The Guy Who (You Didn’t Know) Made All This Possible (Part 1)

August 18, 2016

His name is John Rawls. Born in Baltimore, his father was an attorney and his mother president of the League of Women Voters. He attended Princeton as an undergraduate. For a time he contemplated entry to the priesthood. Combat during War World II brought that prospect of clerical service to an abrupt end. Rawls lost his faith. The carnage of the battlefield and the barbarity of the Holocaust was, for him, just too much to bear. Such evil meant God simply could not exist.

After leaving the army Rawls returned to Princeton to complete his PhD in philosophy. He taught at Cornell for a brief stint before joining the faculty at Harvard in 1962, where he would teach for the next three plus decades. After sustaining some debilitating strokes in the mid 90’s, slowing his productivity, Rawls passed away a few years later (in 2002) at the age of 81.

On first take that’s not exactly what you would call a life of intrigue or stardom, is it? Seems almost sort of dull. But make no mistake, John Rawls is quite possibly the most important western thinker of the latter 20th century. He’s the most important guy you’ve probably never heard of. But trust me, you do know Rawls. You know him really, really well. He’s everywhere you look.

Here’s what I mean: Rawls thought has been so persuasive for so long that in many ways it has come to define the very political terms of American public life today. It’s not just that Rawls contributes in some significant way to how we think about politics and law, or about what kind of society we want. His influence is far more pervasive than that. American society is now in large measure a Rawlsian society.

How did this happen, you ask? Partly through a small army of wildly gifted students, who studied with Rawls and then went off to have their own careers in the academy and elsewhere. But primarily through his two monumental works: A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). I don’t throw this word around often, but both books are masterpieces. Even if you don’t agree with him, it is impossible to grapple with any part of his general argument and come away unscathed or unimpressed. His writing is so crisp and clear, his claims so tightly argued, his theories so intuitive and compelling that he often feels unassailable. Whole books have been written on mere pages of Rawls work.

Suffice to say, I can’t really survey the whole of Rawls’ political theory here and do it justice. What I can give you is a sort of thumbnail sketch of one narrower idea that conveys a sense of Rawls importance and that also illustrates how formative his thought has been in American law and politics. Central to Rawls’ political thought is a doctrine, or idea, he refers to as public reason. Let me tell you what he says about public reason and then in a second part to this piece I’ll explain how the doctrine has infused American public life today.

What one thing must we say something about in order for it to alter an entire political theory? Justice. Rawls thought begins with a now famous definition of justice: fairness. Justice is fairness. And as definitions go it seems commonsensical enough — we all want a fair shake in life and, on the whole, think others should get fair shake too. Don’t mistake Rawls for an ideologue, though. He doesn’t think justice should or even can be totally level and equalized. He’s concerned more with making social institutions, or ordering mechanisms, widely beneficial to all.

We live in a society composed of diverse viewpoints about life’s most important truths and yet somehow a political equilibrium (of sorts) is achieved with rather considerable regularity. Despite all our tremendous differences, Rawls believes that what holds us together as a society is our shared understanding of justice. We all wish to be as free and as equal as possible. That’s what all liberal societies — in the narrow, historic sense of the word “liberal” — most want. The challenge in modern times has been how precisely to balance freedom and equality in a pluralistic society with differences of opinion about who needs or deserves what.

So, Rawls proposes “a conception of justice that may be shared by citizens as a basis of a reasoned, informed, and willing political agreement.” The key word there is “shared.” This “shared” understanding must remain independent of alternate philosophic or religious viewpoints vying for political supremacy. “Public reason” is the name of the independent understanding we share in. Getting along is important to us, and this means we need to agree on what justice will look like for us as a society. This doesn’t have to be conscious for us; it happens gradually over time.

