TJ as well as in PL that unreasonable people (and comprehensive doctrines) will never completely go away. If that isn’t a recognition that political sin is here to stay, what is?

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3 Responses to “A closer look at another Galston-on-Rawls claim”

  1. Steve M. Says:

    Good sir,

    I applaud this unhealthy obsession. Galston’s essay was really, astonishingly bad. That Rawls interpreted Christianity in much the same way he reimagined liberalism reveals something of great significance about Rawls and nothing much about his liberalism. Galston should revise and resubmit for full course credit.

    – Constant Reader.

  2. homais Says:

    This is the question that’s been bothering me ever since I started reading the (remarkably many) responses to that Galston essay: According to Galston’s apparent criteria, exactly which philosophers wouldn’t be other-worldly? It’s honestly not clear to me.

  3. links for 2009-04-19 « Rumblegumption Says:

    [...] Uncommon Priors » A closer look at another Galston-on-Rawls claim [...]

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