The thick of it

Michael Sandel tells Julian Baggini why he wants a more faith-friendly politics

2009 was a breakthrough year for Michael Sandel. The Harvard political philosopher has been at the top of his profession ever since the publication of his ground-breaking Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in 1982. 27 years later, the public spotlight finally fell where the academic one had long been shining. First, he delivered the BBC’s Reith lectures on “A new citizenship” to a global audience of millions. Then videos of his legendary Harvard lectures on justice were put on line, free for anyone to watch. Then the book based on the lectures, Justice, was published for a general readership.

“I have not found it to be a difficult transition,” he says of the move from seminar room to BBC studio, “because I basically approach teaching in the classroom pretty much in the same way that I approach the Reith lectures or other attempts to present philosophical ideas to the general public, which is to use concrete examples to illustrate abstract philosophical themes. That can be a very useful way of drawing people into what would otherwise be abstract and sometime daunting philosophical questions.

“The book goes further in using anecdotes and stories to illustrate the philosophical points. The class includes more references to the texts of the philosophers.”

Sandel’s philosophy is usually filed under “communitarianism”, but like many –isms, the label can mislead more than it informs. In this case, the problem is that that the root word – community – says something important about the consequences of his thinking, but it’s not what is really fundamental to it. It is true that Sandel ends up questioning classical liberalism’s emphasis on the free individual, stressing instead the claims of society, family and culture. But this all springs from a very specific theoretical critique of the basis of liberalism.

“The view that I have criticised,” he says, “is the idea of the priority of the right over the good, by which I mean the idea that it is possible to define and to defend principles of justice without reference to substantive conceptions of the good life, or what Rawls calls comprehensive moral conceptions. Liberal public reason as articulated by Rawls – which I think is the most powerful version of liberal public reason – maintains that our comprehensive moral convictions, religious or not, should not be the basis of law, should not be the basis of principles of justice.”

According to Sandel, it is neither possible nor desirable to formulate principles of justice in this putatively neutral way. It’s not just the familiar objection that liberalism is not truly neutral: “Kant and Rawls are by no means moral relativists. Rawls does not maintain that law can or should be neutral with respect to justice.” Sandel’s point is that competing conceptions of the good cannot be removed from almost all significant political issues.

“Take the debate over same-sex marriage. Is it a legitimate part of that debate to ask about what sorts of unions and relationships and family units are worthy of being honoured and recognised by the political community? That question about what ways of life are worthy of being affirmed by the political community as a whole requires competing accounts of what the good life consists in and what family units and forms of relationship are morally admirable such that the state should recognise them. That’s one way of approaching that question, and I think that’s a necessary and desirable way of approaching the same-sex marriage debate.

“Another view would say, no, how best to live, what sorts of family units or relations are worthy of being affirmed and honoured by the state – that takes us into contested conceptions of the good life. Therefore we should simply try to decide that question based on the morally neutral categories – at least neutral with respect to the good life – of non-discrimination and respecting autonomy.

“I don’t really think we can resolve the same-sex marriage question without coming to grips with questions about what is the moral purpose of marriage, what forms of union are worthy of affirmation and recognition and honour by society, and that takes us into questions of the good life, into what Rawls calls comprehensive moral views.

“Some say those should be bracketed, but I think we can’t resolve the same-sex marriage question based on autonomy, rights and equal respect for persons alone. That would be the issue, so it doesn’t depend on religion necessarily. The broader question on the debate over liberal public reason and what should be its constraints is a debate about whether conceptions of the good life – comprehensive moral conceptions – should figure.”

Although that may sound very reasonable, secularists get nervous when they start to consider how that might entail a greater role for religion in public life. A cornerstone of secular thinking has been the idea that people are supposed to leave their religious commitments at the door when they engage in public deliberation.

