November 10, 2019

THE lEFT IS THE rIGHT:

Rawls & Theodicy: 'The Theology of Liberalism' (Samuel Moyn, October 30, 2019, Commonweal)

[T]wo young Harvard political theorists have come out simultaneously with two of the best treatments imaginable of the context and meaning of Rawls's epoch-making book. But the two could not be more different. In the Shadow of Justice, the exciting new leftish history by Katrina Forrester, suggests that, for all his abstraction, Rawls was offering a metaphysical gloss on the program of the right wing of the British Labour party of the 1950s, when it was seeking an increasingly market-friendly vision of socialism, one that would eventually devolve into neoliberalism. For her right-leaning colleague Eric Nelson, by contrast, Rawls is a failed early-modern theologian, whose legacy is to leave liberals without a good reason to believe that justice requires even modest redistribution. [...]

Nelson opens his book by placing Rawls's recently discovered Princeton University senior thesis, written in 1942, in the long Augustinian tradition of Christianity that denied that sinful humans could save themselves. For Augustine and his followers, Pelagianism--named after a late-antique theologian who was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic Church--overstated the extent to which human beings can earn their salvation. Such a belief verged on an ideology of self-redemption of individual sinners or of humanity itself that (as Rawls put it at age twenty) "rendered the Cross of Christ to no effect." For Rawls, at the time a committed Christian who planned a career in the Episcopal priesthood before World War II service in the Pacific caused him to lose his faith, it followed that "no man can claim good deeds as his own." To contend otherwise inflated human capacity and courted sacrilegious idolatry of humanity itself.

Nelson contends that this Augustinian response to Pelagianism lurked in Rawls's defense of fair distributional justice long after he had moved on to secular philosophy. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls remarked that "no one deserves" their social ascendancy and the natural gifts--intelligence or industriousness--with which they achieved it. The fact that one person was endowed with them and another not was "morally arbitrary." A theory of justice aiming at fairness rather than fortune would reject any sense that people deserved their class position. Some redistribution from the rich to the rest was therefore just.

What Nelson does with this parallel between Rawls's Christian senior thesis and his mature theory of redistribution is more contentious. Demonstrating that most founders of the liberal tradition were Pelagians, he insists that it is difficult to reconcile Rawls's rejection of moral arbitrariness with the politics he hoped to advance.

"Liberalism," writes Nelson, "began as a theodicy." By this he means that for the major liberal thinkers in the early-modern period, the attempt to justify the ways of God to men almost always included the belief that God is unfailingly good. It is their own autonomy that leads humans, if they choose not to conform to God's plan, to introduce evil into the world on their own. What made for the correlation of Pelagianism with liberalism is that the theological defense of human freedom--including freedom to err--implied that individuals should be allowed politically to seek perfection on their own, without the interference of states or sects. Liberalism was born out of the insistence that, since agents were free enough to save themselves, they had to be left alone enough to have a chance to do it.

Mr. Nelson's imagined difficulty arises only because--as happened with Rawls--commentators insist on stripping the founders of liberalism of their Christianity.  Thus, Marxists and Libertarians alike can only consider Locke's Second Treatise on Government, which is fairly silent on providing for the common good in its attempt to secure property, and must ignore the First:

But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another's plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise...

And an even more fundamental error occurs when they insist that Locke chose Reason over Revelation in the first place:

So much virtue as was necessary to hold societies together, and to contribute to the quiet of governments, the civil laws of commonwealths taught, and forced upon men that lived under magistrates. But these laws, being for the most part made by such who had no other aims but their own power, reached no farther than those things, that would serve to tie men together in subjection; or at most, were directly to conduce to the prosperity and temporal happiness of any people. But natural religion, in its full extent, was nowhere, that I know, taken care of by the force of natural reason. It should seem, by the little that has hitherto been done in it, that 'tis too hard a task for unassisted reason, to establish morality, in all its parts, upon its true foundations, with a clear and convincing light. And 'tis at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a King and law-maker, tell them their duties, and require their obedience, than leave it to the long, and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them: such strains of reasonings the greatest part of mankind have neither leisure to weigh, nor, for want of education and use, skill to judge of. We see how unsuccessful in this, the attempts of philosophers were, before Our Saviour's time. How short their several systems came of the perfection of a true and complete morality, is very visible. And if, since that, the Christian philosophers have much outdone them, yet we may observe, that the first knowledge of the truths they have added are, owing to revelation; though as soon as they are heard and considered, they are found to be agreeable to reason, and such as can by no means be contradicted. Every one may observe a great many truths which he receives at first from others, and readily assents to, as consonant to reason, which he would have found it hard, and perhaps, beyond his strength to have discovered himself. Native and original truth, is not so easily wrought out of the mine, as we who have it delivered, ready dug and fashioned into our hands, are apt to imagine. And how often at fifty or threescore years old, are thinking men told, what they wonder how they could miss thinking of? Which yet their own contemplations did not, and possibly never would have helped them to. Experience shows that the knowledge of morality, by mere natural light (how agreeable soever it be to it), makes but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it is not hard to be found in men's necessities, passions, vices, and mistaken interests, which turn their thoughts another way. And the designing leaders, as well as the following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of their meditations this way. Or whatever else was the cause, 'tis plain in fact, that human reason unassisted, failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never, from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the law of Nature. And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the new testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by Our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.

Though yet, if any one should think, that out of the saying of the wise heathens, before Our Saviour's time, there might be a collection made of all these rules of morality, which are to be found in the Christian religion; yet this would not at all hinder, but that the world, nevertheless, stood as much in need of Our Savior, and the morality delivered by him.

Locke could not render a system of Rational morality himself and nor could anyone else, putting paid to the notion that we can save ourselves if "left alone".




Posted by at November 10, 2019 12:00 AM

  

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