Michael Sandel is something of a “moral rock star” according to the Financial Times, with hordes of acolytes the world over. It is easy for me to see why. This book, published in 2009, discusses theories of fairness and freedom that have been the basis of political discourse and civic structure in the U.S. for some fifty years, bringing us to the state of affairs we currently observe in our market-(un)regulated society. Sandel suggests that we may get twinges now and again that something is amiss in our transactional economy, with the mad rush to acquire more, and our knowing the cost of everything does not reflect the value of anything…of anything that really matters.
Sandel has a very smooth, well-practiced style filled with amusing or absorbing ethical and moral choices that have been presented to us over the years, some of which we (or the Supreme Court) may have responded to but not resolved to our satisfaction. Sandel waits for the end of his book to wade into the abortion issue, when we have been well-steeped in philosophical theory for hours. I was hoping for that. I have never bought into any of the increasingly shrill and limited arguments on either side of that debate, and felt we were missing something essential in our thinking. Sandel gently points to why the arguments of neither side satisfy our craving for justice and suggests there may be another way to look at the issue. You will need to go there to see what he suggests.
If we look at the theories of justice that have been incorporated into our thinking and political constructions since Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and John Rawls (1921-2002), we have first the principle of respect for an individual because they are human with the capacity to reason (Kant) and the notion of social and economic equality and basic liberties for all (Rawls). Sandel gives lots of examples how these actually play out in a society based on the rule of law. We get tied up with some people questioning equality, and some questioning fairness. Sandel thinks we might want to look again at what Aristotle said about political philosophy. Defining rights requires us to figure out the purpose or end of the social practice in question. And justice is honorific, that is, we need to reason out what it is we are trying to achieve, what virtues we want to promote by reward through justice.
It does seem to be a step we have skipped. We need to question and define again, together, the “good life.” We need to look at the ends, the virtues we hope to achieve by rewards of wealth or position. I would be surprised if many people did not share my sense that there is something seriously amiss in the way we are valuing both the productive capacity of the populace and our physical “plant,” that is to say, our land and resources.
Sandel writes of the importance of language, how we fulfill our natures when we deliberate with others about right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice:
"Language, a distinctly human capacity, isn't just for registering pleasure and pain. It's about declaring what is just and what is unjust, and distinguishing right from wrong. We don't grasp these things silently, and then put words to them; language is the medium through which we discern and deliberate about the good."He writes that we are not merely individuals, which has been America's cri de coeur, but products of our history. We have narrative lives as part of a clan, tribe or nation; we have a past, We can be held responsible for the wrongs of our tribe. From this, Sandel does not dismiss the idea of reparations for slavery. This is another subject for which I sought some kind of basis; now I have the words to explain it.
Sandel remarks on the need to restore community. Wealth disparities allow us to live apart from one another when we need to interact more; we need to see what is true and what is only imagined. We need to influence one another. In the prevailing philosophies espoused by the political parties, either the one in power or the one challenging it, something is missing, something important, like meaningful debate about who we are as people, as Americans. In this book, Sandel talks about some of those things I could sense were missing but couldn’t articulate. It has to do with values—the real ones, not the price of a Birkin bag. The lack of recognition about what is important has led us to unconscionable wealth disparities and trite but vicious debate on the political stage. Unless we address what is really important, it ultimately does not matter who wins the election. That way hell lies.
Sandel is much feted around the world for his discussions of justice, but in the Financial Times interview linked above he tells us that his ideas achieve less resonance in two countries: the United States and China. As a result of his celebrity, he has several TED talks posted on YouTube (links below) which cover some of the material in his books, and the course he teaches at Harvard is posted online as well. Sandel is very clear in expressing difficult concepts, so I recommend you go straight to him rather than take my word for it.
TED Talk on The Lost Art of Democratic Debate
TED talk on The Moral Limits of Markets
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