Theology Plus Political Theory: a Critique of John Rawls
April 21, 2014 richardstevenpark

Theology Plus Political Theory: a Critique of John Rawls

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In my last post, I suggested that when it comes to analysing society it is important to consider not only theology but also social theory. In this post, I look at how political theory also crucially informs our understanding of society, especially the public life thereof.

I offer the example of the famed political philosopher of Harvard, John Rawls. Rawls has had a towering influence in the discussions over political justice and human freedom for the past few decades. His landmark works A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism have made significant contributions to the modern liberal view of political and social ethics. In the following, I offer a brief but significant summary and three critical points of his highly influential liberal political viewpoint.

Most fundamentally, for Rawls, justice is ‘the first virtue of social institutions’, and theses institutions form the ‘basic structure’ of society. According to Rawls, ‘[i]n a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled’ (A Theory of Justice, pp. 3-6). It is worth noting here a historical significant shift in language: The notion of ‘liberties of equal citizenship’ (or more simply ‘civil liberties’) is markedly different to that of ‘human freedom’ as construed in Lockean terms, and further still to an Aristotelian construal of ‘human flourishing’. The change is more than merely semantic; it is conceptual. As Alasdair MacIntyre famously argued (in defence of an Aristotelian notions of justice and freedom):

‘[In view of the loss of a] shared conception of the community’s good as specified by the good for a man, there can no longer either be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good’ (After Virtue, p. 232).

That is, a shared understanding of a just society depends on an established understanding of the good life. So without an objective, universal good toward which society is aimed, any hope for justice and freedom must and can only be defined in other terms: for Rawls, those terms are such as ‘equality’, ‘fairness’, ‘legal entitlement’ and so forth (cf. A Theory of Justice, pp. 3, 10, and 84). The first problem, I contend, is that Rawls believes that in the ‘original position’ (p. 11, Cf. pp. 102 ff), standing ‘behind the veil of ignorance’ (p. 11, Cf. pp. 118 ff), humans retain the ‘capacity for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good’ (p. 19): however, without human telos, what could ground such an objective good? A Christian theological anthropology of imago dei (considered in previous posts) can help; a Rawlsian individualistic social ethic cannot.

Secondly, against what standard is one to say that Rawls’ ‘primary goods’ are in fact the proper goods for a just ‘well-ordered’ society? And what does it even mean for a society to be so well-ordered as ‘a viable human community’? And why Rawls’ version, and not another’s? In a sense, it seems Rawls’ principle of ‘fairness as justice’ is ultimately (if ironically) a form of communitarianism in that it imposes ‘the good of the collective’ on the will of the individual. As political philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff points out:

‘What is striking about our contemporary proponents of a liberal position is that they are still looking for a politics that is the politics of a community with a shared perspective’[; but even this attempt for a] ‘politics of community’ [is limited to issues of] ‘social justice . . . and the nature of the political person’ [rather than those more robustly of] ‘the good life . . . and human nature in general’ (see his ‘The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issue’, in Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, ed. Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 109).

In other words, Rawls’ allegedly free and equal liberalism is itself a kind of collectivism, albeit a vacuous one.

Thirdly and lastly, Rawls argues for a ‘thin theory of the good’ whereby some political ‘overlapping consensus’, in creating sufficiently ‘common ground’, is able to provide the basis for citizens in the original position to pursue a common conception of the good (see A Theory of Justice, p. 349; and Political Liberalism, p. 194, respectively). He continues: to aim beyond such notions would be to seek a conception of justice that is no longer sufficiently ‘thin’; rather, it would be arguing for a ‘think’ conception of the good, held by those with ‘comprehensive doctrines’ (Political Liberalism, p. 39) – which are, by Rawls’s lights, ‘sectarian’ and ‘unreasonable’. The most devastating problem for Rawls’s position, as political philosopher Adam Swift points out, is as follows: Should there be any others who hold to a position other than his own, Rawls’ liberalism becomes ‘just another sectarian doctrine’; that is, for members of any society who do hold to the same sort of liberal values and ‘do not buy in to the overlapping consensus’ – for any and all such individuals, Rawls’ theory itself may rightly be construed by them as sectarian and unreasonable.

In sum, when analysing the social and political realities of the contemporary world, it is important to consider social and political theories, along with the theological implications and critiques thereof, in order to more robustly understand and prayerfully change the world for the good of God’s kingdom.

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