Providential Modernity seminar discusses “the Justice of God”

Nelson Keynote photoCan we make sense of modern approaches to politics without coming to terms with their origins and evolution over time? Does it matter where ideas come from? Eric Nelson, Robert M. Beren Professor of Government at Harvard University, wrote his latest book, Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God, to address these questions.

During his visit last week, Nelson discussed the origins of his book with the Providential Modernity seminar at KIE. In 2010, gathering with a group of fellow scholars for informal conversation about political philosophy, one of his friends suggested they read (renowned liberal theorist) John Rawls’ senior thesis. Nelson said he was not excited at first, but found the thesis “extraordinary.” Having joked to his political theory students over the years that “Rawls is secularized Augustinianism,” he then realized that the young John Rawls in fact approached political philosophy with a strong commitment to Augustinian theological beliefs (an idea of “original sin,” that humans are by nature inclined toward bad actions, and that the good actions of humanity owe more to divine grace or providence than to any individual’s own merit).

Nelson was struck by “something deep” connecting this early religious thought and theology of the young Rawls to his mature (secularized) political theory. Although the mature Rawls was no longer religious by the time he wrote Theory of Justice, Nelson argued that work revealed an understanding of human nature that was startlingly similar to Rawls’ former theological beliefs. In Theory of Justice, Rawls described inequalities in the distribution of wealth and opportunity as morally arbitrary. The good that people might experience due to accidents of birth – good health, social position, access to education – were truly unmerited accidents. At the same time, Rawls placed individuals’ moral responsibility for their bad actions squarely on their own shoulders.

In contrast, Nelson explained to the seminar, the early modern scholars who built the liberal intellectual tradition undergirding Rawls’ work held just the opposite view of human nature. These earlier scholars — from Milton, to Locke, Rousseau, and Leibniz, and later to Kant – were primarily worried about how to reconcile the pain, suffering, and evil in the world with “the justice of God.” They concluded that there had to be objective moral principles governing the world that humans were capable of understanding and following. In this way, he explained, a strand of liberal thought developed that framed human dignity, agency, and autonomy as necessary in order for God to be just, and therefore humans were capable and free to earn or deserve divine favor.

Thus, these early thinkers imagined a liberal society premised on the idea that humans are truly free, and deserve the credit for all of their good actions as well as all of their bad ones. By contrast, in Nelson’s telling, it does not make sense to reject this earlier view of human dignity tied to human capacity for merit while arguing (as Rawls did) that human dignity means a liberal democratic society owes its citizens distributive justice. Nelson believes that one can hold an Augustinian perspective and be a liberal in the sense of supporting religious toleration, promoting non-domination, and building institutions, in order to restrain humans’ bad actions. But, he insisted, that perspective leads to a different political argument, and perhaps a different approach to liberal institutions, and does not obviously demand state policy based on distributive justice.

 The next Providential Modernity seminar on Thursday, March 5, will feature Elsa Costa (Ph.D. candidate, History), discussing some of her work on the Spanish Empire during the transition from Habsburg to Bourbon rule. Her research, recently conducted while on a Fulbright fellowship in Spain, documents the brief existence of a specifically post-Christian ideology of public happiness (or civic eudaemonism) intimately tied to Spanish regalism.


Amber Díaz Pearson works on research and programming with the Religions and Public Life Initiative and the Kenan Graduate Fellows Program, along with survey research, data analysis, and writing for the Education for Civic and Moral Responsibility project. She also manages the KIE Campus Grants Program and the Moral Purpose Award essay competition, and is responsible for educational program assessment at the Institute.

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