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John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ and Jewish Heresy

How the liberal philosopher came to reject Judaism’s ideals of merit and chosenness in favor of progressive justice

Eric Nelson
December 02, 2019
Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images
Harvard professor of political philosophy John Rawls (1921-2002), Harvard University, May, 29, 1990Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images
Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images
Harvard professor of political philosophy John Rawls (1921-2002), Harvard University, May, 29, 1990Photo: Steve Pyke/Getty Images

John Rawls’s undergraduate senior thesis, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, has given us an invaluable new perspective on his intellectual formation. The young Rawls, who planned to become an Episcopal priest, spent his Princeton years immersed in neo-Orthodox Christian theology and dedicated his thesis to an exploration of its themes. It was in this essay that Rawls first developed his idea of “moral arbitrariness,” and it is significant that he did so in the context of a fierce attack on the Pelagian heresy.

The theological issues involved in this dispute go back, as we have seen, to the very beginnings of the Christian church. Early Christians confronted a question of theodicy: how can we vindicate the justice of an omnipotent God, given the terrible suffering we see all around us—and given His apparent intention to punish many of us with eternal damnation? A natural way of answering this challenge would be to insist upon the radical freedom of human beings. God, being good, has created us to be capable of morality, but we cannot be capable of morality without being free to choose to do evil. Human suffering (or a great deal of it, at any rate) is the result of the free choice of free men, and, precisely because it is always in our power to merit God’s favor by doing right, we cannot deny that God justly punishes us when we sin.

This general approach to the question of election we have called Pelagianism. While it seemed to offer a promising way out of the theodicy tangle, critics immediately recognized that it also posed a grave threat to orthodox Christian doctrine. The problem, put simply, was as follows: if human beings are free to sin or not sin, and thereby to merit God’s favor or punishment on their own, what was the purpose of the Atonement? Why did Jesus have to come to earth to be crucified to redeem us from sin, if we were always perfectly capable of redeeming ourselves? Pelagianism was thus associated from the very beginning with anti-trinitarianism and other heresies denying the divinity of Jesus.

For precisely the same reasons, Pelagianism was always regarded as a “Judaizing” or “Hebraizing” doctrine. Its enemies saw in it the sin of “pride”—the prideful insistence of the “chosen people” that one can follow God’s law and earn election without Christological intercession. Augustine responded to this Judaizing Pelagian challenge by formulating the doctrine of original sin: human beings, on his account, are deformed in their nature and incapable of avoiding sin and achieving election without the intercession of grace. Calvinists would later develop a yet more stringent version of the doctrine, according to which it is grace alone that saves us, and God “predestines” which of us will be recipients of this unmerited and irresistible favor (Augustine himself endorsed something like this position in his late works).

The Augustinian and Calvinist approaches promised to rescue the Atonement, but only at the cost of exacerbating the initial theodicy problem. For how can a just God punish us for sinning if we cannot help but sin, if doing right is simply beyond our power? The tendency of predestinarian theories to turn God into a tyrant explains the persistence of Pelagianism in the Christian world, in the form of radical Arminianism, Socinianism, and, later, Unitarianism. It is, indeed, no coincidence that all of the early-modern theorists who laid the philosophical foundations for what we have come to call “liberalism”—from Milton and Locke to Kant—were committed Pelagians. Their shared conviction that human beings are radically free and responsible for their choices before God and man undergirds both their contractarian politics and their commitment to religious toleration. For these theorists, it is only the human capacity for morality that could ever “justify the ways of God to men,” and human suffering is the fair price we pay for it.

The striking fact about Rawls, in contrast, is that, although he would go on to produce the twentieth century’s most significant statement of liberal political philosophy, his orientation was stridently anti-Pelagian. Distraught that “Pelagius rendered the Cross of Christ to no effect,” the young Rawls wished to reject the idea that human beings can “merit” election and “earn” God’s favor. Such a conceit, on his account, is merely the product of pride and “egotism,” which denies the fundamental reality of human fallenness and original sin. Rawls, quite conventionally, associated this Pelagian pridefulness above all with Judaism.

