Commentary on Michael Sandel

I have watched Michael Sandel’s Harvard course on justice, as well as some of his other public appearances, such as:

TED talk: The lost art of democratic debate

I find myself viewing his performances from different perspectives.

First, he claims as his agenda to promote public discourse on the common good. On this he is deluded. There are countless writings on moral issues. But very few read them. Then there are the speeches of eminent public speakers, such as Chomsky, Hedges, Hitchens, Zinn, Kinzer, Vidal, Pilger; and such programs as Democracy Now, Real News, and all sorts of Progressive publications. But who is aware of any of this? And who will listen to and take note of what Sandel is doing?

Second, he claims to be providing an example of what public discourse should look like. So what is his example? It is to introduce controversial questions, and offer the audience (or students) an opportunity to express their opinions with a reason. This is followed by Sandel’s own (sometimes prepared) commentary — not necessarily to adjudicate from his own perspective. One is left with the questions unresolved.

Third, his approach does not question our political institutions, but raises questions as a way of prescribing what the government should do. He does not seem to realize that our prescriptions to the government are otiose. As an example, in the U.S. preparation for an attack on Iraq in 2003, there were huge protests against this action both in the United States and the world. The result? Iraq was attacked.

The conclusion I draw is that public (democratic) opinion in the U.S. and in most other countries does not much matter.

Fourth, the issue he should be discussing is whether our political institutions function to promote the common good. Apparently, Sandel himself thinks that they do not. But he offers no guidance as to how to improve them.

Fifth, I have fundamental disagreements with him about his discourse on justice. Let me do this by saying something about the four cardinal virtues: moderation (or temperance), fortitude (or courage), prudence (or wisdom), and justice.

Virtues are habits or dispositions. The first three virtues can be exercised by a solitary individual like Robinson Crusoe on an island. The fourth virtue — justice — concerns behavior towards others; let us say of Crusoe towards Friday. And if justice is a habit or disposition, what is this disposition? My simple answer is that it is a disposition to abide by agreements.

And what will be the agreements which Crusoe and Friday make? Their common concern is to stay alive: self-preservation. And to do this they have to have a free access to the land and water for food and shelter — in short, the necessities for sustaining life. So, they will agree on some equal division of land or on some equal mode of access to the necessities for life. They will also agree not to harm each other nor to interfere with their pursuit of these necessities. But I think they would also agree to an exception clause, namely, that these agreements are not binding if they threaten self-preservation.

Justice or morality is the disposition to sincerely abide by these agreements. And injustice or immorality is to act counter to these agreements. That is all.

I know that the usual view of justice has to do with something like an equal application of the law. Well, if, let us say, Crusoe and Friday agree to have a judge or arbitrator — call him Joe, then Joe will agree to use an impartial rule to decide cases. And if Joe abides by such an agreement, Joe will act justly as a judge; otherwise, he will act unjustly by not abiding by the agreement to act impartially.

My sixth and last comment, is that a discussion of justice has to take into consideration history and sociology; specifically, we have to take into account the fact that, as argued by Franz Oppenheimer, in his book The State, states have arisen through conquest, and have morphed from slave empires, to feudal kingdoms, to constitutional democracies and dictatorships. In all cases states have been resilient to moral considerations, and have supported various forms of plutocracy and capitalism.

(3) Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

The last four lectures are on democracy.

I agree with the idea of democracy as the claim that government, if moral, should be founded on the will of the people. However, Shapiro seems to use American Democracy, as if it were the paradigm of democratic government. My objection is that there are many different existing types of democratic governments, which Shapiro should have mentioned.

Shapiro mentioned Robert Dahl as being — according to him — the foremost current scholar of democracy. Because of this endorsement, I have read his book, On Democracy (1998). Dahl, in his turn, recommended looking at the freedom ranking of governments at the site: Freedom House. What is more interesting for me is the type of governments which exist in these “free” democracies. And for that answer — by Dahl’s recommendation — we should look at the studies of Arend Lijphart, whose most important book is Patterns of Democracy (1st ed. 1999; 2d ed. 2012). [available on the Internet]

Lijphart’s main classification of democracies is into two types: Majoritarian (also known as the Westminister model) and Consensus models. For example, the United Kingdom uses majoritarian democracy; whereas Switzerland uses consensus democracy.

