John Rawls’s Technodicy

John Rawls seems to have thought that one must choose between believing in an omnipotent and good God who cares for human beings or hoping for a more just world through human effort. Choosing the first meant resigning oneself to living in a world filled with egotism and evil. 

Choosing the latter meant no longer believing in God. The two could not go together. On had to choose.

The irony then is that Rawls had to accept the possibility that believing in God and hoping for a better temporal world could go hand-in-hand if he was to correct the faults of Theory [of Justice] and persuade Christians to join an overlapping consensus. This is not to say Rawls changed his own views on the matter, but that he at least had to treat it as an open question. 

Theodicy could no longer be openly dismissed as an evil justification for the bad things of this world, however much Rawls may have continued to believe this. So who is right, the young Rawls who thought the good-God-evil-world dilemma had to be solved outright, or the older Rawls who keeps the dilemma open to build a broader consensus for his political principles?

The solution to the problem requires backing up for a moment.

[Paul] Weithman was right in calling our attention to the themes of theodicy in Political Liberalism, but theodicy may no longer be the appropriate name given the way Rawls is drawing upon those themes. A man climbing up a mountain cliff relates differently to it than another who jumps from its top to a body of water below.

Rawls may be writing about the same themes as Leibniz, but he does so in a different way. Leibniz moves up from a recognition of injustice twoard faith in God’s goodness. Rawls goes the other way, from an assumption of goodness toward a hope for justice in this world.

Theodicy then is not the proper word to describe what Rawls is doing in Political Liberalism. No one would claim Rawls is defending God. It is not that he wants to claim God does not exist or that God is not omniscient, omnipotent, or good; but neither does he want to vindicate these attributes of God. 

His purpose is to gain the assent of Christians for his theory without lending his own support for their faith.

He does not want to denounce Christianity, but he is far from converting.

A better term to describe Political Liberalism is technodicy. The point is to show how evil can be overcome by creating a well-ordered constitutional democracy animated by principles of justice that would be chosen under conditions of fairness. The principles are constructed by the theorists, Rawls, through the machinery of the original position and veil of ignorance. They are meant to stand upon no foundation other than the theoretician’s constructive act.

Rawls argues that well-constructed principles will gain the confidence of the citizenry and thereby secure a stable political order over time.[1] And the more the government built upon these principles proves itself to fairly regulate society, the more citizens will embrace the principles as both reasonable and rational. 

The point, however, is that the principles are not discovered in nature or revelation, but are created by a human being.

Claims of truth tend to distract people from the principles in question.

Rawls refers to this as political constructivism and it is this he hopes to vindicate, not God. Rawls distinguishes constructivism from moral realism.[2]

The latter finds principles from some understanding of reality, whether nature, revelation, or something else. For Rawls, the principles have to be the result of a constructed framework that abstracts from reality, such as the original position. Claims of truth tend to distract people from the principles in question. Construction allows the principles to stand as though in midair with no specified ties to reality; to do so would be to pit political constructivism against moral realism.

He wants moral realists to be a part of the consensus that embraces the principles. They can claim that the principles are consistent with truth, but they cannot draw from that truth in public discussions over constitutional essentials. They must stick to the language of the principles and nothing else. 

For public purposes the principles are the result of a constructed situation and not reality. Insofar as techne refers to craftsmanship or art, it is a suitable designation for what Rawls is doing — defending a human construction of justice. 

Technodicy also better explains Weithman’s interpretation of Rawls’s work than theodicy. 

Weithman argues that Rawl’s self-understood task was to show us how a reasonably just social order could produce moral citizens despite ample history that opposes such a view.

Weithman recognized themes of theodicy in this undertaking: “Political liberalism as Rawls develops it can help us to understand and affirm the very puzzling judgment that God is said to have passed upon the world,” namely that it is good.[3] The judgment is puzzling because of all the evidence to the contrary, of which the past two centuries have contributed to amply. But as Weithman himself recognizes, Rawls’s task is not to defend God, but rather the project of confirming what Genesis tells us God said of the world. Even if Rawls does not believe in God, he still believes, and repeats often, that the world can be made good. And unlike theodicy, which does not require justice on earth to confirm God’s goodness, Rawls’s faith in the future does.

Stated most plainly, Rawls hopes to create a heaven on earth. Theodicy does not plant its hope in this world but the next. Technodicy’s concern is for the here and now.

Citations & References 1. On the question of stability: see Political Liberalism, 140-144.
2. On the question of constructivism: see Political Liberalism, 89-129.
3. Why Political Liberalism, 369.

Jerome Foss

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Jerome C. Foss received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Baylor University. He is currently Assistant Professor of Politics at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government at Saint Vincent College where he also serves as a Fellow in the Center for Political and Economic Thought. His work combines interests in the history of political philosophy and American constitutionalism.

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