Charlie Hebdo Meets Utility Monster

Charlie Hebdo Meets Utility Monster

John Rawls, Civility & Religious Illiberalism  

By Professor William A. Edmundson (Georgia State University)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Stefan Wermuth/REUTERS.

Picture Description: “Muslim demonstrators hold placards during a protest near Downing Street in central London February 8, 2015. At least 1,000 British Muslims protested in central London on Sunday against what they called “insulting depictions” of the Prophet Mohammad by French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The event comes weeks after 17 people were killed in three days of violence last month in France that began when two Islamist gunmen burst into Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices, opening fire in revenge for its publication of satirical images of Mohammad. Sunday’s protest organisers condemned the Paris attacks, but said the magazine should not publish cartoons of the prophet”. Reuters/Stefan Wermuth.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

Salvation religions are doctrines that posit an eternal afterlife in which vice is punished and virtue rewarded by an almighty deity. Salvation religions tend to proselytize, and why wouldn’t they? If at little cost to oneself, one could save another from eternal damnation, it would be callous not to try. Unsurprisingly, salvation religions tend to impose a positive duty on believers to actively recruit nonbelievers. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” was never meant to include one’s own immortal soul among Caesar’s belongings, nor the immortal soul of anyone else. It would be nice to believe that salvation religions are neatly divided between those that can be trusted to respect the rights of others, and those that cannot. But, I will argue, it is a mistake to think so.

John Rawls struggled with the problem (Citations to Rawls’s works are abbreviated: TJ = A Theory of Justice, 1999 rev. ed.; PL = Political Liberalism, 1996 paperback ed.; CP = Collected Papers; LP = The Law of Peoples; JF = Justice as Fairness: a Restatement. Full citations appear in the references list):

“How is it possible for those affirming a religious doctrine that is based on religious authority, for example, the Church or the Bible, also to hold a reasonable political conception that supports a just democratic regime?” (PL xxxix).

Rawls addressed the problem as a problem for a theory of justice, but he did so by taking up the position of a “citizen of faith” (Laden 2003, 380). What reason can an adherent of a salvation religion have to accept political authority, other than the reason that divine authority commands it? If faith itself is the source of decisively ultimate reasons for action in the temporal, political world, then the only check on believers is belief itself. If faith is the sole portal to salvation, the summum bonum for humankind, then the only admissible constraints on propagation are those either decreed specially by divine authority or derived from an assessment of the likelihood of success.

Rawls’s solution was this: so long as a citizen of faith finds, within that faith, reasons to affirm a liberal temporal authority, all is well. And Rawls went on to show how this might, in favorable circumstances, happen, and happen in a way that was also capable of stably integrating believers into a politically liberal society. But, as he emphasized, this can occur only if citizens of belief can affirm temporal liberal authority “in the right way,” that is, in terms that citizens of other faiths, and non-believing citizens, could also accept. An “overlapping consensus” as to a principle of toleration can be stable only if it is more than a mere modus vivendi in which citizens of different faiths bide their time until they are strong enough to seize political power and apply it to the task of propagating the one true faith.

A temptation to deny liberty of conscience is a permanent condition of salvation religions. Rawls wrote that:

“a persecuting zeal has been the great curse of the [note the singular] Christian religion” (PL 603, n. 75).

But he knew it went deeper than simply a wish to persecute others, or to enforce a reassuring conformity (though these reasons can have an effect too). This is why there is the disorienting lurch in Rawls from a concern to avoid a recurrence of the sixteenth and seventeenth wars of religion to a concern to escape from the toils of utilitarianism. Although Rawls never says so, I think he perceived a connection between the most garish horror shows of human history and the type of aggregating, subjugating tendency built into utilitarianism. If the stakes are high enough, utilitarianism (and consequentialism generally) can justify any kind of cruelty; and salvation religions distinguish themselves by upping the eternal ante as far as they can—even unto infinity. These religions imagine an afterlife having features akin to those of Robert Nozick’s “utility monster” (1974, 41): a creature, or state of affairs, capable of limitlessly great amounts of pleasure and displeasure. If you care at all for another person, you would go to great lengths to save her from eternal damnation, that lake of fire that Joyce’s Dubliners details so chillingly. And any amount of suffering that forcible conversion might involve—breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake—is as nothing compared to the ceaseless torments of hell, and the eternity of bliss available to those who will only confess. It is a small step from here to the corollary that those who blaspheme must shut up or be shut up.[1]

