The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God

Harvard Univ. Oct. 2019. 232p. ISBN 9780674240940. pap. $29.95. PHIL
Early modern philosophers advocated a Pelagian theodicy: humans are empowered moral agents, responsible for the world’s condition. This is potentially the best of all possible worlds, as long as humans use their reasoning ability to construct just social institutions. This theodicy, argues Nelson (government, Harvard Univ.; The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding), lies behind political liberalism’s commitment to social contractarianism. However, John Rawls’s 20th-century magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, betrays this heritage with its notion that the unequal distribution of natural abilities and social goods among people is morally arbitrary and thus justice requires some kind of redistribution that benefits society’s less fortunate members. Opening chapters document the English philosophy of Pelagianism with proof texts yet fail to describe adequately the broader theological and philosophical terrain. Nonetheless, the argument intriguingly illustrates an investigation into how theological and political thought are intertwined. Later chapters lay out a case for the incoherence of luck egalitarian and left libertarian ideas for distributive justice, which, Nelson reasons, flow from Rawls’s error.
VERDICT While ultimately Nelson is unable to refute nonideal critiques of his position, even readers leery of his conclusions will learn much from his attempt.
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