Michael Sandel on Justice #1
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.
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.
…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.
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.