I put it to Sandel that it may be true that the secular ideal has been pursued too zealously in recent years, with it becoming a taboo for people even to acknowledge their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, isn’t it still very important, even if we do need to talk about values in the political sphere, that we do so in ways which are still as neutral possible? The public debate about values must not be couched in terms which are specific to any particular commitments we have with regards to a religious or even a humanist ethic. There are different conceptions of the good life, so isn’t it important that we don’t bring our thicker conceptions of the good life to the public square?

“No, that’s exactly what I disagree with. I think that it’s often not possible to leave our substantive moral and religious conceptions out of public deliberation, and even where it’s possible it may not be desirable, because it can make for an impoverished form of democratic deliberation. I am in favour of a more morally substantive and robust public deliberation and also for a more faith-friendly public sphere. I would not require anyone to leave his or her moral religious convictions at the door before entering public deliberation.”

But how do we go about this deliberation? Let’s say we’re discussing a very controversial issue, abortion, for example. It seems to me that if someone brings, say, a Roman Catholic conviction to that, and their starting point is that the teachings of the church are such that this is a human life and it’s sinful to end it, there’s no longer any possibility of discussion.

“Well take the example of the abortion debate. Can we really decide whether or not abortion should be permitted without taking a view about the moral status of the developing foetus? It seems to be inconceivable. Now I am not in favour of banning abortion and yet I don’t think I can hold the permissive view that I do unless I come to the conclusion, on moral reflection, that taking the life of a developing foetus at a particular stage is not morally the same as killing a person. If I did believe that then I think in good conscience I would have to favour banning abortion, for the same reason that we ban murder.

“Likewise the debate of embryonic stem cell research. I’m in favour of permitting and funding embryonic stem cell research and I came to this conclusion engaging in fairly extensive discussions and deliberations when I served on the President’s Council on Bioethics in the United States. I hadn’t really thought about this question before I became involved in those deliberations. There were participants in those deliberations who came from a strong natural law position that viewed even the earliest embryo as morally equivalent to a person and we had extensive arguments and debates about that view, notwithstanding the fact that for a number of people in the discussion their view was shaped by a moral tradition rooted in Catholic moral teaching, and yet we were perfectly capable of having sustained argument and deliberation about that question.”

That was true presumably because the commission’s members were able to offer reasons which weren’t simply “this is what my religion says” or “this is what the Bible says”. It’s one thing to acknowledge that people’s values are shaped very much by their personal convictions and they shouldn’t have to hide them, but isn’t it still necessary for what Amartya Sen calls “public reason” that when we come together to debate, everyone has a duty whenever possible to offer reasons that have purchase for all, not just some?

“Of course people should offer reasons when engaged in public deliberation. What else would public deliberation consist of, if not offering reasons? The question is, what sorts of reasons are relevant? And I think it’s a caricature of arguments that may derive from faith traditions to assume that they always and only take the form of dogmatic assertion or invocation of scripture or revelation. There are rich traditions of reason-giving moral discourse internal to the various faith traditions: Christian, Jewish – The Talmudic tradition – Confucian, Islamic. So of course it’s true that some adherents of religious faiths offer dogmatic assertion rather than reasoned argument, but that’s not unique to those who come from faith traditions. They have no monopoly on dogma. Public discourse is rife with dogmatic assertions, unreasoned assertions, that come from purely secular sources. So I think the distinction we should make is that public deliberation and arguments about justice should be reasoned and should not involve dogmatic assertion. But the distinction between reasoned and dogmatic public deliberation does not correspond to the distinction between public deliberation that draws on religious sources and public deliberation which is purely secular. I think that’s an entirely false analogy.”

Another liberal shibboleth that Sandel attacks is the idea of the “unencumbered self”. What he means by this is that liberalism tends to assume that individuals can and should make free choices in some way that transcends their contingent and historical roots in societies, religions, families and cultures. In some weak sense, most people, liberals included, accept that we are all “situated selves”, products of time and place. The difficult question is the extent to which that brings with it certain responsibilities or duties. Liberals fear that communitarians suggest that mere membership gives you obligations to a group, whether you want to accept them or not. Sandel, however, rejects this characterisation of his position.

