Michael Sandel on Justice #7
Should present-day Germans apologise for the Holocaust? Should present-day (white) Americans apologise for slavery and racial segregation? Should present-day (white) Australians apologise for the historic maltreatment of Australian Aborigines?
The flaw is that moral individualism assumes it is possible to detach the self from its social and historical roles:
The contrast with the narrative view of the self is clear. For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. [Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1981.]
But it is not obvious to me that Sandel’s obligations of solidarity represent a completely distinct category of moral obligation, and that they’re not reducible to either of the other two kinds (natural duties and voluntary obligations) – particularly the first. Sandel says of natural duties:
They include the duty to treat persons with respect, to do justice, to avoid cruelty, and so on.
Exactly: …and so on. Can we specify where the outer boundary of these natural duties lies? We know it definitely excludes specific contractual obligations entered into by consent. But does it exclude the obligation to empathise with suffering, and to assuage it if it is in your power?
Sandel’s discussion of national apologies and reparations for historic injustices is mostly from the side of the potential provider. But we can also look at the issue from the potential recipient’s side, from the side which has suffered the wrong. The principal focus up to now seems to be on whether a current group of people who may include descendents of former slave-owners and/or descendents of other beneficiaries of a slave economy carry any residual guilt for slavery. But why not ask if there is any residual suffering now as a result of historic slavery? It doesn’t take much imagination to get to a yes.
The questions then seem to answer themselves. Would the descendants of slaves welcome public recognition of the wrong their families had suffered? ‘Ancestor’ is not an abstract relationship. It is your father, your father’s mother, your father’s mother’s father, your father’s mother’s father’s father… This is quite apart from any current disparity in social conditions and outcomes which can be traced back to deprivation as a result of segregation, which was itself a result of slavery.
So it doesn’t take much argument to establish a special requirement for empathy. And then we can ask who is in the best position to make the requisite gesture of recognition. It doesn’t make sense for the Australian government to apologise for the Holocaust, or for present-day Germans to apologise for historic wrongs suffered by Australian Aborigines. It would be more like an insult, because it would make a mockery of what the apology was about.
I agree with MacIntyre that, for example, it would have been morally shallow for a present-day Australian government not to ‘accept responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation’ – if the Australian Aborigines deserve an apology and no one is better placed than the Australian government to provide that apology. It is the morally right thing to do because it would be an act of empathy, falling fair and square within Sandel’s first category of natural duties, along with treating people with respect, doing justice, and avoiding cruelty. Of course the Australian government could have chosen whether to do this or not. But it was the right choice – and it would have been the right choice for a moral individualist.
This is why I struggle with MacIntyre’s ‘narrative view of the self’, as supposedly filling a gap in moral individualism. I have no objection if someone wants to see his or her life as a story embedded in the story of this or that community. People are free to see their identities as derived from the history of the people they are a part of. They can also derive their ethical values from their communities.
But they can also choose not to. They can, to an extent at least – which is all that matters, chose which communities they want to continue to belong to and which communities to join.
People can see themselves as bound by obligations of solidarity, but that is their moral choice. It is their choice to see their moral decisions in terms of solidarity and the specifics of their communities. I am not convinced by Sandel and MacIntyre that obligations of solidarity are separate and irreducible.
© Chris Lawrence 2011.