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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 August 2015

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This article draws on archival sources to offer the first thoroughgoing account of how John Rawls moved from his undergraduate Christian ethics to the mature moral theory that undergirded A Theory of Justice. Identifying the liberal Protestant (rather than neo-orthodox) convictions at the heart of Rawls's senior thesis, it shows how he found an alternative postwar grounding for these views by applying Wittgenstein's later arguments about concepts, criteria, and inductive reasoning to ethics. The article places Rawls in the context of a whole community of mid-century American ethical theorists drawing upon Wittgenstein and trumpeting forms of moral “naturalism,” many of whom shared Rawls's Protestant heritage. It suggests that we can only make sense of the reliance of Rawls's moral theory on personal recognition, emotion, and a universal vision if we sideline the traditional dichotomies of the secularization debate and regard the postwar ethics of Rawls and his cohort as “post-Protestant.”

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Thanks to Joel Isaac, Duncan Kelly, David Hollinger, Paul Weithman, Arjun Ramamurti, and the anonymous reviewers and editorial team at Modern Intellectual History for advice on prior drafts, and to archivists at Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and Michigan for unfailing help. My project was first launched under the guidance of Jim Kloppenberg, David Armitage, Peter Gordon, and Tim Scanlon, and benefited from comments by Michael O’Brien and Mark Kishlansky, both lately lost and much missed. Quotations from the Rawls Papers appear courtesy of the Harvard University Archives and Margaret Rawls.


1 Walter T. Stace, “Man against Darkness,” Atlantic Monthly (Sept. 1948), 53–8, at 56.

2 Harold W. Dodds, copy of letter from President Dodds to an alumnus, in Walter T. Stace file, primary run, Faculty Files, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (henceforth “Princeton Archives”).

3 Cannon, Henry B., “The Church, the College and Propaganda,” Perspective, 1/2 (1949), Folder 10, Box 28, AC135, Princeton Archives, 1Google Scholar.

4 Stace, Walter T., “On the Need for a Secular Ethic,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 5/6–7 (1949), 197–8Google Scholar.

5 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge MA, 2007), 22 Google Scholar. Reichenbach, Hans, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (Berkeley, 1951) is a classic “subtraction storyGoogle Scholar.”

6 Proponents of such “sorry substitution” arguments include Karl Löwith, Carl Schmitt, Alastair MacIntyre, and Taylor himself.

7 Hollinger, David A., “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” Journal of American History, 98/1 (2011), 2148, at 48CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hollinger is the source of the term “post-Protestant.”

8 First discussed in: Gregory, Eric, “Before the Original Position: The Neo-orthodox Theology of the Young John Rawls,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 35/2 (2007), 179206 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; published as Rawls, John, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith (Cambridge MA, 2009) (hereafter SF)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 For the former see Thomas Nagel and Joshua Cohen, “Introduction,” in Rawls, SF, 1–23; and Habermas, Jürgen, “The ‘Good Life’—A ‘Detestable Phrase’: The Significance of the Young Rawls's Religious Ethics for His Political Theory,” European Journal of Philosophy, 18/3 (2010), 443–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the latter see Bevir, Mark and Gališanka, Andrius, “John Rawls in Historical Context,” History of Political Thought, 33/4 (2012), 701–25, at 704Google Scholar.

10 Not in the sense of materialist “scientific naturalism.” Instead, Rawls fits well into the narrative of “liberal naturalism” sketched in De Caro, Mario and Macarthur, David, eds., Naturalism and Normativity (New York, 2010)Google Scholar. The editors describe it as “occupying the typically overlooked conceptual space between Scientific Naturalism and Supernaturalism” in Mario De Caro and David Macarthur, “Introduction: Science, Naturalism, and the Problem of Normativity,” in ibid., 1–19, at 9. The particular version of liberal naturalism shared by Rawls's group of 1950s analytic ethical theorists has been overlooked.

