So we beat on boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
I read The Great Gatsby in 1963 and I found its final sentence which is reproduced above particularly arresting. Over the course of the past thirty-three years I have often repeated that sentence to myself with a mixture of good and sad feelings.
Scott Fitzgerald's sentence is of course about everybody: “we” here means all of us. But while each peson's past weighs strongly on his or her present for some it weighs more heavily than for others and it certainly weighs very heavily for me. For I was raised in a working-class communist family in a communist community in the 1940s in Montreal on a very strongly egalitarian doctrine and with all the history both public and private that I have since witnessed and undergone I have remained attached to the normative teachings of my childhood and in particular to a belief in equality which I continue to hold and to propound. I cannot escape from it. A powerful current bears me back to it ceaselessly no matter where I might otherwise try to row.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity these lectures afford me to reflect on my belief in equality and on the several ways to other thinkers have conceived both the character of equality and the mode of its advent. Three currents of thought for which social equality in some form in some sense moreally imperative have influenced the content of thse lectures: first classical Marxism; second egalitarian liberalism as it presents itself in the work of John Rawls; and finally the egalitarian strain within Christianity. These three doctrines regard equality in one or other form as the answer to the question of distributive justice—the question that is about what distribution of benefits and burdens in society is just. But the three understand equality as something to be delivered by very different agencies.
According to classical Marxists as I shall explain in Lectures 3–6 we come to equality through and as a result of history Marxists live in the faith that the consummation of centuries of exploitation and class struggle will be a condition of material abundance that confers on each human being full scope for self-realization in a society in which the free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all. For Rawlsians delivering equality is a task not of class struggle (crowned by a future abundance) but of constitution-making. Democratic politics must institute principles of an egalitarian kind or to be more precise principles that mandate equality save where inequality benefits those who are worst off in society. For Christians both the Marxist and the Rawlsian conceptions are misguided since equality requires not mere history and the abundance to which it leads or mere politics but a moral revolution a revolution in the human soul.1
When I was a child and then an adolescent I knew about and I believed Marxism and I knew about and I disbelieved Christianity. A radical liberalism no doubt existed in some pre-Rawlsian form but I didn't know about it. My attitude to the Christian attitude to equality—to the attitude that is of those Christians who believed in equality—was surprise mixed with mild contempt: I thought that the Christian prescription for equality was utterly naive and that the transformation of society not by class struggle but by the moral struggle that Christianity demanded was not only impractical but also unnecessary. It was impractical because you could not change society by a sequence of individual self-transformations and it was unnecessary because history was destined to make equality unavoidable. With all the moral striving in the world equality would be impossible to achieve under the material scarcity that divides society into classes and equality would be impossible to avoid under the material abundance which obliterates class difference and thereby makes a moral struggle for equality pointless. So in neither case—neither under past and present scarcity nor under future abundance—would moral struggle be called for. And as for egalitarian liberalism had I encountered it then I would have said that its faith in constitution-building as a means to equality was also misconceived. I would have said that egalitarian constitution-building presupposes a social unity for which equality is itself a prerequisite. I would have said that we cannot make a constitution together unless and until we are already equals unless we are already the equals that only history can make us become.
As I shall indicate in Lecture 6 I have lost my Marxist belief in the inevitability of equality. As I shall indicate in Lecture 9 I also reject the liberal faith in the sufficiency of political recipes. I now believe that a change in social ethos a change in the attitudes people sustain toward each other in the thick of daily life is necessary for producing equality and that belief brings me closer than I ever expected to be to the Christian view of these matters that I once disparaged. So in one big respect I have outrowed Scott Fitzgerald's stream; in one big respect I have out-grown my past.
I would indeed have been shocked to foresee when I was say in my twenties that I was to come to the point where I now am. For the three forms of egalitarian doctrine that I have distinguished can in one dimension be so ordered that my present view falls at the opposite end to the Marxist view with which I began. That is so because an emphasis on ethos is at the center of my present view and the Marxist view has less time for ethos as an engine of social transformation than the liberal one does. I have then proceeded within one understanding of the following contrast from the hardest position to the softest one (without as it happens having at any point embraced the middle liberal position). Very roughly speaking I have moved from an economic point of view to a moral one without ever occupying a political one. (Needless to say I regard this progression as an improvement induced by increased appreciation of truth rather than a piece of backsliding for which I should apologize.)
Three views may be taken about what might be called the site of distributive justice—about that is the sorts of items to which principles of distributive justice apply. One is my own view for which there is ample Judeo-Christian precedent that both just rules and just personal choice within the framework set by just rules are necessary for distributive justice. A second view held by some Christians is that all justice is a matter of morally informed personal decision; on this particular Christian view the rules set by Caesar can achieve little or nothing in the direction of establishing a just society. And a third possibility which is hard to envisage in a Christian form is the Rawlsian view that distributive justice and in-justice are features of the rules of the public order alone. What others might see as justice in personal choice (within such rules) Rawls would see as some different virtue such as charity or generosity or self-denial; or if indeed justice then not justice in the sense in which it is the central concern of political philosophy.2 I shall argue in Lectures 8–10 that this Rawlsian and more generally liberal view represents an evasion—an evasion of the burden of respecting distributive justice in the choices of everyday life an evasion which may (or may not: it is very hard to tell) be encouraged by the circumstance that contemporary egalitarian political philosophers are on average much wealthier than other people are.