I am not going to get into the details except to point out two features. In England the House of Commons is elected by a principle that whichever party gets the most votes wins, and then this party chooses the Prime Minister. Whereas in Switzerland, party members are elected by proportional representation, and the four parties with the largest number of representatives nominate the 7-member Federal Council.

Swiss Federal Council 2020

Arend Lijphart believes that Consensus type of democracy is preferable to the Majoritarian type.

My criticism of Ian Shapiro’s course boils down to this. He failed to tell the audience that there are different types of democracies in the world, and failed to consider which is preferable.

But that is not his only failing: i.e., the failure to differentiate and to grade democracies. Beside actual different types of democracies, there are also ideal and utopian types of democracies which are never mentioned by Shapiro. For example, Part III “Utopia” of Robert Nozick’s Anarchism, State, and Utopia points in this direction. [Contrary to Nozick, I would call his framework for utopias as the framework for anarchism] And a general description of anarchist proposals could be summarized as bottom-up federated democracies.

And without considering these alternative ideal democracies, there is no prospect for finding “the moral foundations of politics.”

(2) Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

Let me start with the following advice. I am commenting on the videos of a course at Yale University presented by Ian Shapiro. For you to properly evaluate my criticism of the opinions of Ian Shapiro, you have to watch the videos; otherwise you are in no position to know whether I am misrepresenting his views, or whether his reasoning is more compelling than my.

In this blog, I wish to assess his views on the Social Contract theories. I was especially taken aback by his comments on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views presented in his “The Social Contract” (1761) in the following video:

Shapiro puts on a screen the following passage from Book II, chapter III: whether the general will is fallible:

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.

Shapiro does not know what sense can be made of “the general will” in contrast to the “will of all.” So, he sees no alternative to some kind of vote, and goes on to examine justifications for majority rule. This appeal to voting is not the intention of Rousseau as I will point out. By the way, this failure by Shapiro to appreciate what Rousseau was after is the same failure he exhibits with John Locke as well.

So, let me explain what both Locke and Rousseau have in common.

First, not all interests have the same importance. The fundamental interest is in self-preservation. And what is required for sustaining animal life, including our own is known in a general way by all people. If it was not known to some people, then they would not have survived — and they, as well as suicidal persons, are of no concern to us in our endeavor for self-preservation. In addition, science can be more precise in telling us what is necessary for survival. This will to survive and the means to survival constitutes what Rousseau calls “the general will.” And it has nothing to do with voting. All other interests are secondary, and can be voted on in some way or other.

Whether an individual lives alone or in groups, there are certain things which are needed for survival: air, water, food, clothes, shelter, fuel, temperature, tools. And all these can be obtained from a suitable area of land. So access to subsistence land is a necessity for a solitary individual. Unfortunately, a solitary individual is liable to attacks and misfortunes; so, banding together is more effective for safeguarding and sustaining life. But before any divisions of labor are agreed to, it is necessary, first, to have this access to subsistence land and to secure whatever one manages to get from one’s labor. This arrangement with others to keep what one gets from nature is a social agreement (contract) called “property.” And this is why Locke and Rousseau write a great deal about property, and which is the original rationale for social life.

Once we understand this idea that access to subsistence land is necessary for sustaining life, then any political action which denies us this access is against our will and consent, and can be done only through coercion and violence and is, therefore, amoral (because not freely agreed to).

Now, I find it odd that in John Rawls theorizing within the Original Position, in which the characteristic of human beings was known, it was not taken into account that all human beings need necessities for life, and that such necessities are obtainable by a free access to subsistence land.

As to Marx, Shapiro focuses on Marx discussion of exploitation without raising the question of how exploitation is possible. But the answer is given by Marx in pointing out that a proletariat class is required for capitalism. A proletarian is someone who does not have free access to subsistence land. And such denial of free access to subsistence land is only possible by force through a State — that is why States are amoral.

