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John RawlsOne of 2009’s more interesting developments in philosophy is the publication of John Rawls’s Princeton undergraduate thesis, entitled A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith. In the past thirty-five years we have known Rawls as an eminently secular political philosopher, trying first (in A Theory of Justice) to work out a political philosophy without any “religious” ideas, and then later (in Political Liberalism) leaving “religious” views at the margins of the theory, where they’re only allowed in insofar as they agree with each other, forming an “overlapping consensus.”

Turns out it wasn’t always so. The title of Rawls’s thesis would have appeared a little drab at the time, but it’s striking to those who have read Rawls’s later philosophy. While the thesis deals heavily with questions of community and interpersonal relations, it says very little about Rawls’s later concern for the organization of the state. And soon after he wrote it, Rawls would go off to fight in World War II, and the horrors he saw would turn him agnostic. But what’s far more striking in the thesis is the continuity between the old (devout, pious) Rawls and the new (secular, political) Rawls. For my part, I have previously thought of Rawls as a philosophical foe – associating him with the utilitarianism that I rejected – and the thesis confirms to me that, in the most important respects, Rawls was thinking in all the wrong directions.

Fundamental to the thesis is a rejection of Greek philosophical thought from Plato and Aristotle onwards. In a line of Christian thinkers going back at least to Tertullian, Rawls rejects the influence the Greeks have had on Christianity from Augustine onward. Why? Because Greek thought is what Rawls eccentrically calls “naturalistic”: it asks what the good life is for humans, what humans do desire and what they should desire. But for Rawls all desire is part of the problem. We cannot see God as truly ultimate if our relation to him is one of desire – as it is in Augustine’s longing for God, let alone in the erotic longings of medieval women mystics like Teresa of Ávila. Augustine sees the heavenly life as the best life – and that’s the problem. We shouldn’t be thinking about the best life for ourselves, or even for others. We should be thinking about God as a person who is not an object of our desire at all. Ironically, Rawls’ later exclusion of religion (as “comprehensive conceptions of the good”) has its precedent in his own Christian views. Things would have been very different had Rawls been a Buddhist, in a tradition where so much is founded on our desire to end suffering.

Rawls does not argue for Christianity itself, taking it merely as a given starting point – and thereby anticipating his later attempt to debate politics without allowing religious debate to enter into it. Rawls never seemed to want to talk about religious foundations, early or late in life, even though the middle of his life had given him reason to change the roots of his own convictions from Christian to agnostic.

But the connection that strikes me most between the young Rawls and the mature Rawls is the opposition to ideas of merit or desert. Along with the Greeks’ striving for the desired good (eudaimonia), the later Rawls rejects Aristotle’s idea that social goods should go to the most deserving. In the early Rawls, this idea takes on a theological underpinning. He passionately rejects the Catholic doctrine of merit, which states that good works receive supernatural award. (This is why you will sometimes see the Buddhist terms pu?ya and p?pa, “good karma” and “bad karma” respectively, translated as “merit” and “demerit.”) Rawls rejects merit with a passionate fire rarely found in his later, more analytical writing:

The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit. He sees that the givenness of God is everywhere prevenient, and that he possesses nothing that has not been given. He knows that what he has received has been given by some “other,” and that ultimately all good things are gifts of God. Therefore in the face of this givenness of God, in the face of His perfect and righteous mercy, he knows that he has no merit. Never again can he hope to boast of his good deeds, of his skill, of his prowess, for he knows that they are gifts.

The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good maners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness — must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting.” Thus there is no man so upright that the Word of God beside his goodness will not condemn. There is no goodness that beside God’s goodness does not become a “filthy rag.” (239-40)

Rawls here deals with a point I discuss in my dissertation: the partial dependence of virtue on external goods. Martha Nussbaum criticizes the Stoics for distinguishing between virtue, internal to ourselves, and external goods that we cannot control, saying that only the first matters; I argue that this is a point Śāntideva would concede, that our virtues have causes outside ourselves. (He could hardly say otherwise, given his rejection of free will.) The question is, what do we do with this point? Rawls, in his earlier and later phases, effectively takes it as a reason to leave virtue aside entirely, in favour of divine grace or social institutions. In my view, against Rawls, virtue is a crucial component of the human good – and the human good, for ourselves and for others, is what it is most important for us to focus our attentions on.

Nevertheless, there’s a valuable cautionary point in this passage of the early Rawls, one I agree with. Our virtue is not ours alone, in that there are causal conditions that make it possible. It is something we should be thankful for. Other virtues make a pyrrhic victory if they take us to arrogance and away from humility; they are lacking without the gratitude for the things that makes them possible. Here the early Rawls can do us a service by making us more virtuous – despite himself.