Picking up Marx’s terminology from On the Jewish Question—but developing the argument of his source in a highly original direction—he denounced the “bargain basis” which “manifests itself in the barrier of legalism in religion [i.e., Judaism] and in contract theories in politics.” It was the apostle Paul, Rawls explained, who first recognized “how easily legal righteousness comes to be infected by pride. He knew that the best efforts in Judaism were so corrupted—not the worst, but the best.”

A central project of Rawls’s thesis was, in short, to rescue orthodox Christian doctrine from a Judaizing Pelagianism (one that “construct[s] the Cross as a new law and as a new rule to be obeyed and rewarded”) by denying the possibility of human merit. The mature Rawls of A Theory of Justice (1971) was no longer a Christian and certainly had no interest in vindicating the doctrine of original sin. But his essential anti-Pelagianism remained intact as a habit of mind. When outlining his principle of moral arbitrariness, he straightforwardly returned to the very same language and arguments he had first employed at Princeton 30 years earlier. This fact, I shall argue, explains a notoriously puzzling feature of Rawls’s theory of agency, and should also prompt us to reassess the attractiveness of that theory as a whole.


Rawls submitted the Brief Inquiry to the Princeton philosophy department almost exactly one year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was discovered by Eric Gregory shortly after Rawls’s death and then published in 2009, along with a lucid introduction by Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel. Also included in the edition was an important essay by Robert Adams that identified Rawls’s intellectual debts to a set of neo-Orthodox Christian theologians, chiefly Reinhold Niebuhr and Philip Leon. Rawls does indeed make extensive use of these twentieth-century writers, but his own emphasis is actually quite different from theirs, and his crucial engagement is with a much earlier text.

The case of Leon is particularly instructive in this respect. The second half of Rawls’s thesis, which addresses the questions of “sin” and “faith” in turn, is organized around a distinction between “egoism” and “egotism” that is drawn straightforwardly from Leon’s The Ethics of Power (1935). Roughly speaking, Leon’s egoist seeks to satisfy his appetites without regard to the interests and well-being of others, while the egotist seeks superiority over his fellows (Leon is clearly indebted here to Rousseau’s distinction between amour de soi and amour propre). Rawls agrees with Leon that the egotist is the “sinner par excellence,” whose vainglorious pride accounts for “all the great sins.” In order to resist the pathology of egotism, on Leon’s account, we must first be brought to recognize that it draws nourishment from a false picture of morality. Contrary to the teachings of virtually all philosophers in the Western tradition, “blaming and condemning and remorse and approving and honouring and self-respect and the glow of the satisfied conscience and merit and worthiness have nothing to do with morality or the good life but rather belong to its opposite.” As Leon puts it elsewhere, “a thoroughgoing criticism of egotism does not merely bring down the high, noble, glorious, etc., but asks for the scrapping of the very notions of these.” A true morality is one “without any idea of merit or greatness (without egotism).”

Much of this language, as we shall see, reappears with great precision in Rawls’s thesis. But it is important to observe that Leon’s focus is not on denying the truth or possibility of claims to merit or desert. He aims, rather, to demonstrate that an obsessive focus on relative standing and moral heroics disfigures our relationships with other people, and with God, in distinctive and dangerous ways. We become, in essence, our own idols, allowing our inner conviction of superiority to estrange us from our fellows, thus undermining community. (Rawls too is deeply worried about the effects of egotism on community, but he is worried about other things as well.) Like Rawls, Leon treats the pre-Damascene Paul as “an egotist,” but, for Leon, Paul’s egotism consisted in his prideful embrace of “his People, the Chosen People, and its code of Law. It was in defence of his people’s absoluteness, with which his own was identified, in defence of its threatened soleness and exclusiveness, that he persecuted, as may be judged from the fact that he afterwards made it his special mission to do away with that soleness and exclusiveness.”

Here, the Jewish pride that Paul eventually rejects is the pride of “chosenness,” which is taken to be a communal/national manifestation of the individual’s sense of superiority over his fellows. Just as an individual’s self-idolatry estranges him from other people, the self-idolatry of the nation estranges it from humanity at large. What is not at issue here is the “Jewish pride” of anti-Pelagian polemic: the prideful assertion that we can earn God’s favor without the intercession of grace, simply by following His law. Indeed, the absence of this anti-Pelagian anxiety from Leon’s account may well explain his strikingly favorable treatment of Judaism as a religious system. Leon writes that the cure for egotism is to be found in “the Judaeo-Christian tradition with its realization of God who is personality and Love or Goodness.” Rawls’s account of Judaism is very different indeed, and reflects his distinctive encounter with a rather surprising source: Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question (1844).


Marx’s famous reply to Bruno Bauer memorably turned the familiar question of Jewish emancipation on its head. Whereas most interventions in the debate about the Judenfrage had posited an incompatibility between Judaism and liberalism (on the familiar grounds that Judaism amounted to a chauvinistic rejection of Enlightened universalism), Marx argued instead that Judaism and liberalism were in fact a perfect match. Liberalism, on his account, is simply an expression of Judaism. Man in liberal civil society is “active as a private individual, treats other men as a means, reduces himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.” Religion in civil society is therefore “the sphere of egoism, of the bellum omnium contra omnes. It is no longer the essence of community, but the essence of division. It has become the expression of man’s separation from his community, from himself and from other men.” The notion of “the rights of man,” as understood within the liberal order, presupposes a picture of man as “an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself,” into “his private interest and private choice, and separated from the community.” The pathological focus of liberal citizens on their private, isolated needs estranges them from their fellows, whom they encounter as mere “means” to the advancement of their own interests. The result is the distinctive commodification of human life that Marx associates with the bourgeois, liberal order.

But this fact about the liberal state, for Marx, is to be explained as a manifestation of its essential “Jewishness.” The “secular basis of Judaism,” Marx argues, is “practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Bargaining. What is his worldly god? Money.” The degeneration of “civil society” into a “sphere of egoism” is to be explained as a “Judaizing” of society, from which it follows that “emancipation from bargaining and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our era,” or, as he also puts it, “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.”

The key term in this argument is “bargaining” [Der Schacher]—the German term has the sense of “hucksterism” or “street barter.” Judaism, on this account, takes the “bargain” as its paradigmatic form of encounter between agents, both divine and human. The Jew approaches God as an “egoist” aiming to satisfy “practical needs”; he promises obedience to “an unfounded, superficial law” in return for the satisfaction of those needs, and tries to get the best deal possible from the party opposite—often using the “cunning” of “Jewish Jesuitism” to find loopholes in the law he purports to honor. “The bill of exchange,” as Marx puts it, “is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” The liberal contractarian tradition is, in turn, merely the application of this Jewish “bargain” mentality to the relationship between citizens; each approaches the other as an “egoist” trying to extract the best possible terms from his fellows. Marx’s conclusion is that “an organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for bargaining, and therefore the possibility of bargaining, would make the Jew impossible.”

When Marx associates the “bargain” mentality with Judaism, he thus primarily has in mind an egoistic fetishism of needs that reduces both the self and other people to “means,” rather than ends. Jews particularly adore money, on this account, because it is the efficient medium through which human beings (particularly their labor) can be commodified and exchanged. The purported fact that the Jew conceives of God as just another party with whom to bargain is introduced as evidence of a more general pathology. But, despite Marx’s own silence on the subject, the attack on Jewish “bargaining” harmonizes very nicely with the anti-Pelagian critique of Judaism. What, after all, is the Jew bargaining for, if not election, or divine favor? And how can he imagine himself to have anything with which to bargain if he does not regard his meritorious actions as truly his own? This (allegedly) Jewish understanding of the divine-human encounter presupposes that human beings can come to have claims on God’s favor; we can fulfill our side of the bargain and thereby merit our reward. The sin of “pride” might therefore seem to underlie the “bargain” mentality, in both its religious and political manifestations.

It is perhaps not coincidental that, thirty years after composing On the Jewish Question, it was Marx himself who first applied something resembling the doctrine of moral arbitrariness to the realm of distributive justice. In his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), Marx argued that, even if the problem of exploitation could be overcome—that is, even if every worker could reliably receive back the full value of his labor from the productive process—the result would still be subject to a “bourgeois limitation”:

The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor. But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right.

“In a higher phase of communist society,” Marx famously concluded, the conceit of desert would at last be transcended: “only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” When the young Rawls read Marx, it was this anti-Pelagian undercurrent that most interested him.


There can be little doubt that Rawls’s attack on Pelagianism in the Brief Inquiry reflects an encounter with Marx’s essay. The primary target here is once again “the barrier of the bargain basis,” or “the bargain scheme of redemption,” a term that does not appear in any of the neo-Orthodox or Lutheran sources with which the thesis engages. Rawls likewise follows Marx in insisting that this mentality “manifests itself in the barrier of legalism in religion [i.e., Judaism] and in contract theories in politics.” He agrees that these two phenomena are connected insofar as they both reflect a tendency to regard the “other,” whether divine or human, as a mere “means” to selfish ends. Both therefore destroy “the foundation-ground of community” and “throw one into the abyss of isolation and separation in which man ceases to be man.” Or, as Rawls puts it elsewhere, the “scheme of the bargain” shuts “the individual person within himself, which isolates him from his fellows and which leaves him deserted amid the frenzied wreck of community.” But Rawls leaves Marx behind when he adds (deploying Leon’s distinction) that “egoism, which seeks to use people, is justified in the mind of the sinner by a previous self-worship, a self-worship which seeks to abuse people. Egoism merely uses the other, the ‘thou’; egotism abuses the ‘thou.’ Egotism seeks to set the ‘thou’ below itself, to turn the ‘thou’ into an admirer or an object of admiration. Once the other has been abused, the other can be used.” The tendency to reduce others to mere “means” reflects a more fundamental sin of pride, or “egotism,” that is itself rooted in false ideas about the possibility of merit.

It is striking that Rawls’s example in this context is the “capitalist” (indeed, he feels it necessary to reassure his reader at this point that he is not “spreading Marxist propaganda”). To be sure, Rawls agrees with Marx, “the capitalist seems merely to use his employees. He treats them as so many cogs in the machine which piles up wealth for him. Hence, he seems merely to be an egoist; he seems to want nothing more than concrete wealth, bodily comfort, to which end those he hires are means.” That is, in Marx’s terms, he is motivated by “practical need” and “self-interest.” But Marx had failed to note a deeper fact:

All the time this use of persons is justified by a tacit abuse of them. In the mind of the capitalist those persons are inferior, while he is superior. Further, the employees are not being used as means to concrete egoism, that is, to help amass large properties and estates; no, the end is not purely appetitional, but is spiritual. The capitalist takes great pride in his wealth; he loves to show it off. He likes to walk about his estate praising himself on his success. Underlying all this sinful striving is the egotist lie, namely that he is a person distinct and superior.

The hegemony of “self-interest,” which Marx had taken to be foundational in the liberal state, appears here as a symptom of a more basic moral/theological mistake: the belief in the possibility, and moral relevance, of merit—what Rawls calls “the real core of Pelagian falsity.”

Rawls offers two distinct critiques of the language of “merit.” The first is quite reminiscent of Leon’s: the emphasis on merit and desert, on this view, is both a cause and a symptom of human isolation. The “scheme of the bargain” is always based on fear, rather than love. To assert a claim against either man or God presupposes a “lack of trust and faith” in the other; the goal is always “to bind the ‘other’ and to protect his own self. Bargaining springs from fear, and fear is the most self-centering of all the emotions. Thus, to use the method of legalism [i.e., Pelagianism in religion and contractarianism in politics] is to thrust us further into aloneness and separation.” We might refer to this as the “communitarian” critique of the language of claims, merit, and desert. If we think in these terms, Rawls agrees with Leon, our relationships with both God and our fellow citizens will be disfigured.

But, unlike Leon, Rawls has a second critique to offer as well. He wishes to establish the falsehood, or impossibility, of human claims to merit and desert. The fundamental error, Rawls insists, is to suppose that we can have legitimate claims against God or against our fellows: “the errors which infect traditional doctrines of election arise by attacking the problem from the standpoint of individualism. Misunderstandings of election proceed therefore from the barriers constructed by sin.” “Lying beneath all these barriers,” Rawls explains, “there remains the sin of egotism.” This “infection” is most powerfully on display in “the pride of those who think they have been successful at the bargain scheme of redemption.” Here, like Leon before him, Rawls turns to the case of Paul. But the lesson he draws from the Pauline conversion is very different indeed:

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul speaks severely of those who pride themselves on being upholders of the law. He attacks those who pride themselves on their good works, and he criticizes the Jews as strongly as the Gentiles. The Jew finds compensation in bearing the name of Jew; he relies upon the law, considers himself a “guide to the blind” and “a light to darkened souls” [Rom. 2:19]. Paul himself had experienced the pride of the Jew in his pre-Christian days. He tells us how he strived to be “immaculate by the standard of legal righteousness” [Philipp. 3:6]. Paul after his conversion came to realize that the ideal of his religious endeavors had been at bottom the sinful attitude of boastful self-confidence. The Apostle knew how easily legal righteousness comes to be infected by pride. He knew that the best efforts in Judaism were so corrupted—not the worst, but the best.

For Rawls, the “Jewish pride” that Paul rejected was in fact Pelagianism. The “boastful self-confidence” of the Jew arises from his conviction that he can fulfill the law and be “immaculate by the standard of legal righteousness.” Rawls’s crucial claim is that “the best efforts in Judaism were so corrupted—not the worst, but the best”—that is, even when Judaism avoids the snare of national chauvinism that preoccupied Leon, it cannot free itself from the delusion of merit and desert. The conclusion is straightforward: “Man cannot allow any merit for himself. If Pelagianism is marked by a lack of faith, it is also condemned by its pride.”

The Pelagian doctrine of merit must be false, on Rawls’s account, because it would “render the Cross of Christ to no effect.” If human beings could merit election through their freely chosen acts, the Atonement would be an absurdity. “As a result we conclude that man alone cannot save himself. … The sinner himself is helpless, as we have tried to show. Therefore, salvation depends on God. If He holds back His word, then man must continue in his blindness and in his aloneness. Man lies at the mercy of God, although in his egotistical closedness he does not know that he lies at His mercy. His pride tells him that he possesses power on his own part.” As Rawls puts it more succinctly elsewhere, God “comes to us not on account of merit on our own part. We have no claim upon Him.” Rawls’s account of why man lacks the ability to earn election is straightforward and traditional: he agrees with Augustine that man is fallen. We are by nature sinners, and so, left to our own devices, we would do nothing but sin. “Such, then, is our bondage.” Moreover, we are responsible for our sins—that is, we own them in a way that we do not own our good or virtuous acts—because they are not caused from outside.

We have to admit that the spirit simply corrupts itself. Personality depraves itself for no reason that can be found external to it. There is nothing in the natural cosmos, nothing in man’s nature as such to explain egotism, envy, vanity, pride, and so forth. We must say, no matter how mysterious it may seem, that the spirit depraved itself by itself; that it turned in upon itself to love itself from no external suggestion. The apparent inevitable tendency to do this we may term, if we care to, Original Sin. The beginning of sin must be conceived as taking place in this unfathomable “causeless” way.

Here we reach the asymmetry that lies at the heart of the anti-Pelagian account of human agency. Our sins should of course be attributed to us in the morally relevant sense, because we are sinners—our nature is to sin. What needs to be explained “from outside” is why sinners such as ourselves would ever fail to sin. Our good, virtuous, and productive actions cannot be thought to emerge from us; they must be attributed instead to the intercession of grace. Indeed, on Rawls’s account, the experience of conversion is simply the recognition of this fact:

The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit. He sees that the givenness of God is everywhere prevenient, and that he possesses nothing that he has not been given. He knows that what he has received has been given by some “other,” and that ultimately all good things are gifts of God. Therefore in the face of this givenness of God, in the face of His perfect and righteous mercy, he knows that he has no merit. Never again can he hope to boast of his good deeds, of his skill, of his prowess, for he knows that they are gifts. The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were good and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness—must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting.

The facts about us that cause us to do good are attributable only to God’s grace, working (importantly) through the medium of those around us. They are “received” from outside; if they were not, we would be able to make claims against God on the basis of our actions, thereby undermining the Christian salvific scheme. “No man can claim good deeds as his own, since the very possibility of his goodness presupposes someone’s giving to him. Even when we have desert it is because [God] first gives it to us.” Animating Rawls’s discussion here is a verse from the Epistles that the late Augustine had likewise emphasized in this context: “Who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have, that you did not receive? Now, if you received it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?” “Merit,” Rawls concludes, is therefore “a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of.” “To hold on to the concept of merit is to turn Christianity upside down.”

It is easy to lose sight of the force of this polemical argument in the Brief Inquiry, because the young Rawls also apparently embraces a doctrine of universal election. Ultimately, on Rawls’s account, God has ordained a “community joining all together under God,” from which none will be excluded. The notion that some are predestined for salvation while others are damned is just as unacceptable to Rawls as Pelagianism—and like the latter “renders the cross of Christ to no effect” (in that the Atonement, on such a view, makes no difference to the fate of the damned). This defense of a universal salvation might seem to place Rawls on the “liberal,” rather than orthodox side of the theological divide. But that appearance is misleading. Universalism about election is perfectly compatible with the most strident insistence on the general depravity of man. The claim is that God freely chooses to redeem all of fallen humanity, rather than a small community of saints. The grace in question is no less irresistible (at least in the long run), and no less necessary, than Calvin’s. It is simply bestowed on all by God as a sovereign “act of mercy,” as Rawls explains. A universalist of this kind must therefore still hold that God could (if he chose) justly punish all of humanity for sinning, despite the fact that human beings cannot help but sin. To be sure, a belief in God’s generalized grace makes Rawls’s eschatology more benign than Calvin’s, but it leaves no more room than its predecessor for human merit or freedom.

Readers of Rawls will recognize the extraordinary degree to which this account is reproduced in A Theory of Justice. Immediately after having unveiled the difference principle—that is, the principle that departures from equality in the division of resources will only be justified if they improve the position of the least well-off social group—Rawls writes as follows:

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their development possible. Because he is more worthy in this sense, he deserves the greater advantages that he could achieve with them. This view, however, is surely incorrect. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases. Thus the more advantaged representative man cannot say that he deserves and therefore has a right to a scheme of cooperation in which he is permitted to acquire benefits in ways that do not contribute to the welfare of others. There is no basis for his making this claim.

This passage is notoriously complex, not least because Rawls problematically elides the notion of “desert,” in the sense of coming to have claims, with “Desert” in the sense of possessing “virtue” and what he calls “moral worth.” Not all productive actions are virtuous, and not all virtuous actions are productive (although the same facts about us that make us responsible, or not, for the former must also surely make us responsible, or not, for the latter).

But Rawls’s mature view essentially replicates his position from the Brief Inquiry. Not only are our raw natural abilities undeserved, but we have no “claim” to the productivity made possible by our “superior character,” because the latter is to be regarded as given from outside. It is something for which we can “claim no credit.” As the young Rawls had put it, “no man can claim good deeds as his own, since the very possibility of his goodness presupposes someone’s giving to him. Even when we have desert it is because [God] first gives it to us.” In the later Rawls, grace has simply become chance.

Adapted from “‘The Bargain Basis’: Rawls, Anti-Pelagianism, and Moral Arbitrariness,” in The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of GodCopyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Eric Nelson is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Government at Harvard University.