In my law and religion seminar this week, we’ve been discussing justifications for religious freedom. Why should the state protect religion? One argument is that religion, on the whole, contributes greatly to social capital. Take aesthetics, for example. How much great art and music has Christianity alone inspired? What a diminished culture we would have without the St. Matthew Passion, the Sistine Chapel, and The Brothers Karamazov.
But, critics object, religion isn’t the only possible source of artistic inspiration. The Enlightenment inspired great works too, like Candide and The Magic Flute. And then there’s this: John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”: The Musical, a current student production at Oxford. (Better hurry, the February 1 performance is already sold out). “A Theory of Justice,” the producers tell us, will be “the world’s first feature-length musical about political philosophy.” Here’s the plot:
In order to draw inspiration for his magnum opus, John Rawls travels back through time to converse (in song) with a selection of political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. But the journey is not as smooth as he hoped: for as he pursues his love interest, the beautiful student Fairness, through history, he must escape the evil designs of his libertarian arch-nemesis, Robert Nozick, and his objectivist lover, Ayn Rand. Will he achieve his goal of defining Justice as Fairness?
Well, Handel it’s not, but it could be fun in a nerdy sort of way. And it’s nice to see that the musical theater is finally taking Rawls seriously. (H/T: First Thoughts).
Apropos of Erwin Chemerinsky’s illiberal proposal to close down all private and religious schools, here is a liberal argument for accommodation of the educational preferences of (some) religious and other “perfectionist” groups: The Educational Autonomy of Perfectionist Religious Groups in a Liberal State, by Mark Rosen. The influence of Rawls on Rosen’s work is very substantial, but Rosen departs from Rawls in several interesting ways. Arguments like Rosen’s are not the only way to think about issues of educational pluralism (and it seems to me that Rosen’s piece has nothing to say about the educational autonomy of non-perfectionist groups, such as one might find at your typical secular private school). For a different approach, see this earlier post on Ashley Berner’s essay. But, like Berner’s essay, Rosen’s is a serious and thoughtful attempt to grapple with these problems. Here’s the abstract.
This Article draws upon, but reworks, John Rawls’ framework from Political Liberalism to determine the degree of educational autonomy that illiberal perfectionist religious groups ought to enjoy in a liberal state. I start by arguing that Rawls mistakenly concludes that political liberalism flatly cannot accommodate Perfectionists, and that his misstep is attributable to two errors: (1) Rawls utilizes an overly restrictive “political conception of the person” in determining who participates in the original position, and (2) Rawls overlooks the possibility of a “federalist” basic political structure that can afford significant political autonomy to different groups within a single country. With these insights, I argue that some, though not all, religious Perfectionists are consistent with a stable liberal polity, and explain why foundational Rawlsian premises require that Perfectionists be accommodated to the extent possible.
My ultimate conclusions are that liberal polities ought to grant significant autonomy to those illiberal groups that satisfy specified conditions, and that the autonomy of such “eligible” illiberal groups is subject to two further constraints, which I call “well-orderedness” and “opt-out.” The autonomy to which eligible Perfections are entitled includes the authority to educate their children in a way that provides a fair opportunity for the groups to perpetuate themselves. The constraint of well-orderedness, however, permits the State to impose educational requirements that facilitate peace and political stability. Accommodating eligible illiberal groups, subject to these constraints, is an instantiation of liberal commitments, not a compromise of liberal values.
From the New York Times, a report on a proposed constitutional amendment in Mississippi that would declare a fertilized human egg to be a legal person. As the Times points out, the Personhood Amendment would effectively make abortion, as well as contraceptive methods like the morning-after pill that prevent the uterine implantation of a fertilized egg, a form of murder under state law. According to the Times, the amendment’s supporters speak in frankly religious terms. One is quoted as saying that the Amendment is “an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.”
A couple of points. First, notwithstanding the Rawlsian critique, theological arguments like this are actually fairly rare in American politics, for understandable reasons. As a practical matter, if you want to persuade people in a pluralistic society, you’ve got to make arguments that appeal to different religious and ideological commitments; you’ve got to speak in an idiom that includes rather than excludes. (This may not be the case in Mississippi, concededly, where the amendment is popular and has the support of both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates). This explains why the right-to-life movement in America tends not to speak in strictly theological terms, but to rely on arguments from reason and, lately, embryonic Read more