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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Michael Sandel on Justice #6

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I said at the start of this series that I wasn’t so much disagreeing with the ethical content of what Michael Sandel was saying than with the theoretical implications.

Michael J Sandel

Michael J Sandel

In Chapter 9, What Do We Owe One Another? / Dilemmas of Loyalty, Sandel reaches what could be the crux of his argument.

This is the sixth 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.

A word seems to run through the subtext of this chapter, but as far as I know it isn’t there in the text itself. The word is ‘irreducible’. Sandel is effectively claiming that the ‘narrative’ conception of justice which he favours is not reducible to a liberal or ‘moral individualist’ foundation. He sees elements of our moral behaviour which only make sense from this narrative perspective. I am not convinced.

The question could come down to how meaningful you regard the abstract universal concept of ‘other’ (or ‘others’) which moral individualism rests on. Kant’s Categorical Imperative applies to every free rational being, so to every butcher, baker and candlestick maker. John Rawls’s ‘original position’ has a set of individuals choosing principles of justice from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. Both conceptions deliberately exclude the particular content of individual lives. All the rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief comes later.

Immanuel Kant

Sandel doesn’t buy this. He doesn’t think you can abstract away the content of individual people’s lives to arrive at ethical principles which those human beings can then apply to the complex particularity of their actual existence.

Moral individualism, according to Sandel, recognises two kinds of moral obligation:

1 Natural duties, which are universal, and do not require consent.

2 Voluntary obligations, which are particular, and do require consent.

Natural duties

arise from an autonomous will (Kant) or from a hypothetical social contract (Rawls), [and] they don’t require an act of consent. No one would say that I have a duty not to kill you only if I promised you I wouldn’t.

For an example of a voluntary obligation, on the other hand:

If I’ve agreed to paint your house (in exchange for a wage, say, or to repay a favour), I have an obligation to do so. But I don’t have an obligation to pain everyone’s house.

Sandel does not think this is the whole story. There is another kind of obligation which, like a voluntary obligation, is particular, but, like a natural duty, does not arise from consent.

Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre

He draws on the account given by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. According to MacIntyre humans are storytellers who live their lives as narrative quests:

I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ [Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1981.]

For Sandel this narrative conception captures

those loyalties and responsibilities whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular people we are—as members of this family or nation or people; as bearers of that history; as citizens of this republic.

Following MacIntyre Sandel therefore recognises a third kind of moral obligation:

3 Obligations of solidarity, which are particular, do not require consent, and in fact ‘can’t be explained in contractarian terms’.

Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd

Sandel gives many examples of these obligations, starting with the question of national apologies and/or reparations for historic injustices. In 2000 German president Johannes Rau addressed the Israeli Knesset, apologising for the Holocaust and asking forgiveness for what the Germans had done. In 2008 Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the aborigines for the forced separation of mixed race children from aboriginal mothers, a practice only stopped in the 1970s. In 2008 a US House of Representatives resolution apologised to African Americans for slavery and racial segregation.

Gestures such as these have had their detractors, many offering a principled argument:

To apologize for an injustice is … to take some responsibility for it. You can’t apologize for something you didn’t do. So, how can you apologize for something that was done before you were born?

For example previous Australian prime minister John Howard:

I do not believe that the current generation of Australians should formally apologize and accept responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation. [Quoted in Gay Alcorn, ‘The Business of Saying Sorry’, Sydney Morning Herald, June 20, 2001.]

And Republican congressman Henry Hyde:

I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did … generations before I was born. [Quoted in Kevin Merida, ‘Did Freedom Alone Pay a Nation’s Debt?’, Washington Post, November 23, 1999.]

Sandel sees principled objections like these as consistent with moral individualism:

For the moral individualist, to be free is to be subject only to obligations I voluntarily incur; whatever I owe others, I owe by virtue of some act of consent—a choice or a promise or an agreement I have made, be it tacit or explicit.

So conversely, Sandel sees the counter-claim (that later Germans, Australians and Americans should apologise for their countries’ previous wrongs, and should therefore feel responsibility for those wrongs) as a problem for moral individualism.

Yellow star (Dutch)

Yellow star (Dutch)

Alasdair MacIntyre considers the example of a German born after 1945 who thinks that what the Nazis did to the Jews is irrelevant to any relationship he might have with his Jewish contemporaries. MacIntyre sees such a stance as morally shallow.

I agree with the verdict, but not the reasoning. I’ll try to explain next time

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


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