Tag Archives: Theology

Moral Philosophy as Rationalization

Tyler Cowen links to a very insightful article on the theology of the young John Rawls.  It seems Rawls’s disciples are looking under the couches, beds, and rugs for anything written by the hierophant of social democracy.  I am reminded of a story the Harvard philosopher Warren Goldfarb once told a friend of mine about his own career. He said (or is said to have said) that he was downtrodden, worried about continuing on for his PhD, regretting a woefully written term paper he had just handed in to Rawls.  Apparently–I, without a doubt, have no way of verifying this–Goldfarb expressed his concerns to Rawls and Rawls told him not to worry about it. Well, fast forward a few decades, after Rawls has passed away, and the philosophy department is cleaning out Rawls’s office in Emerson Hall. Once they moved his couch…surprise!….that woeful paper Goldfarb wrote was moldering away underneath the furniture. It turns out Rawls never read it.  The paper was left ungraded.

Apocryphal, yes. But two things I know for sure: after Rawls died, many of the books from his office were left up for grabs in the copier room on the third floor of Emerson.  There wasn’t much left when I got there, but I happily snatched Rawls’s copy of Charles Peirce. (Unfortunately there are no passages underlined in it.) The other thing is that one of the offices on the third floor became known as the death office because a string of philosophers died while occupying it.  That couldn’t have been Rawls’s office, but I’m fairly certain that Quine used it, followed by Nozick.  Runaway! 

Thomas Pogge has a book out on Rawls which has a chapter or two devoted to biography.  Along with this paper on religion, it offers some insight into the moral education of the young man as philosopher.  The book mentions an episode during Rawls’s WWII stint.  He and some other officer were approached about driving a jeep into hostile territory.  Since it was dangerous, the commander told the two young men that they could flip a coin to see who’d have to take the mission.  They flipped, Rawls won, and he stayed behind.  His friend’s bad luck didn’t end there, however. He died on the mission. Perhaps this explains why Rawls rejected the equal chance of being any one in society once the veil of ignorance is lifted?

My friend also told me Rawls’s daughter didn’t like the way he dressed.  She said he dressed behind a veil of ignorance.


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