thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Michael Sandel on Justice #4

with 2 comments

I said last time that Michael Sandel seemed to be saying that John Rawls would give institutions like colleges and housing authorities the right to define their mission how they like, and that applicants only have the right to fair treatment in accordance with that mission.

Michael J Sandel

Michael J Sandel

This was in the context of the rights and wrongs of affirmative action, and whether the idea of distributive justice in general can be detached from moral desert.

This is the fourth part of a series on Michael J Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? which started with Michael Sandel on Justice #1.

I didn’t think Rawls’s theory did imply that, because Rawls would still say that institutions had an obligation to behave in accordance with justice.

Sandel goes on to say that

schools, universities, occupations, professions [and] public offices … are not free to define their mission just any way they please.

But according to Sandel this is because such institutions

are defined, at least in part, by the distinctive goods they promote. … Certain goods are appropriate to certain social institutions, and to ignore these goods in allocating roles can be a kind of corruption.

I agree that institutions are not free to define their mission how they please. But I do not see anything in Rawls’s theory to imply that he thinks they are. It may also be true that part of what makes institutions what they are is the distinctive goods they promote. But this doesn’t seem, or need, to be anything fundamental to the concept of justice. Perhaps Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism leads to the creation and maintenance of institutions which promote distinctive goods? That is certainly plausible.

Entrance gate to Auschwitz

Entrance gate to Auschwitz

But not all institutions are good in themselves. Schools and colleges and may promote distinctive goods, but what distinctive goods does a concentration camp promote?

I think this is why I stopped agreeing with Sandel. At this point in the book he’s trying to persuade his readers that there is a gap in liberal egalitarianism which needs to be filled by something more Aristotelian. There may be a gap, but I cannot see the one Sandel claims.

To be continued

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


2 Responses

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  1. Thanks Terry. It could be that the best qualification for philosophy is never to grow up. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

    Thanks again, Chris.

    Chris Lawrence

    30 April 2011 at 3:24 pm

  2. I am reading these posts with fascination. I might even have to consider becoming a philosopher when I grow up in order to get a deeper understanding of the issues. In the meantime, I find your analysis profoundly engaging. Thank you.


    28 April 2011 at 4:42 pm

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