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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Sandel's Justice

I am not one of the select few (roughly one in six Harvard undergrads) who has taken Michael Sandel's course on "Justice," although I've seen him speak and can imagine how enjoyable and interesting the course is.  Happily, Sandel is widening his audience.  His new book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, is essentially a fancy-dress version of his lecture notes for the course.  The course will also be the subject of a 12-episode documentary on public television, and I look forward to it greatly.  Here is an excellent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on Sandel, the course, and the book and documentary projects, with quotes taken from interviews with, among others, Niall Ferguson, Joshua Cohen, Stephen Holmes, and Charles Taylor.  

I am about halfway through the book and recommend it highly so far.  It's extremely -- perhaps exceedingly -- well-written and smooth, and in a clear way it provides a look at dilemmas and hypotheticals that are regularly used and, with the help of the book, could easily be adapted for use across the law school curriculum.  I am, indeed, struck by how many of the moral dilemmas Sandel uses as his springboards are taken from the realm of law.  

I also wonder about the following passage, early in the book: 

Elections are won and lost on these disagreements.  The so-called culture wars are fought over them.  Given the passion and intensity with which we debate moral questions in public life, we might be tempted to think that our moral convictions are fixed once and for all, by upbringing or faith, beyond the reach of reason.

But if this were true, moral persuasion would be inconceivable, and what we take to be public debate about justice and rights would be nothing more than a volley of dogmatic assertions, an ideological food fight.

Sandel quickly adds: "[I]t need not be this way.  Sometimes, an argument can change our minds."  Maybe I'm having a Fishy reaction, but I can't help but think that he settles this point too quickly and not sufficiently persuasively.  As I said, I recommend the book highly, but he certainly has not shown me so far that our moral convictions are not "beyond the reach of reason" or that moral persuasion is not "inconceivable" and public debate not "an ideological food fight."  He certainly has not shown me that this is necessarily so.  It is true that arguments can sometimes change our minds, but less true, I think, unless we have already accepted a number of controversial moves, such that we already accept both the competing values (utilitarianism, libertarianism, virtue, Kantianism, etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, the language in which the conversation is conducted.  The book so far strikes me as an excellent example of reasonable people reasoning together reasonably, but I'm not sure it demonstrates that these types of conversation are inevitable or self-evident, or that the kinds of inclusions and exclusions he makes to his "Justice club," even if they are wide enough to allow one in six Harvard undergrads to enroll, are any more necessary or uncontroversial.  In that sense, the book strikes me as being more a kind of Robert's Rules of Order for liberals than a proof or justification of the enterprise he's engaged in.  But it is a terrific manual nonetheless.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 7, 2009 at 10:56 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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In the Boston harbor, the U.S.S. Independence (commissioned 1814) has been converted into a museum with a vistor center.

One of the most remarkable elements of the exhibit is that the foreign policy arguments being made from politicians from particular states when its construction was debated (for the war on piracy in Tripoli) line up on almost exactly as they do now and have in almost every war in between.

County level maps of Presidential election returns that show the flip of the Republican party from being the liberal to the conservative party, and the Democratic party from being the conservative to the liberal party in the century plus between Reconstruction and now similarly show that even at the county level, underlying ideology has been remarkably stable.

Neither account offers a very optimistic account of the power of moral persuasion.

This isn't to say that it is impossible. Strom Thurmond was elected to the U.S. Senate on a platform of segregation. While he was never a civil rights champion, by the end of his service, he had accepted the wrongness of discrimination based on race and the wrongness of legal bans on interracial marriage as almost self-evidence in his public rhetoric. Many other leading segregationists' views evolved similarly.

In the same vein, almost every elected official today supports the continued existence of Social Security and Medicare, even though the GOP would surely oppose each program if it was offered anew today.

Perhaps it is a community's relative position on political issues, rather than the absolute stances, that are malleable.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 7, 2009 3:27:11 PM

I of course agree with Micah that this is a fine introduction to people who are thinking about these issues for the first time -- as well as a lucid survey for those who have thought about them before. As I said, I recommend the book. If he is making the weaker claim that ideas have a place in liberal politics, I'm fine with that and appreciate both Micah and Matt's typically thoughtful interventions. I tend tp take him to as making a claim somewhat broader than that, though perhaps not as aggressive a claim as I may be suggesting in my post (in which case, mea culpa). I think his point holds if we the way we address his "beyond the reach of reason" concern is by starting from somewhere within what he would call "the reach of reason," in which case I think he gives the game away a little. But as I've made clear, if we're willing to accept the initial constraints he appears to want to make on what counts as reasonable discussion, then Sandel's book seems to me to be a fine discussion from within the perspective of reasonable discussion circa 2009.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 7, 2009 12:44:04 PM

but I'm not sure it demonstrates that these types of conversation are inevitable or self-evident

I think I'm likely echoing Micah here, but does Sandel actually make these claims? They would be very strong indeed, and hard to square with experience. Isn't it all he needs or wants to show that "these types of conversations" sometimes happen, and that they sometimes can change our minds? I took his target to be the view that ideas have no real place in politics except as rhetorical devices, that politics is nothing but a struggle for power among competing influences, and that any appeal to argument must be either a rhetorical trick of some sort or else a way to attempt to convince someone to give in to your position. But all he needs to show that that is wrong is the weaker claim, that ideas and "conversations" can sometimes make a difference.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 7, 2009 12:30:45 PM

Sandel doesn't seem to be making a very strong claim here, only that arguments can sometimes be persuasive -- not always, inevitably, necessarily, self-evidently, etc. (It is a little Fishy to be skeptical about a claim that's stronger than it's supposed to be!) It's also worth remembering that many people (and probably many of Sandel's students) may be thinking seriously about these issues for the first time. Their views may not be settled, and a good road-map of the arguments could change the way they think about things (and in any number of directions).

Posted by: Micah Schwartzman | Oct 7, 2009 11:45:30 AM

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