“Blind faith and obedience to a family or to a community or a country is not a proper basis for moral and political obligation. So if by mere membership you mean blind faith – my country right or wrong – of course that sort of blind faith cannot be the source of any moral or political obligation. The question is whether all moral and political obligations are the product of our will, or whether there is a category of moral and political obligation – call it obligations of solidarity or membership – that derive in part from the common histories and traditions that constitute our identities.

“I argue in the book for there being obligations of solidarity and membership that are not strictly the products of will. That’s the real issue: are all obligations the products of will? And then the question would be, the will of what sort of willing subject? I think in so far as we’re partly constituted by the narratives of our life histories, moral obligations are not only willed but they are partly discovered, or interpreted. So figuring out the meaning of the narrative that constitutes our lives is an interpretative matter, which is why blind faith or blind allegiance would not capture the idea. But a reflective solidarity that flows from a critical interpretation of my history, my past, my family, my people, my country, I think is indispensable to making sense of any solidarities that we recognise, including patriotism, including the obligations of citizenship, to say nothing of the obligations to one’s family.”

But doesn’t this way of thinking commit a version of the genetic fallacy: a confusion of origins with justification? The fact that the origins of a lot of our obligations are in unwilled facts of community, family and so forth, is surely not what actually justifies them as commitments and obligations. One could accept that a lot of these things have their origins in unchosen, unwilled facts, but still insist that nevertheless there always has to be an act of will or assent.

“Well I wouldn’t equate reflection with will. They’re two different faculties. Reflection involves an interpretative dimension. It’s not strictly a legislative, voluntarist capacity. When I’m interpreting the meaning of a text, or a story, or a legal document, I’m not exercising my will, and yet I’m not being a slavish conformist either. I’m exercising a critical faculty. In that sense I’m bringing reason to bear. But when I arrive at what I take to be the best interpretation of a story, or a legal text, or of one’s life, the interpretation is reasoned, I think it make best overall sense of the text, but that’s different from saying I’m willing that this be the next chapter in the story, that this is the best way of reading. It’s not a faculty of will.”

So it’s not will, but judgement. But with that judgement comes the possibility to opt out, to not accept. We could think of examples where to do that would just be objectively wrong. If you’re brought up well by a loving family, and you reflect on that, and you think that doesn’t give you any obligations to them at all, there’s something wrong with your judgement. But in a lot of other cases, the extent to which you’re obligated to continue to act in certain way, to choose a certain life, to have a certain loyalty – there’s certainly a lot of scope, isn’t there?

“Well there is scope for judgement, but I think it’s a mistake to translate all judgement into the exercise of will.”

But one needn’t translate all exercise of judgement into the exercise of will simply to say that choice has a proper place. Isn’t it important that people should be able – not egregiously, not for no reason – to opt out of things they have been born into?

“Yes, right, of course. I’m not saying that to recognise obligations of solidarity, to recognise the interpretive dimension of moral reflection, to be a reflectively situated self – none of that in my view involves blind obedience. It may be that sometimes the obligations of solidarity require dissent. Take the Americans who protested against the Vietnam war. Some people said they are in virtue of their protest unpatriotic. Others would say, and I would agree, when one’s people or country are engaged in an injustice, dissent can be required not only out of an abstract commitment to justice, but also an added responsibility to protest, let’s say, an unjust war being fought in my name. A conscientious Swede could oppose the Vietnam war on the grounds of its injustice but only an American could protest the Vietnam War out of a special obligation to take responsibility for injustices carried out in one’s name. The Swede could disapprove of the war but only an American could feel ashamed of it, and that presupposes that there are obligations of solidarity, that we are situated selves.”

Although in close-up, Sandel’s dispute with liberals is based on clear and real differences, pan back a little and it can look like a very local dispute within the broad church of western liberalism. There seems to be a lot of continuity, for instance, between the kind of society Sandel would like and the kind of society advocated by John Rawls.

