Thursday, April 28, 2016

Compassion and justice

A teaching of Jesus & John

By Morris Dean

[Published originally on September 1, 2009.]

An email discussion I’ve been having about health care reform with a small circle of Yale classmates recently put me in mind of something I’d read about the political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002). I’d read, perhaps in an obituary, that he held something like
legislators should write laws without presuming what circumstances they themselves might be born into (and possibly have to suffer rather than enjoy the laws’ consequences)*,
which immediately struck me as being utterly consistent with Jesus’s teachings on compassion (which might be characterized as the view that no one is any more, or less, deserving than the next person).
    Like the next person, I enjoy “meaningful” coincidences, so I was delighted this evening to finally read something in a recent issue of The New Yorker that my wife thought I might like, James Wood’s article “God in the Quad,” blurbed “A don defends the Supreme Being from the new atheists”:

A posthumous publication by the political philosopher John Rawls, A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith (Harvard; $27.95), allows us to see how a very intelligent believer, who once considered the priesthood, lost his Christian faith as a young man. Rawls fought in the Army during the Second World War, and a brief memoir in the new book, written five years before his death, recounts three occurrences from that time. One day, a Lutheran pastor gave a sermon in which he claimed that God “aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs.” This infuriated Rawls, for whom these were simply “falsehoods about divine providence.” The second event was the death of a friend in battle. The third event elapsed over several months: the dissemination of the news of what had happened in the death camps. Rawls’s faith was shaken. He began to question whether prayer was possible: “How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?” To interpret history as expressing God’s will, Rawls says, “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.” [–The New Yorker, August 31, 2009, p. 78]
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* One of my classmates tells me that Rawls presents this idea in his “great book,” A Theory of Justice, which is now on my reading list. He also says:

On Rawls’s argument for the appropriate original position for ensuring the impartiality of judgment when making moral decisions in Theory of Justice, see the entry in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, online. The gist of Rawls’s argument is here. You don’t have to read the book itself to understand it. [I guess I can take it off my reading list.]
Indeed, I found there this phrasing of my “something like” above:
The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to ensure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances [emphasis mine]....
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Dean

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