11 The adoption of British concerns and methods differentiated them from the Columbia Naturalists, who prided themselves on cultivating a distinctively American philosophy. On the latter see Jewett, Andrew, “Canonizing Dewey: Naturalism, Logical Empiricism, and the Idea of American Philosophy,” Modern Intellectual History, 8/1 (2011), 91125 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 One important survey does remark on a “great expansion” in American ethics at mid-century; see Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan, and Railton, Peter, “Toward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some TrendsPhilosophical Review, 101/1 (1992), 115–89, at 121–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 For insider descriptions see Brandt, Richard B., Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, 1959)Google Scholar; Aiken, Henry D., “Preface,” in Aiken, Reason and Conduct (New York, 1962)Google Scholar; and Frankena, William K., “Ethical Theory in America since 1930,” in Chisholm, Roderick M., Feigl, Herbert, Frankena, William K., Passmore, John, and Thompson, Manley, Philosophy: The Princeton Studies of Humanistic Scholarship in America (Englewood Cliffs, 1964), 347463 Google Scholar.

14 Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge, 1982), 85 Google Scholar.

15 Furthermore, much of the strong Kantian gloss on A Theory of Justice was added retrospectively, as in the 1980 Dewey Lectures.

16 Compare Erin I. Kelly and Lionel K. McPherson, “The Naturalist Gap in Ethics,” in De Caro and Macarthur Naturalism and Normativity, 193–203, at 203: “Having certain sentiments or attitudes is a condition for having moral concern at all.”

17 See Weithman, Paul, “Does Justice as Fairness Have a Religious Aspect?”, in Mandel, Jon and Reidy, David, eds., A Companion to Rawls (New York, 2013), 3156 Google Scholar.

18 John Rawls, “On My Religion,” in Rawls, SF, 261–9.

19 Minot C. Morgan Jr to Robert R. Wicks, 29 Nov. 1940, in “Chapel Delinquencies” (1940–41), Box 3, AC 144, Princeton Archives.

20 Rawls, SF, 233.

21 David F. Bowers to Robert G. Albion, 8 Jan. 1942, and Rawls's college transcript, both in John Rawls's undergraduate file, Box 63, AC198, Princeton Archives.

22 Cuninggim, Merrimon, The College Seeks Religion (New Haven, 1947), 188–92Google Scholar. Princeton was part of a wave of American universities establishing religion departments after World War II.

23 Pogge, Thomas, John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice (Oxford, 2007), 11 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Rawls graduated a term early to answer a draft notice.

25 Rawls, SF, 112.

26 Ibid., 126–7.

27 Brunner, Emil, Man in Revolt, trans. Olive Wyon (London, 1939), 74 Google Scholar.

28 Rawls, SF, 108.

29 Ibid., 244.

30 Ibid., 244–5.

31 Brunner, Emil, Theology of Crisis(New York, 1935), 85–6Google Scholar.

32 Rawls, SF, 252.

33 Cf. Gregory, “Before the Original Position”; and Reidy, David A., “Rawls's Religion and Justice as Fairness,” History of Political Thought, 31/2 (2010), 309–43, at 315–16Google Scholar.

34 Rawls, SF, 112–13.

35 Robert M. Adams, “The Theological Ethics of the Young Rawls and Its Background,” in Rawls, SF, 24–101, at 32.

36 I will complicate readings of Rawls, “On My Religion,” 261.

37 John Rawls, “The Nature of Ethical Thought,” Folder 11, Box 9, Rawls Papers (HUM 48), Harvard University Archives (henceforth “Rawls Papers”), 7.

38 Ibid., 8–9.

39 John Rawls, typescript review of Basic Christian Ethics by Paul Ramsey, Perspective, 3/7 (1951), Folder 17, Box 7, Rawls Papers, 1–2.

40 Frankena, William K., “Moral Philosophy at Mid-century,” Philosophical Review, 60/1 (1951), 4455, at 45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Stevenson, C. L., Ethics and Language (New Haven, 1944)Google Scholar.

42 John Rawls, “The Concept of Moral Discussion in the Emotive Theory,” Folder 8, Box 8, Rawls Papers (folder henceforth “ET/Rawls”).