“Oh yes, there is a great deal,” agrees Sandel. “And I admire and agree with John Rawls’s arguments for equality or for a greater measure of equality than prevails in most of our societies; and I agree very much with the egalitarian spirit of the difference principle.”

Nevertheless, Sandel does think that the differences between his position and the Rawlsian alternatives do make an important difference politically as well as philosophically.

“One reason I think it’s important to be willing to engage in public deliberation about justice with conceptions of the good life is that I think otherwise we – in particular those who think of themselves as progressives – are ill-equipped to mount an effective critique of the increasing role of markets in spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms. When John Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice, 1971, the main questions of justice facing the US and also many of the western democracies, really had to do with the debate over the welfare state, and the tension as it was perceived between liberty and equality. And he was also reacting, and I think he reacted very powerfully and successfully, against the dominant utilitarian tradition in moral philosophy.

“But today, markets have begun to reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms: health, education, security and a great many others. In so far as there is something morally troubling about that development, one could say, well, if markets govern all sorts of spheres, including reproduction, family life, health, education and so on, people who lack money will be at a disadvantage and may be coerced by economic necessity and that is a reason to worry about markets run amuck, about rampant commodification. But one could satisfy that worry by fixing the background conditions within which markets operate, by creating more egalitarian basic structures, so that the exchanges people make within those structures are not coerced by economic necessity. That would address the liberal objection to some exploitative aspects of the market.

“But there is another objection to markets reaching in to certain spheres of life, which is the crowding out of non-market norms that may be valuable. For example, if we pay children, as some school districts now do, a certain amount of money for each book they read, the goal is worthy – to get them to read more – but the effect is to crowd out non-market values like cultivating the love of learning, the love of reading. Likewise in debates about organ sales or paid pregnancy and commercial surrogacy, which is now a global business.

“So the question, it seems to me, we have to ask about commodification, so far as we worry about it, is: does marketising a good or a social practice crowd out non-market norms, and if so, does that represent a loss? And we can only address that kind of question if we ask, are those norms part of an important human good or social good? We can only ask that question about commodification if we are prepared to bring in admittedly contested conceptions of the good, and not simply concern ourselves with whether the background conditions of society are fair.”

Although many fear that bringing competing conceptions of the good into the political sphere will increase tensions by emphasising differences, Sandel believe that it is a liberal illusion to think that by keeping politics as neutral as possible, we can smooth over the deep differences in the fundamental values of citizens.

“I think the idea in the back of our heads that there could be a frictionless public sphere actually is destructive of democratic deliberation, because when we force underground or sweep under the rug some of the deepest substantive moral views that people have and claim that we’ve been neutral, that over time generates resentment, cynicism and a sense that people have been dealt with in bad faith, that their views have not been taken seriously. So I think a better way to a tolerant society is not to avoid but rather to engage with competing and conflicting conceptions of the good life that citizens bring to public life.”

In that sense, Sandel explictly comes not to unite, but to divide.

“I’m not suggesting that we need to agree or that we should aim at consensus. I agree with Stuart Hampshire that politics is a messy business involving competing conceptions of the good. My point is precisely that: in reasoning about justice we can’t expect to reach consensus or agreement. What the goal should be is to come as close as we can to achieving a just society. In democratic societies that means deliberating about justice and rights and the common good. If there were a way of carrying on those debates that was neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life, one might argue that it would be safer. But I don’t think that for most of the questions of justice that we confront it is possible to be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life. The fact that this conclusion consigns us to messy politics, contentious politics and disagreement is not, in my view, a count against it. I think it suggests instead that a morally robust public discourse that engages rather than avoids the moral and even spiritual conceptions that citizens care about and bring to public life, fits with the demands of a pluralist politics rather than stands in tension with it.”

At the very least, Sandel presents a much-needed challenge to some of liberalism’s flabbier assumptions, even if the perfect corrective is not necessarily itself perfectly correct. If there’s one message that comes over loud and clear in his writing, it’s that we need always to engage openly, to learn from as well as to criticise each other. This also came out in a small seminar he gave while in London on the question of what politicians can learn from philosophy.