In conclusion, Shapiro is not really interested in finding the moral foundations for States — because, as David Hume pointed out, they were never formed by a social contract, and Shapiro cannot find the roots of legitimacy for States; so, he shifts his interest to the problem of how can the lives of people be improved under the present conditions of States through some form of democracy.

Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

There is much in his course that I admire, and I appreciate his summaries, and various insights. But still I have fundamental disagreements.

These disagreement are based on the fact that I have my own independent outlook which acts as a base for evaluating the views of others, including the history of political thinking of others, and views of Shapiro himself.

To begin with, I am wary of ambiguous and vague abstractions and hasty generalizations as, for example, giving a historical period names, i.e., periodizations, placing thinkers into Schools and Movements. Shapiro classifies his course into three idiosyncratic parts: Enlightenment, Anti-Enlightenment, and Democratic Theory. By doing this, he is answering his fundamental question as to the moral foundation of politics with the following general answers: (1)[Enlightenment] the moral foundations of politics are x, y, or . . . z. (2)[Anti-Enlightenment] there are no moral foundations of politics, and (3) [Democratic Theory] the best form of current politics is some form of democracy.

Furthermore, His whole course seems to be based on an idiosyncratic concept of the Enlightenment, which he says is based on two claims. The first is that science can provide foundations for morality and politics. The second is an endeavor for freedom. But the nature of this freedom is left unspecified.

Concerning the first claim. If science seeks the truth, and truth concerns what is; while morality concerns what ought to be the case and what I ought to do, and David Hume, who lived during the Enlightenment, observed that “is does not imply ought,” [as Shapiro himself point out] then at least one Enlightenment thinker did not subscribe to the claim that science can provide moral foundations for politics.

As to Shapiro’s second characteristic of the Enlightenment — as a search for freedom — suffers from ellipsis. More precisely it should be formulated as freedom from … and freedom to do …

And Shapiro could have done better in his description of the Enlightenment by citing Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” in which the whole endeavor of the Enlightenment is expressed as: critically assessing all opinions; with a call to the government for freedom for everyone to publicly express their opinions.

My blog “Escaping from bullshit,” exemplifies this Enlightenment project.

From this perspective, the Enlightenment project started in ancient Greece through the systematic use of the principle of non-contradiction. This is the principle that two contradictory claims cannot be true simultaneously. This principle was used in the Middle Ages to systematize theology. However, the period up to the 17th century was loaded with all sorts of mythologies which could not be assessed simply on the basis of non-contradiction.

But with the scientific discoveries in the 17th centuries, an additional principle was established for determining superstitions (mythologies). This extended rationality from just relying on non-contradiction to an appeal to empirical scientific claims as providing better explanations.

The other serious problem was the existence of censorship — both religious and secular. Religion persecuted heretics (which still persists in Muslim countries); while the Monarchs favored the myth of a divine right of kings, and suppressed any political criticism — again, a problem which persists even today.

However, during the 18th century one unsolved problem remained which gave succor to theology — the existence of a complex, law-regulated cosmos, especially the existence of life forms, culminating in human beings. This mystery of life and lawful complexity left room for God, for free will, and room for an immortal soul. Thus, if one was free from contradictory beliefs and from the fact that science was limited, one could be justified in being at least a Deist.

This problem of the existence of life forms was solved by the theory of evolution, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which ushered in an Age of Secularism or Materialism.

The achievement and progress of the Enlightenment is scholarly expressed by Andrew Dickson White’s book: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896-7)

Commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

In a previous blog Professor Ian Shapiro’s course at Yale University: “Power and Politics in Today’s World” I praised and recommended his course “Power and Politics in Today’s World.”

However his other course titled “Moral Foundations of Politics,” is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is admirable in introducing some of the key figures and in providing plausible interpretations of some of their thoughts. But, on the other hand, I have objections to several key tenets.

