Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sunday Review: Sandel's Justice

TPR is delighted to present our first guest review, this week submitted by Zoe Molyneux. Enjoy.

Who said philosophy was dead?

(Sandel, Michael J., 2010. Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? London: Penguin.)

In 1984, Michael Sandel wrote: “Political philosophy seems often to reside at a distance from the rest of the world… [E]ven our best efforts to ‘live up’ to our ideals typically founder on the gap between theory and practice”.[i] His words criticised some of the discipline’s most beloved philosophers – particularly John Rawls – for keeping principles and political reality entirely separate, as if the two have no bearing on one another. 25 years later, Sandel is still arguing against philosophical vogues.[ii] In Justice, he suggests that we ought to take stock of the kind of society in which we want to live, and what principles we might use to justify our chosen way of life.

The central mission of Justice is to take the reader on a philosophical tour of highly controversial debates including affirmative action, paid surrogacy and abortion. Early on in the book, Sandel suggests three ways of evaluating such contested issues: welfare, freedom and virtue. He then attempts to achieve this by touching upon the theories of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant through to Rawls and Robert Nozick, finally taking us back in time to Aristotle’s Ancient Greece. It is an amiably written, unintimidating primer for those who are new to the study of moral philosophy, not least because so many important philosophers are covered in such a concentrated manner. But it should not be dismissed by those who are well-versed in debating about justice, because Sandel’s ultimate proposition is more important than ever. In a world that is ever divided by national, cultural and religious interests, with such divisions occurring even within states, does it still make sense for governments to insist upon the seperateness of public and private morality? Or should we admit that, for its tendency to neglect the people who give political life all of its purpose, this approach to public policy has failed?

Sandel’s journey begins with a critique of utilitarianism, and this move is important. Though liberalism turned it into a pariah theory for the best part of the previous century, it has enjoyed a revival at the hands of Peter Singer, J.J.C Smart, Bernard Williams and the like. It is also, on the face of it, a plausible way to approach questions of right and wrong. Sandel first picks up on the case of R v Dudley and Stephens, an 1884 case where three shipwrecked sailors killed and cannibalised a cabin boy. It is famous amongst trainee lawyers as key to understanding the necessity defence in legal practice. Yet even more importantly, it provoked a huge demonstration of public sympathy towards Dudley and Stephens, who were both on trial for murder. Utilitarian reasoning seemed to be prevalent even in untrained philosophers. In Justice, it is presented to us as a litmus test for our utilitarian tendencies and while Sandel makes no judgement as to whether the actions of the sailors were truly reprehensible, he seems uncomfortable with this state of affairs. He suggests that we might want to ask bigger questions about the extent to which human life is sacred and whether we really have any inalienable rights. This is all very well. It is frustrating, however, that Sandel never truly reveals his hand on this or any other of the controversies featured in the book. He seems to be suggesting that individuals have intrinsic value that must preclude them from becoming fodder for starving sailors, just as elsewhere he displays unease at governments placing a dollar value on human life and personal happiness. At each instance the conclusion seems morally repugnant, and therefore damning of utilitarianism. But committed philosophers will ask for more from a justification for abandoning utilitarian theory. Moreover, while Sandel provides the requisite tools for us to think about right and wrong like philosophers, he is constantly reluctant to take his reasoning to the point of producing definitive judgements.

He is equally dissatisfied with John Stuart Mill’s revised form of utilitarianism, which uses “higher pleasures” such as liberty to evaluate utility. Mill saves utilitarianism from becoming a “crude calculus of pleasure and pain” but, in Sandel’s eyes, these higher pleasures easily collapse into a defence of individual rights independent from utility. The next, most voluminous part of the book considers the very concept of individual rights, via the work of a few very different philosophers. His suggestion that this part covers “freedom” as the basis for justice is a misnomer: Robert Nozick’s libertarianism, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and John Rawls’ liberal equality have many differences, but their greatest similarity is that they are all rights-based theories. What is more, the rights upon which they insist must be universally applicable. This is crucially important since, if we are to believe Sandel, the search for universal values may represent an overwhelming wrong-turning in the course of our collective moral reflection.

In assessing these different conceptions of universal moral principles, Sandel provides a string of real-life stories and ethical questions that test just how squeamish we are with respect the logical consequences of those principles. If we believe in rights to self-ownership and individual freedom, are we willing to extend this to allowing women in India to rent out their wombs? Equally, should we accept that German software engineers can consent to be killed and eaten by one another? Our answer is of little importance, since Sandel knows that he has backed the universalists into a corner. What matters is that each of these debates shows how, when politicians pick a single criterion on which to base policy that is neutral to any one person’s conception of the good, they often lose sight of what matters to anyone.

The third and final section of Justice focuses on what might be missing from this picture. Aristotle, Sandel explains, saw that the just distribution of a good must be determined by the purpose or telos of that good. The best flutes should therefore go to the best flute players in order to produce the most beautiful music. If we extend this, the purpose of politics is to pursue the good life in Aristotle’s sense of the concept –citizens must strive to cultivate virtuous character traits, those which strike a balance between excess and deficiency on every level. One such positive attribute is active participation in political life. Therefore, goes Sandel’s reading of Aristotle, political rights and freedoms must be distributed to this end.

Sandel leaves his prescriptions until the final chapter, which turns out to be the most thought-provoking part of all. While all of his anecdotes are engaging, there is an obvious sense throughout much of the book that Sandel’s personal judgements have been missing. If he is dissatisfied with Kant, Rawls, Nozick and the rest of them, we wonder, then what does he suggest is the right way to think about justice? What we eventually receive is a wonderfully apt treatise on the value of civic engagement. This may not be a cure-all for eradicating injustice. But encouraging community cohesion, which in turns promotes democratic debate, is surely an important step in the right direction. None of this argument is new – Sandel has been making the case for communitarian moral and civic renewal for most of his career and his ideas are obviously inspired by those of Aristotle. Sandel’s truly imaginative step is to reiterate his case as a progressive solution to our generation’s unique political problems. His solution seems more relevant than ever as globalisation has taken hold and the world’s economic and religious divisions therefore become increasingly marked. And he is right to argue that any attempt to find a politically neutral solution to this situation seems to have made the problem worse.

The cynics amongst us might find Sandel’s tone to be a little too saccharine; some might too-quickly summarise his method as simply telling the world to talk about its problems more and hoping that this will make them go away. Anyone that watched Sandel’s recent BBC series will remember how fascinated the philosopher was with David Cameron’s Big Society project – that which now seems so fraught with controversy yet aligns quite neatly with Sandel’s communitarianism. In light of this, I hope most readers of Justice are not so quick to dismiss his ideas. The scale of the book gives Sandel little time to fully elaborate upon his project, which I imagine would be a Theory of Justice-sized endeavour. And even Sandel’s detractors must engage in a debate about how political life must proceed without becoming irrelevant to current debates about morality and religious conviction. If nothing else, Sandel is part of a vanguard attempting to save political philosophy from its fate as the preserve of a privileged few.

[i] Michael J. Sandel, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self”. Political Theory 12:1 (1984): 1. Accessed 4 July 2011,

[ii] Though he may find some company in UCL’s Jonathan Wolff. See Jonathan Wolff, Ethics and Public Policy. London: Routledge, 2011.

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