“I think the learning can go in both directions. I think philosophers have a lot to learn by attending to actual political arguments and disputes. From the days of Socrates philosophers have mixed it up with the life of the city and have taken as their starting point conflicting public opinion and worked from those sometimes messy disagreements to broader principles. I think that’s a sound impulse, so I don’t think philosophy can proceed without actually engaging with and attending to the arguments that take place among politicians, between political parties and among citizens, in the public square.

“At the same time I think not only politicians, but also I would say democratic citizens generally, if they care at all about justice and the common good need at some point to reflect critically on their own principles and I suppose that’s another way of saying that to be a democratic citizen, to do that job well, requires that one be something of a philosopher.”

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel is published by Allen Lane in the UK and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA. His Harvard Justice lectures can be viewed her.

Julian Baggini’s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover? (Granta)

  1. American political discourse seems to be devolving into a debate over biblical hermeneutics. It is hardly the case that “it [is] becoming a taboo for people even to acknowledge their religious beliefs”. Seriously? Consider the following quote from an “expert” called by Republican to testify on climate change policy:

    “The naturalist, atheistic world view sees Earth and all its ecosystems as the result of chance processes and therefore inherently unstable and fragile, vulnerable to enormous harm from tiny causes. The Biblical world view sees Earth and its ecosystems as the effect of a wise God’s creation and providential preservation and therefore robust, resilient, and self-regulating–like the product of any good engineer who ensures that the systems he designs have positive and negative feedback mechanisms to balance each other and prevent small perturbations from setting off a catastrophic cascade of reactions.”
    -Dr. E. Calvin Beisner

    Religion encroaches not only on moral discourse, and in the pernicious form of theocratic relativism, but also on discourse concerning matters of scientific fact. The assertion of some sort of anti-religion taboo strikes, I’m sorry to say, as completely out of touch from one asking philosophers to “to actual political arguments and disputes”.

    As far as dogmatism and religion, it may be neither that all dogmatists are religious nor that all religious moral reasoning is dogmatic, while there nevertheless remains a positive probabilistic dependence between religiosity and dogmatism. This positive dependence strikes me as true in my experience mixing it up with the folk in the (online) forum(s). That’s no substitute for a real empirical study; but I wouldn’t, in any case, take Catholic scholars on bioethics councils as a representative sample in determining whether the widespread acceptance of religiosity in public moral discourse tends to contribute to an increase or decrease in dogmatism.

    Theocratic relativism has been a bane of rational democracy since Euthyphro, and if Plato were around today he’d likely say “toldyaso” upon observing our previous president–who felt God sanctioned an aggressive foreign policy. I’m more optimistic about democracy than Plato, but please… the theocrats really don’t need any encouragement from the philosophers.

  2. Robert T. Ramsey

    This interview shows to me exactly why Rawls’ justice as fairness should have priority: there are many competing conceptions of the good, there always will be, and the just society should not privilege one conception via coercive political policies. It seems to me that Sandel’s point is more than simply to recognize competing conceptions of the good in political issues.

    He appears to be saying that these issues should be decided in the way a boxing match might be decided: put the contestants in the ring and may the most powerful win. Take the same sex marriage debate for example. One may object to such unions on the basis of institutionalized religious belief, or one may affirm these unions from a general philosophical perspective of toleration. So let the fight begin. When the dust settles, both fighters bloody and bruised, the winner is to be determined by a panel of ring judges the majority of whom own a financial interest in one of the fighters.

    Sandel’s critique notwithstanding, I am still more comfortable with a panel of Rawlsians deciding on the rules of the fight game well ahead of any match. I do not trust the troops of religious orthodoxies, marching to “Onward Christian Soldiers”.

  3. Justice Without the Good « Ned Resnikoff - pingback on January 3, 2010 at 8:22 pm

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