The Rawlsian god: cryptocalvinism in action

Regular visitors to this dank intellectual alley will be familiar with my obstinate insistence that progressive idealism, multiculturalism, liberal universalism, or any similar label for the set of thoughts that all good people think, are not just good thoughts, but in fact the dominant modern sect of Christianity.

As an atheist I have no interest in theology, and I do not find theological doctrines, such as the divinity of Jesus, the existence of God, the nature of the Trinity, etc, a useful way to classify the patterns of belief around me. I am only concerned with what people believe about the real world. I think these beliefs evolve much as languages do, I feel it is important to track their evolution across time, and I refuse to remove them from my radar screen on account of theological mutations which strike me as purely superficial.

You may or may not buy this story. But I hope you can agree that the Harvard faculty in 2007 by and large believes in human equality, social justice, world peace and community leadership, that the faculty of the same institution held much the same beliefs in 1957, 1907, 1857 and 1807, and that in any of these years they would have described these views as the absolute cynosure of Christianity. Perhaps I am just naturally suspicious, but it strains my credulity slightly to believe that sometime in 1969, the very same beliefs were rederived from pure reason and universal ethics, whose concurrence with the New Testament is remarkable to say the least.

At least for the purpose of abusing it, I call this sect cryptocalvinism: “crypto” because it conceals its ancestry; and “Calvinist” first because it is the leading direct descendant, through the New England Puritans, of Calvinism proper, and second because it resembles Calvin’s Genevan theocracy in many details, most strikingly its fondness for official truth.

Calvinist doctrine has mutated considerably over the years, especially but not exclusively in the theological department. Today’s hippie creed of universal love, though it owes less to the 1960s than the 1830s, would come as quite a shock to the grim old doctor. However, one feature that almost all descendants of Calvinism share is an essentially postmillennial commitment to building the kingdom of God on earth – as seen, for example, in the Puritans’ city-on-a-hill rhetoric.

But, as some commenters have pointed out, this is all quite irrelevant. Don’t we all want to live in a good society? Is it utterly surprising that many Biblical ideas are good ideas? Didn’t Jesus also say the sky was blue? Certainly Harvard was founded as a Christian institution, certainly it remained explicitly so until recently, and certainly our secular universalist culture has deep Christian roots. But in the liberal postwar era, we wisely discarded the aspects of Christianity that are obsolete and superstitious, while retaining its sound ethical core, reinforced with a bracing dose of modern reason and science.

This is a very sensible argument. No superficial rhetoric can dismiss it. Certainly there’s an element of what one might almost call McCarthyism in my attempts to connect universalism with Protestantism. Of course, McCarthyist techniques of guilt by association are routinely applied against Nazis, fascists, racists, and other bad actors, but this doesn’t make them good. The Third Reich, for example, was the first Western state to connect smoking to lung cancer. Which doesn’t make me want to go out and buy a pack of Marlboros.

The belief system I call “cryptocalvinism” claims to be a pure product of philosophy, not a mere evolution of blue-state mainline Protestantism. Similarly, the modern “intelligent design” movement assures us that its association with red-state Christianity is just as coincidental.

The only way to refute these claims is on the merits. The fact that proponents of “intelligent design” tend to be fundamentalist Christians is a good clue that atheists such as myself should scrutinize their theories closely. But it is not actually evidence in the case. Likewise, the fact that multicultural universalists embrace ideas closely related to those of their own Christian forebears could explain, if those ideas are unrelated to reality, how they got to be so popular and successful. But it goes nowhere at all toward showing the if.

So I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the leading political philosopher of liberal universalism: John Rawls. Specifically, Rawls is a theorist of social justice, one of my “four points” of cryptocalvinism.

Actually, I don’t just want to take a look at Rawls. I want his head for my mantelpiece. The trouble is that so many writers have debunked Rawls so completely – Nozick‘s treatment is perhaps the most thorough – that the best anyone can hope for now is a cheap Chinese copy. Nonetheless I will engage in this ritual of decapitation as though it actually mattered.

My contention is that Rawls is not a philosopher, but a minister. Like his Calvinist forebears, he is trying to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Unlike them, he doesn’t admit it. The basic thrust of my attack is to make the Christian aspect of Rawls’ theory explicit, and note how much more sense Rawlsianism makes in this light – and how little sense it makes when we take the light away.

The first thing we notice about Rawls is the title of his famous book, A Theory of Justice. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not just hubristic, but actively Orwellian. For about the last 2500 years, the word justice and its various Indo-European predecessors have meant “the accurate execution of the law.” Rawls is no more interested in law than I am in dressage, and when he redefines the word justice to mean, effectively, righteousness, one notes with some dismay that he is confiscating a noun with no existing synonyms. But perhaps this was the publisher’s decision – maybe A Theory of Righteousness just wouldn’t have moved as well.