Before I make my comments, be aware that there are two sets of videos for the course “Moral Foundations of Politics.” One set consists of his preliminary presentation to two students as to what will be covered in the course, and then there is the course itself.

In discussing his intentions for the course he says that he will examine the views presented from his own perspective. This means that he will (1) selects the material to be examined, and he will take a (2) critical perspective.

Formally, this amount to the position that he will examine hypotheses H1, H2, . . . , Hn. At the end of the course, he finds fault with all the hypotheses which he has examined.

This reminds one of Socrates in his dialogues, where all the examined hypotheses have been rejected, and we are left in the dark as to a solution, except to say that we know that we are ignorant of the solution.

Let me take a stab at introducing my own critical remarks as well as my own selection of some hypotheses which Shapiro has omitted.

Shapiro, in his preliminary discussions of his intentions, states that he wants to answer the questions: “What makes government legitimate?” and “Sources of State Legitimacy?” And, as he explains, legitimacy for him means morally justifiable.

These questions assume that there is a moral foundation to States, or, put otherwise, that States can be legitimate. But, really, is there a moral foundation to States? And even: Can there be a moral foundation to States? Or: Is a moral foundation of States possible?

Before continuing, let me distinguish a government of some primitive tribe from that of a centralized government (with its bureaucracy) as in modern countries. The governments of primitive small tribes are direct democracies to which all consent, and I do not call them States. It is the governments of huge populations which are to be called States. And States were not formed through consent, and if consent (or agreement) is the foundation of morality, then States are not founded on morality.

By not asking these preliminary questions, he is leaving out of account, the whole Anarchist Tradition, and he is failing to take into account the views of perhaps the greatest public intellectual anarchist of our times, Noam Chomsky.

An indicator of Chomsky’s attitude toward States, i.e., centralized governments, can be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry for “Pirates and Emperors”:

Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World is a book by Noam Chomsky, titled after an observation by St. Augustine in City of God, proposing that what governments coin as “terrorism” in the small simply reflects what governments utilize as “warfare” in the large. Yet, governments coerce their populations to denounce the former while embracing the latter. In the City of God, St. Augustine tells the story
Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”.

Below is a clip which extends this idea:

Let me add another writer and book which Ian Shapiro fails to include in his survey. This is Franz Oppenheimer’s book: The State (1919). The thesis of the book is that States have originated through conquest, and have morphed from monarchies into modern constitutional States while retaining their monopoly on violence.

I think of States in the same way as did King Louis XIV, who said, “L’État, c’est moi.” [“I am the State”], or as as President George W. Bush said: “I am the decider.” And these “deciders” tend to be Hitlers, Stalins, and other megalomaniacs who act on their whims like tigers in the wild. To think of Hitler as acting immorally sounds too weak. He is evil, just as any natural disaster is evil. A Hitler, who is the State, is like a mentally retarded person or a tiger. Consider how you would describe a tiger which attacks you. A tiger is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. In an analogous sense, an enemy soldier (or pirate, or emperor, or a Hitler) who attacks you is also amoral. So, perhaps it is more proper to view the State as an amoral phenomenon, which like the tiger, or an enemy soldier, pirate, or emperor, or Hitler, must be imprisoned or destroyed; and not morally justified.

To be fair. Perhaps my initial criticism is really an appeal to what Shapiro undertakes to examine in his 3rd lecture: Natural Law Roots of the Social Contract Tradition, and the 13th lecture: Appropriating Locke Today.


As an aside, I believe that all such courses involving controversy should be taught by at least two teachers: a person like Ian Shapiro, and someone like me, his critic.

Professor Ian Shapiro’s course at Yale University: “Power and Politics in Today’s World”

I came across this televised course at Yale University covering the last 30 years of world politics from 1989 to 2019. I was impressed by its comprehensive focus on the major events which have shaped the political state of our present world. I know of no better such presentation which is available on the internet.

