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.

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