The second thing we notice is that Rawls is that he’s an incredibly tedious and turgid writer. He has one idea, which he repeats at a length that’s simply unbelievable. Bad writing is worrisome in any defense of the status quo, because it fails Auden’s ogre test. But again, it is not conclusive.

So let’s take a closer look at Rawls’ idea, the famous veil of ignorance. But let’s try it out in the context where it makes the most sense – the kingdom of God on earth.

Suppose God did, in fact, exist. Suppose he was omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely benevolent, employing an arbitrary number of angels to achieve his perfect wishes. If you are such a hardcore atheist that you can’t imagine this at all, imagine God as a space alien with access to infinite alien technology.

Said alien is newly arrived in the Solar System and wishes to establish his kingdom on Earth, perhaps on account of its water-based ecosphere, mild climate and excellent chocolate. Because he is, in fact, God, implementation details are not a concern. And because he is infinitely benevolent, he wants the best for everyone. Therefore he consults John Rawls.

Rawls tells him that an ideal society will be the one chosen by arbitrary humans who are unaware of the position they are to occupy in that society. So, for example, a Rawlsian might ask: who should be paid more, a NASCAR driver or a truck driver? The observer behind the veil of ignorance is likely to say the truck driver should be paid more, because driving in the Daytona 500 is a hell of a lot of fun and hauling a load of sofas from Chicago to Vegas is no fun at all. Unless the truck driver is paid more to compensate for this inequality, he or she is relatively disadvantaged, an outcome the observer (who can have no reason not to fear assignment to this role) will seek to avoid.

There’s an almost medieval flavor to this exercise, and it can lead to an infinite amount of intellectual entertainment. Of course, not even John Rawls can derive “ought” from “is,” and there is no rational reason to prefer his definition of an ideal society to anyone else’s. Ethics are fundamentally aesthetic. But there is a clarity and prettiness to the Rawlsian theory of righteousness that makes it aesthetically quite attractive, and I certainly cannot imagine any solution to the same problem that I’d find more satisfying.

The difficulty, of course, is in the problem. What Rawls has performed is a beautiful feat of misdirection. His imaginary problem is almost perfectly designed to misdirect the thinking man’s attention away from the real problem.

In the kingdom of God on earth, God finds it very easy to make sure NASCAR drivers are paid less than truck drivers. No one can disobey God. He assigns us to our roles, he directs our every movement. If God tells you to turn left at the next light, you don’t hang a right.

The question is: what relevance does this have for the actual problem of government? The answer is: none. As Madison put it, if men were angels, we would need no government at all. In Rawls’ kingdom, we are not angels, but we are governed by angels. The great engineering problem of designing a system in which fallible humans can govern each other and get along simply does not exist in Rawls’ philosophy.

Of course Rawls does not actually say this. He just encourages it. By setting up an ideal of righteousness that only divine rule can achieve, Rawls supplies the perfect distraction to help his readers forget that in reality, men are governed only by men, and history knows only two kinds of government: those based on law, and those based on violence.

For example, in the NASCAR-teamster example, what sort of law would ensure a Rawlsian result? Do we have wage and price controls, Nixon style? The odor of medieval Christianity is unmistakable. You can almost taste the sumptuary laws.

Or would there even be laws? In keeping with its derogation of mere formalist justice, Rawls’ philosophy is profoundly antilegal. The veil-of-ignorance problem does not even pretend to any objective solution which can be reliably agreed by multiple disputing parties.

If we were ruled by the Rawlsian god, who solves the veil-of-ignorance problem himself and imposes the answer by sheer angelic force, that’d be just lovely. But in the kingdom of men, when different men have different definitions of “justice,” they have a well-known tendency to fight over the result. Cosmic righteousness and consistent, objective law are not just different things. They are actively opposed. Arbitrary rules whose derivation is entirely historical, but whose result is absolutely clear – such as property titles – are often the only way to define a consensus that everyone can agree on peacefully.

In other words, Rawlsianism without the Rawlsian god is an almost perfect recipe for friction. Small wonder that in the 20th century, almost 100 million people were murdered in various attempts to construct egalitarian utopias. You can’t fault Edward Bellamy for not knowing better, but you can fault Rawls – and I do.

The design of legal systems is an engineering problem. When we understate this problem, when we replace it with a religious or quasi-religious substitute, or when we seek levels of perfection that are only achievable through the intervention of benevolent spirits, we invite engineering disaster. Rawls himself was lucky enough to live his whole life in a country governed, if imperfectly, by something that still resembled the rule of law, in which “justice” still meant justice and not heavenly righteousness. But not all have been so fortunate.


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