Episode 97: Michael Sandel on Social Justice and the Self

Michal Sandel by Genevieve ArnoldOn his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), mostly ch. 1 & 4.

Classical liberalism from Locke to Rawls focuses on rights as primary: a good government is one that protects people from violations of their rights, and that's what social justice amounts to, though of course, there's some disagreement about what counts as a "right."

Sandel thinks that there's a idea about the self behind this picture: we are selves that have interests, but are not itself composed of those interests. In other words, on this view, you are in your essence just a choosing being, not a member of your family or community. Sandel thinks that is bunk. It doesn't allow for real introspection, or even real freedom, as all of our choices would merely be based on ultimately arbitrary preferences, and not on understanding who we really are.

Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan debate whether Sandel is really representing Rawls's liberalism fairly here and what alternative to a liberal state he's actually suggesting. Read more about it and get the book. Also, the post about Alec Baldwin that Wes refers to at the end is here. Make sure to listen to the follow-up to this episode where Sandel himself answers some of our questions about this book.

End song: "Wonderful You," from Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.

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  1. HS says

    Thank you for the interesting discussion. It brought to mind my disagreement with Wes a while back concerning identity politics. While anthropologists have frequently been concerned rights of cultural minorities, there’s a long tradition of skepticism towards liberalism and human rights, with the fear that any single proclamation of these rights cannot be as inclusive as it aspires to be. That they rest on culturally contingent individualist conceptualizations of society and personhood. (Another reason perhaps being that the advance of modern liberalism is frequently tied to loss of local autonomy, integration into the capitalist world system, and economic exploitation.) For example, much research has been done on how colonial states and later various modernization and development projects have relied on a particular individualist ideology in their attempts to construct subjects with “modern souls,” as Foucault would put it. Thus Sandels’ emphasis on personhood doesn’t strike me as strange (not that I agree with the rest of his argument). An example I have personally encountered involved women of a particular non-Western culture who would critique a well-meaning feminist development project that wanted to educate them about gender equality for wanting to deprive them of the crucial social relationships that constitute them as persons. Instead of becoming autonomous parts of universally valued humanity, they felt deprived of their particular relationally constituted humanity. Indeed members of some cultures perceive modern democracy as antithetical to human dignity. This alienating effect of liberal democracy, which leaves us “in the solitude of our own hearts,” is a longstanding topic of social analysis.

    Of course one could argue that with Rawls (or Kant?) charges of individualism (the free floating transcendental subject) applies only to the bare minimum of rights ensured by your relationship to the state and in no way contradicts socially differentiated pluralist communities with solidarity created by various moral bonds, indeed it’s the prerequisite of pluralism (though my disagreement with Wes did not concern such “bare minimum” rights, but was alarmingly extended into a full-blown critique of all identity politics, not to rehash any of that). Of course many people looking at the history of Western political philosophy disagree and argue that there are much deeper ideological roots to these ideas, not to mention looking at their actual political implementation. Problems surrounding “multiculturalism” and value pluralism attest to these difficulties.

    An interesting example in the light of this topic is the Arizona ban on ethnic studies HB 2281, which bans such things as teaching resentment towards other ethnic groups and sedition against the government, while emphasizing that all students should be treated as individuals (solidarity should be fostered only towards the state). While you can agree with the principle, this arguably leaves Universities unable to discuss and deal with social inequality tied to ethnic identity. My case for not ignoring identity politics was exactly based on not ignoring these kinds of social inequalities and being open to different kinds of moral appeals.

    Sorry for being a bit off topic.

  2. HS says

    I think I posted this before, but here’s a chapter from Axel Honneth’s The Fragmented World of the Social titled The Limits of Liberalism: On the Political-Ethical Discussion concerning Communitarianism. As far as I can tell its a descent enough summary of the debate between liberals and communitarians

    Another possibly relevant tangent: David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
    Graeber is an anthropologist and an anarchist who attained somewhat of a celebrity status due to his association with the occupy movement

  3. s. wallerstein says

    I’m going to stand up for Sartre, who seems to be the villain of this discussion.

    Sartre does not deny what is here called the “empirical self”: it’s what he calls “situation”.

    I’m Jewish, middle-class, educated and hetereosexual: those are facts of my situation according to Sartre.

    Now, Sartre says that I decide what I do with my Jewishness. I can change my name or operate my nose. I can follow the faith of my fathers or mock it. I can back Israel or condemn it. I can be indifferent to being Jewish and even be indifferent or not so indifferent to being indifferent to being Jewish, etc. However, I cannot deny my Jewishness, without falling into what Sartre calls “bad faith”.

    So it’s up to me how I live my Jewishness. It’s my responsibility to decide how to live it and if I claim that how I live my Jewishness is a given, I’m in bad faith once again.

    On what basis can I decide how to live my Jewishness in society? Once again, that’s up to me. I tend to agree with Wes that some kind of contemporary or modified Kantian criteria is the best option and in fact, when Sartre himself gives infrequent suggestions of an ethics (in Existentialism is a Humanism and in his notebooks), he himself plays with a modified Kantianism. (I don’t know much about Kant myself, so my idea of Kantianism is fairly vague and based on what Wes says.)

    What are the merits of Sartre’s position? First of all, it leads me to examine my options (the examined life or the partially examined life matters) and second, it seems that in any tribal group (Jews, latinos, etc.), the losers are the odd ones, the “queer” ones (I’m not using “queer” in a sexual sense), the misfits and that we become conscious of our options gives us (I identify with the odd ones) some freedom from group pressure and group-think.

  4. HS says

    C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (1962) might be worth an episode or a blog entry.

  5. Aaron W says

    Honestly – great episode. It’s always nice to hear some conflicting opinions on the show – makes it more interesting.

    That being said – I think Wes batted it out of the park. I really didn’t hear (and please correct me) a counter for his argument that Rawls’ original position is a thought experiment on how to construct a state and not an actual definition of the self. So just saying that Rawls’ original position does not bring enough to the table – well that’s not the point. It brings the minimum it can – because anything more could result in social injustice or totalitarianism when one group would value their relative community interests over another.

    Even if I characterized that wrong – you guys have been doing a great job recently – keep it up!

  6. Profile photo of John Halloran says

    I do appreciate how Wes, who appeared to be physically pained by Rawls in the Rawls episode, came forth as his greatest defender here–and he hit on exactly what I think the biggest problem with Sandel as Rawls critic is.

    At the same time, though, I do appreciate Sandel’s project project in lots of ways, even if I don’t think that it’s particularly useful on thinking though how one sets up a state. This episode, however, got me thinking that even though Sandel muffs Rawls in the original position that he really is talking about something that might be a second-order problem for state stability. Basically, (1) you need a thin conception of the good in order to come to some sort of foundational rules to construct justice within the state; but (2) you need a thicker conception of the good immediately after that as soon as you start getting into the nitty-gritty of state institution building.

    Rawls, I think, recognizes that, and you do get a slightly thicker conception of the good after his initial moves. I had never thought about this before your episode, but it seems that situating Sandel’s critique in that second step of Rawls’s project might make it more persuasive.

    So, maybe, what we need to do is to be more specific about what we’re talking about when we talk about the state and politics. As Wes points out, there are many times where we don’t need or want the conception of justice embedded in the core state to reach a certain type of problem. But that doesn’t mean that the problem can’t be reached in the broader state or in the broader politics.


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