Background: John Rawls wrote an undergrad thesis on theology when he was deeply religious. He also wrote an unpublished essay in the 90’s on the role religion played in his thought. Thomas Nagel and Josh Cohen are now publishing these essays along with an interpretive essay on Rawls and religion. The latter is available in abbreviated form here; it occasioned a review and commentary by Rawls critic William Galston here. Jacob Levy initially likes the Galston review, but his commenters are more skeptical. See also Paul Gowder (1 2 3) and hilzoy.
I’m not a Rawlsian and I generally hold the view that Rawls dominates the discussion and agenda of political theorists to an unhealthy and outsized degree (not his fault, of course). But in spite of this, I find myself drawn in and have a couple of comments here. First, even if we concede that Rawls’ youthful religious views shaped his later argument about merit, I don’t find this all that important, and I certainly don’t find it useful in building a critique of Rawls. Lots of our secular rules, commitments and rights have arguably religious origins. See, for example, James Whitman on the “reasonable doubt” standard). Or just read Locke. I think Paul’s right that Galston is flirting with the genetic fallacy here, and suspect I’ll probably agree with Hilzoy that Rawls’ thesis illuminates his later writings without being indispensible to them, as hilzoy argues.
But second, I don’t think Rawls’ critique of merit needs to be interpreted in the a particularly controversial way. In comments, Jacob Levy says:
Bill Clinton’s Galstonian “The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you” is the kind of thing that we do seem to reach for as evaluators of social orders. And it’s something that’s long made a lot of people uncomfortable about Rawls (as well as, e.g., Hayek) that his theory seems to leave no room for or even meaning for that kind of appeal.
If one reads this bit of rhetoric as a straightforward philosophical argument, it is in tension with Rawls’ views on merit (behind the veil of ignorance, we don’t know whether we’ll be advantageously socially positioned, but we also don’t know whether we’ll be driven or lazy). But less literal leading of this claim might take us in a different direction. This statement might be meant to convey that if you’re an ordinary person (‘work hard and play by the rules’), the rules that govern our social and economic outcomes should be designed to give you a decent comfortable life without exposing you to enormous risk. Should policies be enacted to move our society in this direction, we’d be a more just society on Rawlsian terms. Rawls rules out an appeal to desert/merit as a first principle, but I don’t see why Rawlsian philosophy necessarily rules out the rhetoric of merit to move society towards a more just social order, especially given that most people haven’t seen the light on Rawls’ critique of merit and in a democratic society, they need to persuade people who’ve failed to adhere to a Rawlsian position on merit.
In other words, the Galstonian statement seems like a perfectly appropriate bit of political rhetoric in a society in which (for example) a brief gap in one’s health inusrance coverage can leave someone uninsurable and exposed to health/financial disaster. That the rhetoric isn’t precisely philosophically accurate needn’t be a major concern.