Here is the syllabus for this course: Syllabus


Lecture 1: Introduction to Power and Politics in Today’s World

Lecture 2: From Soviet Communism to Russian Gangster Capitalism

Lecture 3: Advent of a Unipolar World: NATO and EU Expansion

Lecture 4: Fusing Capitalist Economics with Communist Politics: China and Vietnam

Lecture 5: The Resurgent Right in the West

Lecture 6: Reorienting the Left: New Democrats, New Labour, and Europe’s Social Democrats

Lecture 7: Shifting Goalposts: The Anti-Tax Movement

Lecture 8: Privatizing Government I: Utilities, Eminent Domain, and Local Government

Lecture 9: Privatizing Government II: Prisons and the Military

Lecture 10: Money in Politics

Lecture 11: Democracy’s Fourth Wave? South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East

Lecture 12: Business and Democratic Reform: A Case Study of South Africa

Lecture 13: The International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect

Lecture 14: 9/11 and the Global War on Terror

Lecture 15: Demise of the Neoconservative Dream From Afghanistan to Iraq

Lecture 16: Denouement of Humanitarian Intervention

Lecture 17: Filling the Void – China in Africa

Lecture 18: Political Limits of Business: The Israel-Palestine Case

Lecture 19: Crisis, Crash, and Response

Lecture 20: Fallout: The Housing Crisis and its Aftermath

Lecture 21: Backlash – 2016 and Beyond

Lecture 22: Political Sources of Populism – Misdiagnosing Democracy’s Ills

Lecture 23: Building Blocks of Distributive Politics

ecture 24: Unemployment, Re-employment & Income Security

Lecture 25: Tough Nuts – Education and Health Insurance

Lecture 26: Agendas for Democratic Reform


Power and Politics in Today’s World – Office Hours 1: The Collapse of Communism and its Aftermath

Power and Politics in Today’s World – Office Hours 2: The Collapse of Communism and its Aftermath II

Power and Politics in Today’s World – Office Hours 3: A New Global World Order?

Power and Politics in Today’s World – Office Hours 4: The End of the End of History

Power and Politics in Today’s World – Office Hours 5: The Politics of Insecurity

Timothy Snyder and Gore Vidal on the American Imperial (“Tyrannical”) Presidency

Timothy Snyder, in the following video, notes that the Presidency of Trump has the earmarks of tyranny.

I agree with what he says, except for his praise of the Constitution. He thinks that the Constitution was designed to prevent tyranny through a division of powers. That may well have been the intention. But the Constitution is flawed in many respects.

Among these flaws, the most egregious one is in having created the office of a President, elected by an electoral college and mass democracy. A better system would have been to have a prime minister nominated and elected by Congress, and even better one would have been a system with two co-equal prime-ministers, nominated by two parties with each minister having veto power over the other, as was the case in ancient Roman Republic with their two consuls. But a still better system would have been to imitate Switzerland and have four political parties nominate a seven-member executive council and cabinet, which would then be confirmed by Congress.

The present system allows persons of low caliber to be elected as Presidents. Worse, once elected Presidents have enormous powers in nominating cabinet posts and federal judges, and they also have great discretionary powers as military commanders-in-chief to declare martial law, and send troops to quell uprisings. For example, the so-called American Civil War, was not a war against a foreign aggressor, but was taken to be a domestic rebellion, which did not require a Congressional declaration of war, but was entirely within the powers of the President. And President Lincoln decided to send troops to the south to squash this “rebellious secession” of the South — a mopping up operation, as it may be called, which cost over 600,000 lives.

Timothy Snyder does not seem to appreciate the fact that the exercise of power which Trump is exhibiting is granted to him by the Constitution, and the mechanism of impeachment is too weak to curtail his abuse of these powers.

The Constitution, as it exists, is geared to making sure that the rich are in control. How so? Well, given mass democracy it will be the rich who will predominate in Congress because of election expenditures. And, let’s not forget, the Senate, as originally established, was to be selected by State legislatures, which themselves would be controlled by the rich, and would elect Senators who were friends of the rich. Furthermore, the Senators were to serve six years which would outlast any temporary political upheavals.

Anyway, several years ago, Gore Vidal gave a very insightful analysis of the existing Imperial Presidency: