John Rawls’s Technodicy

“The Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus” by: Hendrick ter Brugghen

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.