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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Michael Sandel on Justice #7

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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?

Michael J Sandel

Michael J Sandel

This is the seventh and last 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.

We saw last time that for Sandel, as for Alasdair MacIntyre, the consistent moral individualist should answer no to all three questions. Hence moral individualism is flawed.

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?

Runaway slave Jim with Huckleberry Finn

Runaway slave Jim with Huckleberry Finn

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.

Kevin Rudd apologising to the stolen generations

Kevin Rudd apologising to the stolen generations

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.


5 Responses

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  1. Hi Chris,

    I have just re-read your six Sandel posts, I think to re-ground myself in the complexity of the whole question of justice. It was hugely refreshing. My understanding of both Sandel and Rawl is much clearer as a result of your series. I have been tempted in my own blog to wade into this question again, but in truth, I am not equipped to do more than state a few freshman-level ideas.

    On a parallel note, the ethics of belief just seems to get more and more critical as our world gets smaller and more crowded, as economies are strained, and identities more confused. I am looking forward to reading your thesis when it is finished. In the meantime, I will continue to refresh myself wading around your blog.

    Thank you.
    And best of the best .


    22 July 2013 at 5:26 pm

    • Thanks Terry! I so wish there were more than 24 hours in a day. And thanks for your own far more regular posts – which I continue to read with interest 🙂

      Chris Lawrence

      22 July 2013 at 6:23 pm

  2. Chris, thank you. Your answer does not impress me as waffly but rather a recognition of just how complex this question is. Especially when one starts talking about “fair.” Like you, I am immensely fortunate relative to so many others. And so perhaps I must be careful about what I say about “fair.” But it seems to me life, at its very core, is not fair as we might define it. We are different in skills, abilities, relationships, opportunities, families – the list is endless.

    In a limited but critically important sense, though, I think we can talk about “fair” as it applies to our deliberate choices. That in itself is fraught with confusions and ambiguity, but at the outer edges there are principles of fairness in how we treat each other which research is now showing we even share with other living organisms.

    However, I do agree that, even in this limited sense, determining in concrete instances what is fair is subject to huge and legitimate disagreement.

    I’m inclined to agree with your objections to Sandel’s Aristotelian-cum-MacIntyrean emphasis on community identity as a necessary component of understanding justice. You’d have to go a long way to convince me that some rights and obligations of justice are determined not by our basic humanity but by who our ancestors were.

    And yes, yes, yes! Even when one wants to make things better for the unfairly disadvantaged, how to do that is not obvious. It was something I started to fear about know-it-all do-gooders when I was still in my 20’s and aspiring to become one of them.

    And now, at the risk to sounding as if I think you must be right because I agree with you, I will, nonetheless again say thank you. I find thinking about these questions hugely beneficial, even if the outcome is a deeper realization of how little I really know.



    1 May 2011 at 2:25 pm

  3. Fascinating, Chris. Philosophical neophyte that I am, I have a question. It seems to me that apologizing for injustices perpetrated by my ancestors is of a different order than apologizing for an injustice in which I myself have personally participated. It does seem to me the former is closer to what you describe as an act of empathy, whereas the latter includes an acknowledgement of personal guilt not present in the former.

    In both cases, I can see that there is a place for reducing the suffering of the victim (including present-day suffering that has been carried through generations)if that is possible. But again, it seems to me that in the former case, whatever one can do to reduce present day suffering is validly marked by a sense of making (or receiving) reparation only insofar as the latter generations have continued to benefit from the injustice originally imposed by my ancestors. When I have personally committed an injustice, the case of attempting to make reparation where possible seems obvious.

    I’d be interested, especially in the light of your review of Sandel’s work, to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thank you again for the chance to think about these issues. I’m amazed to realize I’ve lived a whole life thinking the answers were both simple and obvious.



    30 April 2011 at 9:15 pm

    • Thanks Terry. Good question, and it’s certainly a key question when it’s an issue of reparation, and not just of apology. In my posts I deliberately skirted reparation so as not to get bogged down.

      To be honest, I think what I think is that when it comes to reparations the economic practicalities both dwarf and cloud any issues of justice. That’s not to say there’s no issue of justice, but I don’t see there is any easy answer as to what to do. Here in South Africa it’s as live as possibly anywhere in the world. Justice demands that something is done, but what that something should be and how much it should be are questions fraught with complexity.

      In South Africa there are explicit and official policies like that of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), aimed at transferring a measure of wealth and economic opportunity back to previously disadvantaged groups. Every policy like that will have its detractors from both sides: it’s not enough; it’s too much; it doesn’t work; it creates more problems than it solves; …etc.

      My own hunch, for what it’s worth, is that some areas of activity are more fruitful than others. So for example effort should go into redistributing real political power and providing enhanced educational opportunities. I’m less keen on literal redistribution of cash – not because it’s not fair, but I’m sceptical to what extent it actually works. There’s also the huge risk and fact of corruption.

      The common context for all economic activity, whether it is cruelly exploitative or as egalitarian as possible, is that life as a whole is not fair. Reparations can only redress the balance, not wave a magic wand and make the world ‘fair’.

      ‘Fairness’ obviously comes into the question of who should pay. My wife and I are white South African permanent residents, who arrived in the country in 1996, over two years after the first democratic election, which came after the ending of Apartheid. Do we benefit from the legacy of Apartheid? In some respects we enjoy a standard of living considerably higher than what we would have in the UK, and undoubtedly higher than that of the average South African. We have no South African ‘ancestors’ who could possibly have voted for the National Party, who imposed Apartheid. But there are plenty of other white South Africans who were here under Apartheid, and therefore benefited from Apartheid (but also, arguably, also suffered from aspects of Apartheid –though of course far less than the average non-white South African at the time), but who consistently voted for political parties opposed to Apartheid. There is a significant transfer of wealth going on right now, if only because of the limited tax base compared to the huge gulf of need. And that’s just scratching the surface of all the complexities, and completely ignoring the ‘what if’ question of how much wealth there would have been in this neck of the woods if the Dutch East India Company had given it a wide berth in the 1600s…

      I can’t see that it’s possible to quantify what’s fair & what’s not fair. But you can probably ask whether things seem to be getting better or worse from the perspective of justice and, if they are getting better, could they get better any faster.

      This is probably what draws me to preserve Rawls’s theory of justice, as it seems an intelligent attempt to aim at ‘fairness’, while recognising the persistent and unavoidable backdrop of ‘unfairness’. It also recognises that life is, or can be, a non-zero sum game, whereas a more ‘pure’ egalitarianism seems to assume it is zero sum.

      I’m probably missing something hugely significant, but Sandel’s Aristotelian-cum-MacIntyrean alternative just seems to add unnecessary clutter, which you’d then need independent principles of justice to navigate through. It’s all very well to see the story of my life as embedded in the stories of communities from which I derive my identity. But what if I’d grown up in the Hitler Youth?

      Sorry – a bit of a waffly answer!

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      1 May 2011 at 12:58 pm

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