In the most recent issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics, Eric Gregory (a Religion professor at Princeton) has an article (abstract here) discussing John Rawls’s senior undergraduate thesis. Gregory is properly cautious, pointing out: “Few people, I suspect, would welcome the thought of being held accountable to claims made in graduate seminar papers, let alone undergraduate theses.” True enough. And it’s worth remembering what Sam Freeman writes in the preface to Rawls’s Collected Papers: “Rawls has often said that he sees these papers as experimental works, opportunities to try out ideas that later may be developed, revised, or abandoned in his books. For this reason he has long been reluctant to permit the publication of his collected papers in book form.” One can only imagine what he would have thought about a published analysis of his undergraduate thesis.
Still, as I said, Gregory shows the appropriate care in dealing with this material, and there are a few observations worth making. The first concerns not Rawls himself but the philosophical climate in 1942, when he submitted the thesis to the Princeton Philosophy Department. The thesis was entitled “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community,” and Gregory points out that it reflects “the Protestant culture then dominant at places such as Princeton.” More: it “shows the extent to which a once regnant version of Protestantism, intent on critically defending the virtues of Western liberalism, has retreated into seminary and divinity school circles where it now also meets resistance.”
In 169 pages of text, “the primary classical references are to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas…. Rawls more extensively discusses Luther and Kierkegaard as well as Hobbes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. There is one reference to Kant…. By far, the source most frequently cited is the Bible….” The reference to Kant is a very small one, made only in passing – Rawls refers to “the sin of using people as means only, as Kant would say.” But it takes on much greater significance when we learn from Gregory that it “is the one positive reference to a philosopher in the thesis.”
I need to be doubly cautious in making observations about the substance of the thesis, since I know very little about theology. Still I’ll venture to make a couple of points about the relationship between the view Rawls presents in the thesis and his later work. Rawls states two main aims of the thesis, the first of which is:
To enter a strong protest against a certain scheme of thought which I have called naturalism …. Naturalism is the universe in which all relations are natural and in which spiritual life is reduced to the level of desire and appetition. I believe that naturalism leads inevitably to individualism, that it cannot explain community and personality, and that it loses the inner core of the universe.
(The second is “to attack a specific Christian problem (like that of sin and faith) using the concepts which are derived from Biblical thought.”)
Rawls finds this “naturalism” more-or-less ubiquitous in Western philosophy from the Greeks on. He rejects this approach – hence, the negative assessment of the philosophers – finding an alternative in a certain theology. If we take the core of this “naturalism” to be a kind of reductive moral psychology aligned with psychological egoism, we can see it as something that Rawls rejected throughout his published work. (Think about the distinction in Political Liberalism between “object-dependent” desires, “principle-dependent” desires, and “conception-dependent” desires: “Note here the obvious non-Humean character of this account of motivation and how it runs counter to attempts to limit the kinds of motives people may have. Once we grant – what seems plainly true – that there exist principle-dependent and conception-dependent desires, along with desires to realize various political and moral ideals, then the class of possible motives is wide open.” (PL, 84-85))
But – to repeat – in his undergraduate thesis he doesn’t see the possibility of rejecting this “naturalism” within a philosophical framework. In particular, he finds it in social contract theory:
The idea of justice in the political theories of Hobbes and Locke, the view of Adam Smith that we serve our fellow-men by enlightened self-interest, are all false views of community. Any society which explains itself in terms of mutual egoism is heading for certain destruction. All ‘contract’ theories of society suffer from this fundamental defect.
Even as Rawls came to believe that not all contract theories suffered from this fundamental defect, he was acutely aware of this criticism. In both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, he took pains to emphasize that his social contract doctrine was not based on mutual egoism – see the rejection of the model of “private society” in section 79 of TJ (“The Idea of Social Union”) and the “Reply to Hegel’s Criticism”, VIII.10 of PL.
In the thesis, the rejection of this naturalism is made in terms of its inability to recognize that “individuals become persons insofar as they live in community.” It “fail[s] to see that a person is not a person apart from community and also that true community does not absorb the individual but rather makes his personality possible.” Obviously, there is more than a passing resemblance to the criticisms that communitarians would level against Rawls beginning in the 1980s, and Gregory observes: “In short, Rawls’s early personalism has no room for an ‘unencumbered self’.” But the interesting point is not simply that Rawls changed his mind about the force of these criticisms against (all forms of) liberalism. Rather, it’s that he was familiar with them some four decades before they gained widespread currency in academic philosophical circles.
Finally, Gregory notes the change in Rawls’s (personal) attitude toward religion, and he speculates (with good reason*) that the decisive events occurred when Rawls served in WWII. “Rawls graduated from Princeton, and served in the Pacific for three years – New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. He rode on a train through the ruins of Hiroshima after learning of Auschwitz. He lost many friends during the war. By June of 1945, Rawls abandoned his thoughts of entering seminary (Virginia Theological Seminary) and renounced his early religious faith.” Gregory laments the loss of Rawls’s early faith: “In the end, this word of which the young Rawls so eloquently spoke was no longer present to him…. One of the many losses brought about by the evils of the twentieth century was John Rawls, the philosophical theologian.” This seems correct – and I don’t mean to sound cavalier about the horrors that triggered his change – but this could also be called maturity.
- In a brief unpublished essay from the early 1990s, Rawls reflects on “why my religious belief changed, particularly during the war. I started as a believing orthodox Episcopalian Christian, and abandoned it entirely by June of 1945.” He cites two specific incidents and then the Holocaust itself, before writing:
When Lincoln interprets the Civil War as God’s punishment for the sin of slavery, deserved equally by North and South, God is seen as acting justly. But the Holocaust can’t be interpreted in that way, and all attempts to do so that I have read are hideous and evil. To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. (quoted in Pogge, John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, pp.13-14)