43 John Rawls, “On the Emotive Theory of Ethics (Fall 1951),” 1, ET/Rawls, original emphasis.

44 Pogge, John Rawls, 14.

45 Rawls, “On the Emotive Theory of Ethics,” 17, original emphasis.

46 “Induction” folder, Box 1, Max Black Papers (14–21–2466), Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Archives. The seminar minutes (taken each week by a different graduate student) show that Rawls had already acquired much of his knowledge of the late Wittgenstein before his year at Oxford (1952–3). Contrast with Bevir and Gališanka, “John Rawls in Historical Context,” 710; Reidy, “Rawls's Religion and Justice as Fairness,” 310; and Botti, Daniele, “John Rawls, Peirce's Notion of Truth and White's Holistic Pragmatism,” History of Political Thought, 35/2 (2014), 345–77, at 376Google Scholar.

47 Rawls, John, “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics,” Philosophical Review, 60/2 (1951), 177–97, at 178CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 John Rawls, “Tolerance & Its Justifications,” Folder 1, Box 35, Rawls Papers, 9.

49 John Rawls, “Christian Ethics: Preliminary Remarks,” Folder 5, Box 8, Rawls Papers (folder henceforth “CE/Rawls”), 2.

50 Rawls recalled reading biblical scholarship while at war in the Pacific in John Rawls, personal interview conducted by Thomas Pogge (Cambridge MA, summer 1993), track 2. Pogge has generously shared his four hours of recorded interviews with me. Rawls's 1954 course notes include references to Harnack and especially Dodd.

51 John Rawls, “Lecture 5: Day of Yahweh & the Doctrine of Election,” CE/Rawls, 2, 4b, 5.

52 Rawls, SF, 252.

53 John Rawls, “On Rewards & Punishments,” CE/Rawls, 3b, original emphasis.

54 Ibid., 3a, original emphasis.

55 Rawls, “Tolerance & Its Justifications,” 14. I have identified the previously unknown occasion for this paper (Reidy, “Rawls's Religion and Justice as Fairness,” 334–5) as a talk on “Religious Liberty and Toleration” to a group of Methodist students; announcement in Cornell Daily Sun, 73/45 (16 Nov. 1956), 5, online at

56 Rawls, “Tolerance & Its Justifications,” 14–15.

57 Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York, 1993), 62 Google Scholar.

58 Rawls, “Tolerance & Its Justifications,” 15.

59 Rawls, “Some General Remarks on Christian Ethics,” 5.

60 Anscombe, G. E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, 33/124 (1958), 119, at 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Ibid., 5–6.

62 Toulmin, Stephen E., An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics (Cambridge, 1950), 223 Google Scholar; and Foot, Philippa, “Moral Arguments,” Mind, new series, 67/268 (1958), 502–13, at 510–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 See Hägerström, Axel, Inquiries into the Nature of Law and Morals, trans. C. D. Broad (Uppsala, 1953)Google Scholar. Rawls regularly framed his arguments against Hägerström in the mid-1950s.

64 John Rawls, “The Concept of Morality and the Person,” Folder 18, Box 34, Rawls Papers (folder henceforth “MF/Rawls”), 7.

65 The two essays can be roughly dated by their references.

66 John Rawls, “Talk on the Concept of Morality,” MF/Rawls, 3.

67 Rawls, “Morality and the Person,” 12, original emphasis. Compare Rawls, SF, 111: “Persons as such exist.”

68 Rawls, “Morality and the Person,” 12.

69 John Rawls, “Notes on Concept of Morality & Compassion,” ET/Rawls, original emphasis.

70 Rawls, “Morality and the Person,” 12.

71 John Rawls, “Topic IX: Compassion,” Folder 19, Box 34, Rawls Papers, 2.

72 For a critical retrospective account of this movement see Nielsen, Kai, “Moral Point of View Theories,” CRITICA, 31/93 (1999), 105–16Google Scholar.

73 See Rawls, John, “Roderick Firth: His Life and Work,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 51/1 (1991), 109–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar. As department chair, Firth brought Rawls to Harvard, where they were colleagues for twenty-five years. When Firth died in 1987, it was Rawls who gathered his papers together. Rawls left extensive comments and most of his own annotated reprints of Firth's articles in the Firth collection at the Harvard archives.

74 Troyer, John, ed. In Defense of Radical Empiricism: Essays and Lectures by Roderick Firth (Lanham, MD, 1998), 111 Google Scholar.

