thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Michael Sandel on Justice #1

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I have just finished reading Michael J Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Michael J Sandel

Michael J Sandel

I liked it a lot, particularly his lucid presentation of Kant’s moral philosophy. Not the easiest of challenges.

But I finished the last two chapters with an uneasy feeling that I was missing a trick. Although I found myself nodding in agreement through at least the first two-thirds of the book, by the end I was increasingly shaking my head and scribbling in the margin. But I wasn’t disagreeing so much with the ethical content of what he was saying. It was more the theoretical implications he seemed to be drawing.

I wondered if my unease had anything to do with Sandel’s narrative style. He makes liberal use of case anecdotes to present and critique, first, utilitarianism as a theory of justice, and then familiar alternatives based on freedom and individual rights. He concludes that both are philosophically flawed, and prefers a third, more Aristotelian way. But I felt I was being morally rather than philosophically persuaded of the superiority of his Aristotelian alternative.

I went back to re-read the last three chapters in reverse order; and then started again at the beginning. It feels as if I’m getting close to the source of my unease, but I’m not sure.

The challenge will be to negotiate the stepping stones without falling in and getting washed away by all the currents of argument.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

He presents the pros and cons of utilitarianism, including what could be the killer argument against. This is the one Ursula Le Guin spelt out in her short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

Sandel describes Omelas as almost a paradise

…a city of happiness and civic celebration, a place without kings or slaves, without advertisements or a stock exchange, a place without the atomic bomb.

But there is a but. This paradise depends on the suffering of a single innocent. Beneath one the beautiful buildings of Omelas is a locked and windowless room where a neglected, under-nourished, feeble-minded child lives out its days in misery. Le Guin describes the contract:

…the people of Omelas … all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery… Those are the terms.

William James imagined a similar scenario in The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, where

…millions [were] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture…

Sandel then sets out Kant’s rejection of utilitarianism, based on the primacy of freedom:

Since people “have different views on the empirical end of happiness and what it consists of,” utility can’t be the basis of justice and rights. … To base the constitution on one particular conception of happiness (such as that of the majority) would impose on some the values of others; it would fail to respect the right of each person to pursue his or her own ends.

Justice for Kant is

an idea of reason. Which nonetheless has undoubted practical reality; for it can oblige every legislator to frame his laws in such a way that they could have been produced by the united will of a whole nation …[and obligate each citizen] …as if he had consented.

[Kant quotations are from On the Common Saying: ‘This May Be True in Theory, but It Does Not Apply in Practice’ (1793) in Hans Reiss (Ed.), Kant’s Political Writings.]

Kant left open the question of what this imaginary act of collective consent would be like or what principles of justice it would give rise to. Nearly two hundred years later, John Rawls suggested an answer in A Theory of Justice.

John Rawls

John Rawls

For Rawls the principles of justice are what people would choose if they chose behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ – if they did not know whether they would be young or old, rich or poor, fit or poorly. Nor would they know their sex, race, intellectual abilities or character – including their individual appetite for risk. He believed that two principles would emerge. One would be equal basic liberties for all citizens, eg freedom of thought and freedom of conscience. (As an absolute minimum these liberties would outlaw the utilitarian nightmares described by Ursula Le Guin and William James.) The other would be that social or economic inequalities would only be such as to benefit the most disadvantaged citizens. Rawls calls this second principle the ‘difference principle’.

The difference principle in particular has an intriguing consequence for justice and moral desert. Which we will explore next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


3 Responses

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  1. […] Michael Sandel on Justice #1 ( […]

  2. Well, I know why I’ve missed your posts so much. Not only do you think, but you get me doing the same thing. Thank you.

    I’m looking forward the sequel.

    As a side comment: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about economic inequality. It does not disturb me nearly as much as it disturbs so many others. I worry about conditions when it is impossible for people to get the basics – food, shelter, education, equal opportunity. But from what I can see, we all neither need nor even aspire to equal economic welfare. Some people want much more money than others. So I don’t see economic equality as a basic human right essential to our happiness and dignity.

    But that’s an aside. As I say, I’m looking forward to your next post.


    25 April 2011 at 9:28 pm

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