According to Rawls we’re after something “we hope can gain the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines in a society regulated by it.” This consensus the plurality of folks have in common he thinks amounts to a “freestanding” view of justice reliant only upon a long-negotiated and entirely neutral public reason. To clarify, an “overlapping consensus” is what we all essentially think is the case despite our great many other differences. We’ve got this common idea of justice as fairness and that’s our political starting point.

A somewhat superficial example might help here. Suppose you are a college football fan and you feel your team’s chances of winning the conference championship this year are pretty good. You’re not alone; a lot of other fans think so too. All of the fans, you included, want more than anything for the team to succeed. But there is a wide difference of opinion about specific parts of the team. Some think the team is too young at crucial skill positions, some worry about the coach’s offseason problems, and some think the secondary is weak. Opinions are all over the map. The thing held in common by true fans, however, is an unwavering commitment to support the team and stick with them regardless of wins or losses. They’re your team. Nothing can change that for you and every genuine fan sticks with them. In a way, this undying commitment to the team is sort of like Rawls’ public reason — the thing we all agree on without much thinking about it.

A final point of clarification. Rawls calls justice a “political conception,” by which he means that “justice as fairness” is what the overlapping consensus has come to agree upon. Political concepts are neutral. They’re mutually agreed upon, even if tacitly, and apply to everyone. But, and this is a huge but, the neutrality of public reason means that it cannot be religious. Rawls is confident his theory can be accepted reasonably by all citizens irrespective of viewpoint, even by citizens with definite religious convictions, provided those religious citizens understand that their convictions cannot figure into “political discussions of constitutional essentials and basic questions of justice.” The cost for any religious citizen wishing to contribute to these important political discussions is the privilege of appealing to religious convictions. In other words, to contribute means checking “comprehensive doctrines” at the door and entering the discourse on purely political terms. These are simply the terms of social cooperation; any political conception of justice must remain invulnerable to special interests of any comprehensive viewpoint.

So, despite the great plurality of viewpoints represented in constitutional democracies it remains possible on Rawls’ account to achieve modest social consensus if citizens show some willingness to compromise. And notice, the decisive criterion here is the reasonableness of one’s viewpoint (i.e., comprehensive doctrine). What determines whether your religious viewpoint is sufficiently reasonable? The public! For Rawls, public reason determines finally what is and is not a legitimate viewpoint. A governor may appeal to some religious viewpoint in her speech, for example, but only if it can be translated into terms accordant with public reason. Religious appeals must comply with the public values of freedom and equality. Thus, public reason is what he thinks makes his conception of justice “freestanding” and ideologically neutral. Democratic societies rise or fall on the willingness of citizens to recognize the terms of justice set by public reason, and comply.

As you may already detect, Rawls’s doctrine of public reason carries tremendous ramifications for participation in public discourse. First, it means that the person who chooses to engage in such discourse knows the political language and its many discrete dialects. Wanting to participate and knowing how to participate are two very different things. A discourse is by definition something already underway, and so every new entrant is required to learn the terms of its procession. No one can play baseball, after all, without knowing what strikes and balls mean, or when and how to run the bases. The same idea applies here: political participation requires learning the rule of the game, and on Rawls account the rules are determined by public reason. At the very least, participation will require identifying and respecting salient political values public reason enshrines.

Second, because participation in public discourse requires doing so on political terms, as Rawls would have it, the person holding a “comprehensive doctrine,” like that of Christianity, say, must refrain from direct appeal to the terms of that comprehensive doctrine. If you want to be heard in public, you have to say what you want to say on purely political terms. It is OK to draw privately on your own faith commitments for engaging in public discourse, but deploying those commitments explicitly in public is a mistake, not because it’s wrong in principle, but because it either cannot or will not be heard. If one’s faith contributes to the logic of one’s political commitments, then to be heard requires translation of one’s faith into language that is publicly intelligible, which is to say in keeping with public reason.

Now you have the wildly truncated account of Rawls doctrine of public reason. In my next post I’ll unpack a few of its implications for our contemporary political experience.

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24