75 Firth, Roderick, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 12/3 (1952), 317–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Henry D. Aiken, “The Concept of Moral Objectivity,” in Aiken, Reason and Conduct, 134–70, at 152.

77 Aiken, “Moral Philosophy and Education,” in Aiken, Reason and Conduct, 3–32, at 23.

78 Firth, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” 333.

79 Ibid., 341.

80 Brandt, Richard B., “The Definition of an ‘Ideal Observer’ Theory in Ethics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 15/3 (1955), 407–13, at 407–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

81 Richard Brandt, Hopi Ethics (Chicago, 1954).

82 Firth, Roderick, “Reply to Professor Brandt,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 15/3 (1955), 414–21, at 414CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 So both Firth and Rawls were committed to what Amartya Sen has called “open impartiality,” even though Sen coined that term in contrast to the “closed impartiality” of the older Rawls's seemingly more narrow vision. See Sen, Amartya, “Open and Closed Impartiality,” Journal of Philosophy, 99/9 (2002), 445–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

84 “John Rawls to Richard Brandt, 7 November 1955,” in “Meaning and Justification in Ethics,” Box 6, Richard B. Brandt Papers (9837 Aa 2), at Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

85 William Frankena to John Rawls, 12 Feb. 1958, Folder 1, Box 19, Rawls Papers, 2. Frankena was summarizing the view he had expounded in “Yale Lectures, 1957,” Box 10, William K. Frankena Papers (9538 Aa 2), Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan (henceforth “Frankena Papers”).

86 1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV. The full verse captures the longing for interpersonal recognition: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

87 Frankena, William K., “On Saying the Ethical Thing,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 39 (1965–6), 2142, at 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 Hollinger, David A., “Academic Culture at the University of Michigan, 1938–1988,” in Hollinger, , Science, Jews, and Secular Culture (Princeton, 1996), 121–54Google Scholar.

89 “Report of the Committee on Religion,” in “Activities—Committee on Religion,” Box 14, Frankena Papers.

90 Roderick Firth to Rogers Albritton, 1 Nov. 1966, “RF Corr: Albritton,” Papers of Roderick Firth, collection of John Troyer, Storrs, CT (henceforth “Firth/Troyer”). The vast majority of Firth's papers are privately held by his former student, John Troyer, to whom I am grateful for access and gracious hospitality.

91 Roderick Firth to William Frankena, 31 May 1961, in “Letters of Recommendation, ’51–’69,” Box 14, Frankena Papers.

92 Frankena, “Ethical Theory,” 433.

93 Frankena, William K., “Love and Principle in Christian Ethics,” in Plantinga, Alvin, ed., Faith and Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI, 1964), 203–25, at 204Google Scholar.

94 Frankena, William K., “Public Education and the Good Life,” Harvard Educational Review, 31/4 (1961), 413–26, at 425Google Scholar.

95 Frankena, William K., “Towards a Philosophy of Moral Education” (originally published in Harvard Educational Review, 28/4 (1958), 300–13)Google Scholar, in Scheffler, Israel, ed., Philosophy and Education: Modern Readings, 2nd edn (Boston, 1966), 225–44, at 243Google Scholar.

96 Firth, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” 335.

97 John Rawls, “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics,” 179.

98 Roderick Firth, “Lecture on Agapism,” in “RF: ‘Agapism,’” Firth/Troyer, 1–2.

99 Ibid., 9–10.

100 Ibid., 12.

101 Roderick Firth, “Two Kinds of Humility,” Moratorium Address, 14 Nov. 1969, in “Firth: Papers 1960s,” Roderick Firth Papers, Unprocessed Accession 15015, Harvard University Archives, 9–13, at 13.

102 The original title was “The Sense of Justice: Moral Feelings & Natural Attitudes,” Folder 7, Box 36, Rawls Papers.

103 Rawls, John, “The Sense of Justice,” in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Freeman, Samuel (Cambridge, MA, 2001) (hereafter CP), 96116, at 112–13Google Scholar.

