Student Blog Post: Graduate Conference in Political Theory

Hira Shah/ March 23, 2020/ Conferences, Student Blogger

Professor Nelson’s discussion of the theological roots of liberalism offers a valuable look at the tensions in understanding of the demands of liberalism.Hira Shah '21

From February 6-7, 2020, Duke hosted its sixth annual Graduate Conference in Political Theory in Gross Hall. Following a highly competitive blind review process, graduate students from universities across the United States and Canada arrived to present papers on topics ranging from Mary Jo MacDonald’s “Gabrielle Suchon’s Reversals of Nature: Women’s Subjugation as a Natural Disaster” to Zachariah Black’s “Laughing with the Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on the Political Potential of Laughter.”

On Friday afternoon, all participants gathered in 230E Gross Hall for the keynote address by Eric Nelson, the Robert M. Beren Professor of Government at Harvard University. Nelson’s talk, entitled “Beyond the ‘Wretched Subterfuge: Liberalism, Freedom, and Responsibility,” took to task the origins of liberalism. Liberalism, Nelson argued, is far from a philosophy born from a transition to secularization. Instead, liberalism is an outgrowth of longstanding theological debates on the reconciliation of suffering with an all-powerful, wholly good God.

He framed the theological stakes underpinning liberalism in terms of the thought of Pelagius and Augustine. On one side, Pelagianism holds that beings rightly punished by a just God must have freedom. The argument follows: it would be unjust to punish unfree beings. We must be free to choose whether or not to sin, so God is just in punishing us when we choose sin over good. Because God is just, it follows that humans must be free. On the other side, Augustine counters that this Pelagian concept of freedom would “render the Cross of Christ to no effect.” If we are perfectly free, why did Jesus need to be sent into the world to clear our sins? Augustine argues that as a result of our “original sin,” suffering exists in the world.  It is unavoidable, we cannot choose otherwise. We are not free to achieve salvation on our own.

Nelson asserted that liberalism emerges from the tradition of Pelagianism. Liberalism began as a “theodicy”—an answer to the question of the existence of suffering in a world created by a just God. From Pelagianism, we get the centralization of freedom in liberal philosophy and a justification for why we are responsible for our actions.

With the post-war philosopher John Rawls, Nelson argued, we see a departure from the Pelagian grounding of liberty, shifting instead to an Augustinian concept of “moral arbitrariness.” Nelson began his discussion of liberalism by traveling back beyond Rawls’s liberal landmark A Theory of Justice to his undergraduate thesis.  Before his move into philosophy, Rawls was a student of theology at Princeton. His view of God’s justice was solidly anti-Pelagian, in the Augustinian thread.  Nelson used as evidence a book found in Rawls’ library with “Can this be true? Pelagianism?” written in the margin to express doubt over a claim. In the Theory of Justice itself, we see the Augustinian unlinking of justice with merit: no one earns their social placement or natural gifts. A theory of fairness must be created that considers this “moral arbitrariness.” We then have a problem: Rawls rejects Pelagianism, the basis of the prior development of liberalism.  Can Rawls reject Pelagianism without rejecting liberalism?

Professor Nelson’s discussion of the theological roots of liberalism offers a valuable look at the tensions in understanding of the demands of liberalism. In making visible the invisible theological groundings, we can have a better idea of how liberalism came to take its current shape—and where we can go from here.

In addition to Duke AVI, the Graduate Conference in Political Theory was supported by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Political Science Department, the Graduate School, and the Center for International & Global Studies.

Hira Shah is a junior political science major. 


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