“There is the disorienting lurch in Rawls from a concern to avoid a recurrence of the sixteenth and seventeenth wars of religion to a concern to escape from the toils of utilitarianism”

Reasoning with an adherent of a salvation religion is never quite the same as reasoning with those who oppose each other solely on the temporal plain, who limit their thinking to finite quantities. As Rousseau put it, “The real world has its limits; the imaginary world is infinite.” No secular political program aims to achieve infinite bliss, and so at some point horrific means have to be disqualified. Lenin said that if socialism had to wait on the intellectual development of the ordinary Russian, the wait would be at least five hundred years. Had he foreseen in 1917 what the coming fifty years of hurried-up history would bring, I think he might have resigned himself to the wait. This is because socialism confines itself to finite quantities and finite times. Salvation religions do not —except when they detect an imminent final reckoning, which makes their work to assure a blissful eternity for all who will have it all the more urgent.

“Reasoning with an adherent of a salvation religion is never quite the same as reasoning with those who oppose each other solely on the temporal plain”

Rawls, unlike Marx and Lenin, did not count on the state withering away. But he did not count on salvation religions withering away, either (cf. Brudney 2014, 455). In fact, the contrary. The “fact of reasonable pluralism” assures that over time a liberal society will generate any number of novel, comprehensive moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines (PL xliii). Such doctrines are reasonable to reject, but—insofar as they embrace a political conception of justice—they are not unreasonable to hold. What of salvation religions that balk at a political conception of justice? What has a liberal constitutional democracy to say to them?

A duty of civility requires that liberal citizens acknowledge the rift and try to bridge it by appeal to common values latent in the public political culture—“reasoning from conjecture,” Rawls calls it (CP 591). But an adherent of a salvation religion might not accept those values as entitled to govern even if they do have analogues within her comprehensive doctrine. What if civil citizens thus find insufficient common ground? Civility is not owed to those whose value systems are fundamentally unreasonable. As Rawls’s friend and mentor Burton Dreben put it:

“Too many philosophers, even today, spend too much of their time trying to argue in the abstract for political liberalism against, say, totalitarianism and so forth. This does not seem to me to be a worthy philosophical enterprise. If one cannot see the benefits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy, if one does not see the virtue of that ideal, then I do not know how to convince him. To be perfectly blunt, sometimes I am asked, when I go around speaking for Rawls, What do you say to Adolf Hitler? The answer is [nothing.] You shoot him. You do not try to reason with him. Reason has no bearing on the question. So I do not want to discuss it. But what I am perfectly prepared to discuss is whether the idea of liberalism as an ideal, given the burdens of judgment, is contradictory”. (Dreben 329; brackets in original)

Dreben may not have been advocating that the infant Hitler be smothered in his cradle, or even that Hitler, once a hardened Nazi, be summarily shot at any convenient occasion. But I do think Dreben seriously believed that at some point before he did actual harm Hitler had to be shot. We all do. This is where any admissible solution to what Rawls called the problem of “tolerating the intolerant” must eventually lead. What matters is that we go there only as a last resort.

Michael Lumbroso/Flickr
Michael Lumbroso/Flickr

Given the identities involved in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it is tempting to think that immigration and the clash of cultures is the heart of the problem [See Lindegaard on the role of multiculturalism in the Charlie Hebdo attack]. Rawls after all thought that illiberal but “decent” theocracies ought to be left alone, and so also even benevolent autocracies, so long as they behave themselves abroad. That being so, no wonder that there is trouble when liberal and illiberal peoples blend.

