Monday, June 7, 2010

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel

Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard University. What he presents here is presumably equivalent to his undergraduate level course in moral philosophy—reputed to be one of the most popular at Harvard. The book, Justice, has the flavor of an academic course. It includes a description and discussion of the major theories that evolved concerning the concept of justice in a society. The discussion generally takes the form of a critique of the implications of the theory for actual or contrived situations. The progression is chronological except for the treatment of Aristotle and his philosophy. It turns out, to the author’s way of thinking, that the old master was in many ways closer to getting it right than some of the more current thinkers.

Sandel concludes with his own thoughts on how questions of justice should be approached in our society. In spite of the subtitle of the book, the reader is not going to learn "what’s the right thing to do." The author’s intent is to suggest a framework, or vantage point from which to view your opinions and those of others on complex issues. Most contentious issues do not have solutions that all people will find satisfactory. The author hopes the readers will develop the habit of making morally defensible arguments, while respecting the moral defensibility of the opinions of others.

Sandel provides interesting discussions of many complex situations in order to illuminate and evaluate various conceptions of justice. He concludes that these discussions

"....revolve around three ideas: maximizing welfare, respecting freedom, and promoting virtue. Each of these ideas points to a different way of thinking about justice."The author’s first stop is at the classical Utilitarianism espoused by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). To Bentham, maximizing welfare is cast in terms of maximizing "utility," which to him meant maximizing whatever produces pleasure or happiness, and minimizing whatever produces pain or suffering. Bentham believed that all moral considerations should emanate from considerations of maximizing pleasure, and rejected any attempt to enter predetermined moral descriptions into the discourse of "utility." The author had an easy time undermining Bentham’s theory with examples that highlighted its disregard for the type of value judgments and personal liberty allowances that have become standard in society.

Sandel next visits libertarianism as an approach based on respecting the freedom of individuals. There did not seem to be one dominant proponent or intellectual leader whose views would efficiently define this concept. Instead it seems to be a philosophy popular with rich people, with people who liked to hang around with rich people, and with people who hope to be rich one day. It is a philosophy that persists today and is actively promoted by a small number of ardent supporters. Sandel summarizes its main tenets as follows.

"Libertarians oppose laws to protect people from harming themselves (no paternalism)....Libertarians oppose using the coercive force of law to promote notions of virtue or to express the moral convictions of the majority (no morals legislation)...The libertarian theory of rights rules out any law that requires some people to help others, including taxation for redistribution of wealth."Or, in other words

"Their central claim is that each of us has a fundamental right to liberty—the right to do whatever we want with the things we own, provided we respect other people’s rights to do the same."Fortunately for us, this not the way stable societies work. In fact, it is not the way any organization works. Try to imagine a libertarian family. For a family to work, the members have to be willing to restrict their freedoms. If you think a little harder you realize that the term family includes relatives. And it also turns out that one gets along better with neighbors, colleagues, and even strangers encountered on the street, if one is willing to reign in his liberties. Sandel waits until the end of the book to make the point that the demands of community will, and should, trump many individual liberties.

Sandel presents a lengthy discussion of Immanuel Kant and his philosophy. He attributes to Kant lofty accomplishments.

"Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) offers an alternative account of duties and rights, one of the most powerful and influential accounts any philosopher has depends on the idea that we are rational beings, worthy of dignity and offers a powerful basis for what the eighteenth century revolutionaries called the rights of man, and what we in the early twenty-first century call universal human rights."
"Daunting though Kant’s philosophy may seem at first glance, it actually informs much contemporary thinking about morality and politics, even if we are unaware of it. So making sense of Kant is not only a philosophical exercise; it is also a way of examining some of the key assumptions implicit in our public life."
Kant’s idea that all rational beings deserve to be treated with respect is the precept upon which he attempts to build a theory for how to view the issue of justice. Sandel claims that because Kant did not wish to be guided by a moral (religious) prescription, but a "rational" one, independent of prescription, that Kant based his theorizing on the notion of individual liberty. Although Kant would not agree, one could argue that he was, in effect, pushing his readers to think in terms of a communal morality, and thus trying to maximize "virtue." Kant’s dependence on the rational beings to make "rational" decisions seems a bit naive considering what we now know about brain function. This is a trap Sandel falls into also.

Perhaps we view Kant from too distant a time. Perhaps it is difficult to judge his contribution without studying enough of the evolution of philosophical thought to be able to evaluate him in a perspective appropriate to his era. The statement, "we are rational beings worthy of dignity and respect," seems so obvious that it should not need volumes of theorizing to form a "basis" for it. On the other hand, no matter how tortuous his logic, his philosophy does represent progress.

