Reading Rawls after Murray

In the middle part of the last century, Fr. John Courtney Murray S.J. wrote what proved to be a book of lasting influence, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.  Among the interesting things about this book is its anticipation of some of the core themes of the later work of John Rawls (Rawls acknowledges as much in Political Liberalism).  In particular, Murray takes religious pluralism to be a central challenge to liberal democracy, and understands the liberal commitment to religious freedom to be a political rather than a philosophical (he would say theological) response to this pluralism.  Put differently, Murray argues citizens of diverse religious convictions  should be able to agree on the centrality of religious freedom as a political/legal doctrine however they may feel about religious pluralism theologically.  Broadening the scope in the appropriate dimension and we can see the confluence with Rawls’ “fact of reasonable pluralism” and liberalism as a political philosophy rather than a comprehensive doctrine.

There are of course considerable divergences between the two.  While Rawls writes as a philosopher, mostly concerned to construct a theoretical model of a particular kind of state, Murray remains thoroughly historical.  He offers an interpretation of American liberal democracy, and traces the political and legal origins of religious pluralism and the liberal response.  Murray’s immediate interests were also more concrete. He wrote to reassure two audiences suffering from mutual mistrust, seeking on the one hand to convince the Catholic hierarchy that liberal democracy was entirely compatible with the Faith, and on the other to prove to the Protestant mainstream that a Catholic could be American without tension.

His concreteness and historical grounding allows Murray to appeal to a public philosophy that is much more robust and ‘thick’ than Rawls’ “public reason.”  Though in many respects it performs the same function as Rawls’ public reason, the natural law tradition Murray appeals to entails such robust philosophical commitments, in the end I think it renders the similarities between the two thinkers comparatively superficial.  In some respects (though only some) the difference work to Murray’s advantage.

A ‘public philosophy’ is what provides unity in the face of pluralism by providing a language in which differences can be articulated and debated despite our underlying disagreements.  Both Rawls and Murray would construct such a philosophy for political purposes so that not all disagreements collapse into the kinds that by hypothesis cannot be resolved in a well ordered liberal democracy, and their strategies are the same, up to a point.  Specifically, both would abstract away from the more profound levels of disagreement, effectively ‘bracketing off’ certain kinds of questions, or rendering them ‘non-political’, or beyond the proper reach of the state.  Where they differ is the grounds on which things get ‘bracketed’ and the extent of the non-political.  In brief, Rawls’ public reason is considerably more restricted and weak as measured by its moral and epistemological resources.

In appealing to the natural law tradition, Murray would bracket off only those truths (if such there be) accessible only by way of revelation.  According to the tradition, as developed by St. Thomas Aquinas and in his wake generations of Catholic philosophers and theologians, everything else we may need to know is knowable (in principle) by reason.  Add the assumption that humans as such are reasonable, and the claims of the natural law are accessible to all, regardless of their religious convictions.  Hence appeal to natural law reasoning can work even in a liberal democracy that would have religious disagreements relegated to the non-political.  Note that because it is an expansive moral tradition, NLT would allow that properly moral questions be amendable to public argument.  Only a sub-class of religious questions would be seen as beyond the reach of the state.

Now, a lot of this strikes me as naive.  In particular, from a Rawlsian perspective, Murray is wildly over optimistic about the attractiveness of NLT to non-Catholics, and in particular Protestant Christians.  More generally, it is quite clear that belief in NLT requires itself some pretty robust commitments to a controversial philosophical(/theological) anthropology, not to mention optimistic and contentiously realist epistemological principles.  But for now I want to put that aside and suggest that the Rawlsian alternative suffers from comparably serious problems because it occupies the opposite extreme.  More on that in the next post.

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