But this is wrong-headed. The problem is endemic to any politically liberal constitutional democracy. It stems from the domestic fact of reasonable pluralism. A politically liberal society fails if it does not generate, over time, a host of irreconcilable comprehensive viewpoints. A well-ordered liberal constitutional democracy ought not to be surprised if it spawns a constant series of Joseph Smiths and their latter-day saints. When it does, it isn’t committed to their cultural survival, and cultists can’t hold their adherents in bondage. But reasonable new doctrines are to be welcomed because, from Rawls’s perspective, something has gone wrong if a diverse background culture collapses into a consensus or near-consensus comprehensively liberal culture. A comprehensively liberal way of life is possible, both for an individual and for an association, but a politically liberal culture cannot help but generate mutually competing sub-cultures—reasonable internal competitors. And the price of that will be the risk of generating unreasonable competitors as well.

“Rousseau would not … tolerate those religions which say that outside the church there is no salvation,” Rawls acknowledged, “[b]ut the consequences of such dogmatic belief which Rousseau conjectures are not borne out by experience” (TJ 189). “Aren’t they, though?” a witness at the Bataclan might be forgiven for wondering.

“A politically liberal society fails if it does not generate, over time, a host of irreconcilable comprehensive viewpoints”

A liberal democratic culture is always at peril of generating illiberal comprehensive sub-cultures because of what Rawls called the “fact of oppression”:

“A continuing shared adherence to one comprehensive doctrine can be maintained only by the oppressive use of state power, with all its official crimes and the inevitable brutality and cruelties, followed by the corruption of religion, philosophy, and science”. (JF 34)

This purplish fact applies as much to comprehensive Millian or Kantian liberalism as it does to medieval Catholicism or Islamic jihadism. Citizens necessarily value things that the political society they belong to does not value. Not because political society disvalues them, but because a liberal political society has no aims of its own, other than to justly arrange for its free and equal citizens to pursue what they value. So, properly stated, Rawls’s view isn’t merely that a liberal society cannot settle upon a consensus, comprehensive conception of the good without becoming coercive—it is that the idea of such a society is incoherent. It is incoherent because it supposes that the only thing its citizens value is to dwell in a society in which all pursue the aim of dwelling in a just society. A liberal society presupposes a plurality of extra-political aims and values.

Of course, a liberal constitutional democracy is entitled to deal coercively with illiberal criminality, after it has occurred. But surely it would be illiberal to prosecute proselytizers of illiberal ideas, or to punish families for refusing to inculcate liberal ideas at home. (Rawls in fact endorses Justice Holmes’s “clear and present danger” test as limiting a liberal state’s right to suppress illiberal speech.) That’s why I say the “clash of cultures” is not the root of the problem, even if it is the most conspicuous growth above ground. Taking the fact of oppression as a given, the root of the problem is that reasonable pluralism is inescapable, given the burdens of judgment. The “burdens of judgment” concerned here are not our usual biases, but permanent obstacles in the way of every reasoner, namely: complicated and conflicting empirical evidence, the need to assign weights and probabilities, the vagueness and indeterminacy of our concepts, differences in experience and background, the plurality of values and the limitations of the “social space” available to realize those values (PL 55-57). (This goes in spades for deliberative bodies as reasoners.) Inevitably “many hard decisions may seem to have no clear answer” (PL 57)—even to reasonable people after conscientious deliberation in close-to-ideal circumstances [See McKim for why this ambiguity must produce a magnanimous outlook for religious believers].

That a liberal democratic society is possible, Rawls says, —despite the burdens, the pluralism, and the fact of oppression—can be seen by the example of modern constitutional democracies that exist today. France was surely one of the democracies he had in mind. Given favorable circumstances, the stability of such societies can be assured, he says, because the political values manifested in such societies are “very great values,” and so they ordinarily outweigh whatever competing values a citizen might hold (JF 189-90). But a very great value is as nothing to an infinitely great value. It would seem that salvation religions are unreasonable unless they confess either or both of the following. One, that the values of salvation and purity are finite and outweighed by political values; or two, that the values of salvation and purity, although infinite, are never conveyable or obtainable by coercive means (JF 191). The duty of civility that citizens of a well-ordered liberal society owe each other would then not extend to creeds that meet neither of these two conditions.