The work of John Rawls (1921-2002) is addressed next. Rawls, like Kant, starts with a general notion of what drives justice, and makes an important contribution to the evolution of the conception of justice. His attempt at converting his general precept into a decision-making prescription is less successful.
Rawls major contribution is what he refers to as "the difference principle," which the author describes in this manner.

"....only those social and economic inequalities are permitted that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society."Much of the discussion involving Rawls work consists of trying to justify this social and economic constraint without appearing to impinge excessively on anyone’s basic liberties. I prefer to think of Rawls general conception of justice, as exemplified in his "difference principle," as another step in the development of a "communal" view of justice. That is to say that one has to consider the interactions of individuals in the context of their membership in a society. This is where Sandel is headed, but since he is an academic, the student must get there the hard way.

The author finally comes to a discussion of Aristotle. This is not so much because his ideas and Aristotle’s are so nearly identical, but because Aristotle bases his thoughts on a concept that Sandel needs to accumulate in order to justify his own philosophy.

"Modern theories of justice try to separate questions of fairness and rights from arguments about honor, virtue, and moral desert. They seek principles of justice that are neutral among ends, and enable people to choose and pursue their ends for themselves. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) does not think justice can be neutral in this way. He believes that debates about justice are, unavoidably, debates about honor, virtue, and the nature of the good life. "Not all of Aristotle’s conclusions about "the good life" translate to a modern society, but his "ancient" notion that the good of society is a critical component of decisions of justice is what is important.

"....the highest end of political association, which for Aristotle was to cultivate the virtue of citizens. The end of the state is not ‘to provide an alliance for mutual defense...or to ease economic exchange and promote economic intercourse.’ For Aristotle, politics is about something higher. It’s about learning how to live a good life. The purpose of politics is nothing less than to enable people to develop their distinctive human capacities and virtues—to deliberate about the common good, to acquire practical judgment, to share in self-government, to care for the community as a whole."It is this reference to "community" that allows Sandel to shed his cover of objectivity and reveal his own philosophy.

"Having wrestled with the philosophical arguments I’ve laid before you, and having watched the way these arguments play out in public life, I do not think that freedom of choice—even freedom of choice under fair conditions—is an adequate basis for a just society. What’s more, the attempt to find neutral principles of justice seems to me misguided. It is not always possible to define our rights and duties without taking up substantive moral questions; and even when it is possible it may not be desirable."

"If we understand ourselves as free and independent selves, unbound by moral ties we haven’t chosen, we can’t make sense of a range of moral and political obligations that we commonly recognize, even prize. These include obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory and religious faith—moral claims that arise from the communities and traditions that shape our identity. Unless we think of ourselves as encumbered selves, open to moral claims we have not willed, it is difficult to make sense of these aspects of our moral and political experience."

"Justice is inescapably judgmental....questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things."
As was stated earlier, the author does not provide answers. What he provides is, ultimately, a way of posing our internal and external debates such that we can more effectively pursue the goal of consensus or compromise. He gives props to Obama for reintroducing issues of religion and morals into public discourse.

"If liberals offered a political discourse emptied of religious content, they would ‘forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.’....Religion was not only a source of resonant political rhetoric. The solution of certain social problems required moral transformation."We are members of a community, and each of us has a different set of loyalties, commitments, and views on societal virtue. It is no longer a question of determining a formulation of justice. It is a question of how one reconciles these competing views without causing great harm to society as a whole or to undeserving individuals. This is Sandel’s parting advice.

"A more robust public engagement with our moral disagreements could provide a stronger, not a weaker, basis for mutual respect. Rather than avoid the moral and religious convictions that our fellow citizens bring to public life, we should attend to them more directly—sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening to and learning from them. There is no guarantee that public deliberation about hard moral questions will lead in any given situation to agreement—or even to appreciation for the moral and religious views of others. It’s always possible that learning more about a moral or religious doctrine will lead us to like it less. But we cannot know until we try."

"A politics of moral engagement is not only a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. It is also a more promising basis for a just society."
The author has provided us with a short history of moral philosophy and we end up feeling enriched by the experience. We can skim over the fact that he tells us that everyone he made us read about was wrong. We can even forgive him the 37 pages on Kant. The discussions of the many and varied moral dilemmas, where we were compelled to look at issues from a variety of viewpoints, were instructive and, hopefully, developed in us some good analytical habits. The author hopes we have learned to consider the opinions of others with respect, as appropriate. The sections on affirmative action and abortion were particularly thought provoking and illumnating.

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