Jürgen Habermas has written an afterword to the German translation of John Rawls's senior thesis from 1942, "A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith" (Harvard University Press, 2009).
The afterword is now available in English:
"The ‘Good Life’— A ‘Detestable Phrase’: The Significance of the Young Rawls's Religious Ethics for His Political Theory"
European Journal of Philosophy vol. 18 no. 3 (2010) pp. 443-453.
"I will limit myself here to four observations. (1) This confident work, which is strikingly mature for a twenty-one-year-old, merits interest in the first instance as a surprising biographical testimony concerning the work and personality of the most important political theorist of the twentieth century. (2) The philosophical substance of the senior thesis consists in a religious ethics which already exhibits all of the essential features of an egalitarian and universalistic ethics of duty tailored to the absolute worth of the individual. (3) At the same time the posthumous insight into the biographical sources of the author's work offers an outstanding example of the philosophical translation of religious motives. It is as if one were examining the religious roots of a deontological morality based on reason alone under a magnifying glass. (4) The student's senior thesis also foreshadows his later recognition that the secularisation of state power must not be confused with the secularisation of civil society. Rawls owes his unique standing in the sicial contract tradition to the systematic attention he devotes to religious and metaphysical pluralism."
"Here we already encounter the characteristic linkage of an uncompromising individualism of a responsible conduct of life with the unreserved egalitarian inclusion of all individuals in the social network of reciprocal relations of recognition."
"An egalitarian universalism is implicit in the powerful image of the Last Judgement when God will perform the paradoxical task of pronouncing a differentiated, at once just but merciful (and ultimately redemptive) judgement on the actions and omissions of each person in the light of his or her individual life history. The young Rawl's sensitivity to violations of egalitarianism is reflected in the elevated position that pride assumes in his catalogue of vices."
"Rawls [....] rejects social self-aggrandisement, the meritocratic "pride" in one's own achievement. This pride poses a treat to the reciprocal recognition of the equal dignity of each individual when someone insists on having praiseworthy achievements attributed to himself as qualifications for being regarded as a superior person. Even when success can be attributed to one's own accomplishments, they in turn required talents and abilities. Regardless of whether a creator God or the lottery of nature decides how such resources are distributed, the beneficiaries may not impute the fact that they can draw upon such a potential to themselves as their own merit.[....] The fact that certain individuals and not others can be classified as a functional "elite" based on success and achievement does not justify any difference in the kind of respect and treatment we owe to equal dignity of each person.
The Christian belief in the existence of a unique God before whom all human beings are equal implies, in addition to the egalitarian notion of the absolute worth of each person, the all-inclusiveness of the covenant between God and his people. The young Rawls defends this universalism against what he denounces as the contemporary phenomena of an ethnocentric closing off from others. In the exclusion or oppression of incriminated races and classes, foreign religions, peoples and cultures (195ff), he recognises a generalized "egotism" raised to the collective level: "The development of the closed group has been a distinctive factor in Western civilization. Closed groups are now tearing that civilization to pieces" (p. 197). Just a few years after he wrote his senior thesis, egalitarian universalism would find a historically new expression in international law in the shape of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In contrasts to the Christian community of believers, a legal community can no longer rely upon the ethics of brotherly love but must be founded instead on the legal implementation of rationally justified moral principles which are acceptable to secular and religious citizens alike.
"The history of John Rawls's work exhibits a philosophical reshaping of religious ideas comparable to that undertaken by Kant. The principal features of the religious ethics of community could be sublimated into secular deontology because the triadic pattern of relations we find in monotheistic communities remains intact in the "kingdom of ends" - that is, in the universal community of moral persons who submit to self-legislated moral laws in the light of practical reason. In this case, members do not stand in a direct relation to each other either. Instead all interpersonal relations are mediated by the relation of each to the authority of an impartial "third", namely that of the moral law. The relation of the individual to the single transcendent and unifying God is now replaced by the moral point of view from which all autonomous actors deliberate equally on how they shall behave in the cases of conflict."
"Transcendence no longer breaks into the world from beyond but operates in the world as an idealizing and norm-generating force which transcends all natural processes in the world from within. [....] the triadic structure of the community of morally responsible persons remains unaffected by the transition from religious to rational morality. In "The Theory of Justice" the transcendence sublimated into the moral point of view is embodied in the "original position". This is Rawls's term for the situation of deliberation concerning the correct conception of justice. This situation is determined by equal restrictions on information and equal roles and endowments of the parties involved and is thereby structured in such a way "that the principles that would be chosen, whatever they turn out to be, are acceptable from a moral point of view."
See my previous posts on Jürgen Habermas's afterword and on John Rawls's book on religion.