“When is a comprehensive doctrine reasonable?” (JF 191). Rawls does not provide a definition.[2] He says reasonable comprehensive doctrines must acknowledge the burdens of judgment as well as political values such as equal liberty of conscience. They must further confess that:

“There is, therefore, no reason why any citizen, or association, should have the right to use the state’s power to favor a comprehensive doctrine, or to impose its implications on the rest” (JF 191).

None at all? Did Rawls mean “no reason,” rather than “never sufficient reason”? The fact of oppression entails that there is never a politically legitimate reason to enforce a comprehensive doctrine, not that there is no reason. The two conditions just mentioned do not say believers have no reason to propagate their faith by whatever means promise success; and I think they are what Rawls meant. But they, too, are problematic.

To dictate to any religion the relative valuation of the eternal and the secular would surely violate the liberty of conscience that liberal societies guarantee. It is unnecessary, too, so long as adherents are sincerely committed to offering a public justification when the context demands it.[3] So condition one is unreasonable to impose, on liberalism’s own account. That leaves condition two to bear the entire weight of the argument for the possibility of a stable liberal society tolerant of salvation religions. A reasonable salvation faith must acknowledge the burdens of judgment, which means confessing the fallibility of human reason. That does not necessarily entail renouncing the authority of scripture, but it does mean that human interpretation of scripture has always to be discounted as fallible—even when amped up by divine revelation. Rawls hopes, evidently, that the integrity of revealed religions is not compromised by the insistence that they accept—on pain of being declared unreasonable—equal liberty of conscience as a constraint upon admissible interpretations of scripture and declarations of canon.


But is condition two self-consistent? Believers must accept equal liberty of conscience “within” (PL 151) —that is, as a tenet of— their own faith, regardless of whether there is a convincing scriptural (or other authoritatively revealed) basis for it.[4] The burdens of judgment, considered abstractly, would seem to be indifferent between tolerant and intolerant readings, rather than slanted toward tolerance. Pascal (Il n’était pas Charlie) took the burdens of judgment as a decisive reason to wager on—and to obey— an intolerant and jealous God. But political liberalism must reject any such reasoning as unreasonable. (As Burton Dreben might have put it, one does not reason with a utility monster.) A reasonable religious doctrine “may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty” (CP 609), or mumble to itself something else to that effect. In fact it must do so, when called upon, if it expects to be heard in a liberal democracy’s “public political forum” (as opposed to its media and background culture, where the strictures of public reason do not apply (CP 576)). Is it not perverse to expect—and oppressive to insist—that the impositions of the public political culture of a democratic society be read back into divine law? Vox populi, vox dei?

A striking example is found in Mustafa Akyol’s op-ed, “A Medieval Antidote to ISIS,” in the New York Times. (Dec. 21). Akyol advocates reviving a now-almost-lost Muslim doctrine to squelch jihadist recruitment: the doctrine of “irja,” which literally translates as “postponing.” “Murija”—those who invoke irja— call for postponing the reckoning with infidels until the afterlife. Irja might have been “the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism,” had it taken hold. Akyol notes that:

“The groups that the Islamic State accuses of irja — many of them conservative Islamists — would probably not readily accept the label. In their religious texts,too, irja probably appears as heresy. But we should recognize that by ‘postponing’ the imposition of religion and the punishment of sinners, they are engaged in de facto irja. Not out of principle perhaps, but out of pragmatism.”

Pragmatism of this kind could lead to an uneasy modus vivendi, which Rawls believed incapable of stabilizing a just liberal society. But for non-believers to nudge Muslims in the direction of irja is not easy to distinguish from nudging them in the direction of Mill.

“Pascal (Il n’était pas Charlie) took the burdens of judgment as a decisive reason to wager on—and to obey— an intolerant and jealous God. But political liberalism must reject any such reasoning as unreasonable”

It is ironic that, for Rawls, conscience is a pearl beyond price, and must not be bargained for any worldly treasure (JF 181-82); yet the transcendent values that conscience might access are subordinated to political values stipulated as essential to advancing one’s conception of the good, even if it is utterly otherworldly. These windings might unbend if autonomy were posited as our master value —the autonomy of finite, temporal, sentient, terrestrial biological lives. But that move, the later Rawls warns us, is no longer allowed.

Liberal regimes are inherently centrifugal, if not necessarily unstable. Why isn’t it enough to be decent? —one might ask. “Decent” peoples, in Rawls’s account of international justice, are illiberal peoples that nonetheless respect universal human rights, tolerate dissent, are not aggressive toward their neighbors, and in lieu of genuine elections typically have evolved or set up some kind of “decent consultation hierarchy” that registers and responds to popular sentiment (LP 62-72). But a decent regime is free to respond in its own way and in its own time, and without recognizing even the formal political equality or equal liberty of conscience that are the hallmark of liberal constitutional democracies. Rawls’s imaginary paradigm, “Kazanistan,” is Islamic (LP 75-78), but there is no reason why it should have to be Islamic rather than say, Judaic, or —with a few cosmetic touches— Christian.

There is no “fact of oppression” applicable to merely decent peoples. Decent peoples typically pursue a comprehensive religious doctrine of the good. A decent society does not cease to be decent simply because it employs state power to assure that society is centered upon a comprehensive doctrine. And yet decent peoples can have genuine political obligations to their governing regimes—obligations (like those of liberal citizens) to obey laws that aren’t too far over the top (LP 65-66 & n. 5; cf. TJ 308-11; and see Weithman 2015, 111 n. 29).

Do decent peoples have an obligation to become liberal? Rawls is clear that they do not. Liberal peoples cannot legitimately seek a global hegemony by force of arms or the coercion of trade policy (LP 84-85, 92). What they must do is set an example. Rawls, quoting Hegel, suggests that when we look at the world rationally, it looks rationally back (JF 3). But, one can’t help thinking, if we look at the world reasonably, what if it doesn’t take our cue to look “fully reasonably” (LP 74) back?

Peoples are not states, and the question of a “clash of cultures” within a liberal state arises once again. But in a different guise. Why aspire to be a member of a liberal society if there is the option of belonging instead to a decent people within a liberal (or decent) people nested within a global Society of Peoples? If a people is legitimate, dwelling in the remote fastnesses of Kazanistan, why does it cease to be so if transposed into the banlieue of Paris, or into those suburbs of Manchester where, Fox News reported, the English are forbidden to go? If a decent people is not delegitimated by this transplantation, then the enveloping liberal people seem to have little choice—within a Rawlsian framework—but between two awkward alternatives. One is to mandatorily inoculate its guests upon arrival with doses of Kant, Rousseau, and Mill. This, because it is coercive, is liberally (though not “decently”) illegitimate. The other is to respect its guests’ separate, decent, people-hood, and hope that the liberal example, being even more vivid in close-up, will more quickly take.[5] But that has been a bumpy road which, as special circumstances like Charlie Hebdo show, can be traveled in either direction.

Footnotes & References

Brudney, Daniel. 2014. The young Marx and the middle-aged Rawls. In Jon Mandle and David A. Reidy, eds. A Companion to Rawls. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 450-71.

Dreben, Burton. 2003. On Rawls and political liberalism. In Samuel Freeman, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, pp. 316-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laden, Anthony Simon. 2003. The house that Jack built: Thirty years of reading Rawls. Ethics 113: 367–90.

Leiter, Brian. 2013. Why Tolerate Religion? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Rawls, John.1996. Political Liberalism, paperback ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

— 1999a. A Theory of Justice, revised ed. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

— 1999b. Collected Papers. Samuel Freeman, ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

— 1999c. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

— 2001. Justice as Fairness: a Restatement. Erin Kelly, ed. Cambridge MA: Belknap/Harvard.