So this is my aim: to explore the theme of egalitarian justice and history and of justice in state-imposed structure and in personal choice in a fashion that brings together topics in Marxism issues in recent political philosophy and standing preoccupations of Judeo-Christian thought.
I believe that my topic is a suitable one for the Gifford Lectures. There is some basis for anxiety about that since in the testament in which he established these lectures Lord Gifford directed that they be devoted to “Promoting Advancing Teaching and Diffusing … the knowledge of God the Infinite the All the First and Only Cause the One and Sole Substance the Sole Being the Sole Reality and the Sole Existence”3 and so forth and I cannot say that this will be my topic in a very strict sense. But in the 110 years that have passed since Lord Gifford endowed this chair its “patrons”4 have wisely failed to insist on a strict construal of the condition that I have just quoted.
The “patrons” have interpreted Lord Gifford's directive very broadly in two respects. First one is not required to discuss God in the severely metaphysical terms just illustrated in which He is portrayed in Lord Gifford's will. A focus on religion itself rather than on the supreme object of religious devotion in its most abstract specification will do. Thus for example an existential treatment of religion an examination of religious belief as it is lived by the believer or a study of the social or historical emplacement of religion: these too are allowed to pass muster. And the second respect in which Lord Gifford's directive has been subjected to a relaxed interpretation is that the lecturer is not required to devote all of his or her attention to religious themes however broadly the idea of a religious theme may be construed. Only a portion of the lectures need be concentrated in that direction.
Now I happen to hold old-fashioned views about the terms of bequests. To accept a bequest is to make a promise and promises should normally be kept. Accordingly I felt able to accept the invitation to deliver these lectures only after correspondence and reflection which satisfied me that I could offer something at least as close to the spirit of the bequest as what the invitation had specified. You may come to think that I shall not go very far toward satisfying Lord Gifford's wishes but you should not reach that conclusion without taking into account a perhaps surprising liberality in the terms of his bequest which is expressed at a different point in his will from the one at which there appears the phrase that I quoted a moment ago. I have in mind Lord Gifford's willingness to allow that the lecturers
may be of any denomination whatever or of no denomination at all (and many earnest and high-minded men prefer to belong to no ecclestastical denomination); they may be of any religion or way of thinking or as is sometimes said they may be of no religion or they may be so-called sceptics or agnostics or free-thinkers provided only that the “patrons” will use diligence to secure that they be able reverent men true thinkers sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth.5
So we have on the one hand a requirement that the lectures be devoted to promoting the knowledge of God and on the other hand a considerable liberality or openness with respect to who may deliver these lectures. Now either those two parts of Lord Gifford's will are consistent with each other or they are not. If the two parts are indeed inconsistent if the liberality as to who is inconsistent with the stringency as to what then Lord Gifford contradicted himself and it's hard for me to know what I'm supposed to try to do. But if as we may more charitably suppose his will was consistent then Lord Gifford envisaged promotion of the knowledge of God being effected in a great variety of ways. If an agnostic—for that not an atheist is what I am—if an agnostic can advance the knowledge of God then perhaps I shall do so here.
In addressing my chosen theme I hope to bring together two interests of mine that I have not otherwise had the opportunity to connect. The first interest is pursued in my recent research work in political philosophy which is devoted to a critique from the left of John Rawls's theory of justice. The second is a long-standing interest in scripture that I have not pursued academically. Let me explain.
My critique of Rawls reflects and supports a view that justice in personal choice is necessary for a society to qualify as just. This view shines forth in parts of the Bible that have occupied me nonacademically for a long time. Following a severely antireligious upbringing which I shall permit myself to describe in Lecture 2 I began to rebel in the direction of tolerance for religion; I became so to speak anti-antireligious in my late teens and I progressed from tolerance to deep interest and sympathy as a result of seeing on television in 1969 a film by the late Pier Paolo Pasolini called The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. I was so taken with the figure and the teaching of Jesus as they were presented in that film that I was moved to read the Gospels for the first time and I was deeply impressed. Since then I have been a Bible reader in both Testaments but I have never publicly commented on scriptural material. Well then my first such comment will be this one: that Jesus would have spurned the liberal idea that the state can take care of justice for us provided only that we obey the rules it lays down and regardless of what we choose to do within those rules. And I believe that Jesus would have been right to spurn that idea.
So much by way of introduction. I shall now raise some questions that have puzzled me and troubled me about our relationship to the central religious and political and moral convictions that help to give value to our lives. I am not sure what the correct answers to these questions are but I raise them as a cautionary preface to the exploration of my own convictions that you have given me an opportunity to conduct.