104 Hsueh, Yen, “Piaget in the United States, 1925–1971,” in Müller, Ulrich, Carpendale, Jeremy I. M., and Smith, Leslie, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Piaget (Cambridge, 2009), 344–70, at 345CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

105 Rawls, “The Sense of Justice,” 96. Rawls attributed the idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Allan Bloom (London, 1979), 211–53. Rather than uniting the two traditions Michael Frazer discusses, Rawls relied on a figure—Rousseau—who fits in neither camp. See Frazer, Michael L., “John Rawls: Between Two Enlightenments,” Political Theory, 35/6 (2007), 756–80, at 758CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

106 Rawls, “The Sense of Justice,” 100.

107 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. edn (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 405–16 (hereafter TJ)Google Scholar.

108 Barry, Brian, “John Rawls and the Search for Stability,” Ethics, 105/4 (1995), 874915 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 Rawls again attributed this insight to Rousseau, Emile, 213.

110 John Rawls, “Necessary Distinction in Regard to Sympathy,” Folder 15, Box 34, Rawls Papers, 2.

111 John Rawls, “The Two-Fold Basis of Justice,” Folder 1, Box 9, Rawls Papers (folder henceforth “TF/Rawls”), 1, original emphasis.

112 Rawls, TJ, 17.

113 John Rawls, “Independent Discussion of the Sentiment of Justice,” TF/Rawls, original emphasis.

114 John Rawls, “Concept of Morality and Conditions of Considered Judgments,” MF/Rawls, 3.

115 “Justice as Reciprocity” appears in Rawls's Collected Papers under the year it was finally published (1971) rather than 1958, when it was written.

116 Rawls, “The Sense of Justice,” 111: “One who lacks a sense of justice lacks certain fundamental attitudes and capacities included under the notion of humanity.”

117 Rawls's margin notes on Thomas Schelling to John Rawls, 29 Nov. 1965, Folder 2, Box 19, Rawls Papers.

118 Rawls, “Justice as Reciprocity,” in Rawls, CP, 190–224, at 209. See also Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” in Rawls, CP, 47–72, at 59.

119 Brunner, Man in Revolt, 74, cited in Rawls, SF, 192–3.

120 Rawls, “Justice as Reciprocity,” 213.

121 Ibid., 224.

122 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, rev. edn, trans. Anscombe, G. E. M., Hacker, P. M. S., and Schulte, Joachim (Oxford, 2009), §217, 91eGoogle Scholar.

123 John Rawls, “The Principle of Fairness and Contractual Obligation (1964),” Folder 5, Box 35, Rawls Papers, 7.

124 Rawls, “On My Religion,” 263–4. Strikingly, Rawls's faith was never threatened by science.

125 Rawls, Pogge interview, track 4. Rawls's “religious temperament” is also mentioned at Nagel and Cohen, “Introduction,” 5.

126 Ibid., track 3. Pogge notes Rawls's views in this regard at Pogge, John Rawls, 26–7, but his comments may mistakenly strike readers as his own inference.

127 Rawls, Pogge interview, track 4.

128 Frankena, “Public Education,” 425.

129 Dworkin, Ronald, Religion without God (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 1 Google Scholar. For similar claims see Bilgrami, Akeel, “What Is Enchantment,” in Warner, Michael, VanAntwerpen, Jonathan, and Calhoun, Craig, eds., Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 145–65Google Scholar.

130 Taylor, A Secular Age, 279–80 and 312.

131 Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge,” in Mendieta, Eduardo, ed., The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (New York, 2005), 327–38, at 335–6Google Scholar. On Habermas's evolving views on religion see Gordon, Peter E., “Between Christian Democracy and Critical Theory: Habermas, Böckenförde, and the Dialectics of Secularization in Postwar Germany,” Social Research, 80/1 (2013), 173202 Google Scholar.

132 Kuklick, Bruce, A History of Philosophy in America: 1720–2000(Oxford, 2001), xiiGoogle Scholar. Cf. ibid., 199, where Kuklick is too quick to dismiss Rawls as part of a postwar period of “narrow concerns” in American philosophy.

133 Hollinger, David, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted,” Daedalus, 141/1 (2012), 7688 Google Scholar.

134 John Rawls, “The Sermon on the Mount,” CE/Rawls, 3.

135 Rawls, TJ, 514.