— 2007. Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Samuel Freeman, ed.

Weithman, Paul. 2015. Legitimacy and the project of Political Liberalism. In Thom Brooks and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. Rawls’s Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Williams, Bernard. 2002. Truth and Truthfulness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

— 2005. In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


[1] This is not to deny that the proximate motivation of present-day kamikazes often has more to do with “heroic and self-sacrificial dying,” as Bernard Williams points out, than with an afterlife and anything it holds for anyone. But to make sense of our current situation, we have to look also to the distal as well as the proximate motivations of jihadism, and that happens to be tied to revealed religion, rather than to a warrior’s code as such. Williams is right that it had better make sense to us that jihadism might make sense to “someone else with a very different formation … if we are to sustain the hope, however desperately, of making sense of the world we live in” (2002, 235).

[2] At one point Rawls does offer what is billed as a definition but admits that it is “deliberately loose” (PL 59).   One might ask, how can it be reasonable to affirm what one knows that others, who are equally qualified, and upon on the same evidence, reasonably deny? Rawls sees no difficulty (PL 60). If one were rationally required to suspend one’s belief in such circumstances, that would be a more compelling ground for saying it would be illegitimate to impose one’s belief over the objections of others. Rawls does not take this line, however; perhaps because he anticipated difficulties it might create for justifying majority rule.

[3] This is “the proviso” that Rawls added in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (CP 584, 591-93); and see Dreben 2003, 342-43. Rawls does say that “a reasonable comprehensive doctrine is one in which is one in which the political values of constitutional democratic society are not overridden by transcendent, higher, superior values, such as salvation and eternal life; it is the unreasonable doctrines in which reasonable political values are overridden” (CP 609; quotation reordered, emphasis in original). But he denies that this involves making a comparison between political and transcendent values. (Go figure.)

[4] Rawls also says “from the standpoint of” (PL 150) but at one point backs off and says “or else not in conflict with.” [JF 100]. And in other places Rawls speaks of a political conception as a “module” (PL 12, 144-45), as though it might, like a Lego brick, snap into some receptive feature of a comprehensive view.

[5] Bernard Williams was keenly aware of the conundrum, but could not solve it. He acknowledged that “there manifestly have been, and perhaps are, [legitimate] non-liberal states” (2005, 4). But he quickly added that “Now and around here the [basic legitimation demand] together with the historical conditions permit only a liberal solution: other forms of answer are unacceptable. In part, this is for the Enlightenment reason that the other supposed legitimations are now seen to be false and ideological. It is not, though it is often thought to be, because some liberal conception of the person, which delivers the morality of liberalism, is or ought to be seen as correct”. (2005, 8) So, for Williams, apparently what liberals go with is not the truth of Kant—“Kant in the court of King Arthur,” as it were—but the falsity—Rawls would say “unreasonableness”—of illiberal legitimations that invoke salvation (and hierarchical) religions.   For liberals, this insight generates a demand that is not only “normative for us as applied to our own society … it is also normative with respect to other societies which co-exist with ours and with which we can have or refuse to have various kinds of relations: they cannot be separated from us by the relativism of distance” (2005, 14). That sort of relativism is conspicuously less possible if the distance is not across oceans and borders but across town. Yet Williams also confesses that moralistic liberalism “spectacularly” lacks a theory of error to explain why liberals are right and everyone else is wrong (2005, 11).   He does not say why a similar lack is not an embarrassment for his own view. But sometimes one must act on the recognition of an error one has not yet got a good theory of.

William Edmundson
William Edmundson
William A. Edmundson is the author of Three Anarchical Fallacies: an Essay on Political Authority (CUP), An Introduction to Rights (CUP), and John Rawls, Reticent Socialist (forthcoming). He is Regents’ Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgia State University.
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

An Iranian boy lies in a symbolic coffin for the U.S. with a picture of author Salman Rushdie, while visiting the International Koran exhibition at the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran September 3, 2008. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN) - RTX8DNT