Michael Sandel

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In its constitution and its laws, the just society seeks to provide a framework within which its citizens can pursue their own values and ends, consistent with a similar liberty for others.

Michael Joseph Sandel (born 5 March 1953) is an American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for the Harvard course "Justice", and for his critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice in his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982).

Quotes[edit]

  • Political philosophy seems often to reside at a distance from the world. Principles are one thing, politics another, and even our best efforts to ‘live up’ to our ideals typically founder on the gap between theory and practice.

    But if political philosophy is unrealizable in one sense, it is unavoidable in another. This is the sense in which philosophy inhabits the world from the start; our practices and institutions are embodiments of theory . . . . for all our uncertainties about ultimate questions of political philosophy — of justice and value and the nature of the good life — the one thing we know is that we live some answer all the time.

    • Michael J. Sandel, "The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self" (1984)
  • This liberalism says, in other words, that what makes the just society just is not the telos or purpose or end at which it aims, but precisely its refusal to choose in advance among competing purposes and ends. In its constitution and its laws, the just society seeks to provide a framework within which its citizens can pursue their own values and ends, consistent with a similar liberty for others
    • Michael J. Sandel, "The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self" (1984)
  • Unlike the liberty of the early republic, the modern version permits — in fact even requires — concentrated power.
    • Michael J. Sandel, "The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self" (1984)
  • Admittedly, the tendency to bracket substantive moral questions makes it difficult to argue for toleration in the language of the good. Defining privacy rights by defending the practices privacy protects seems either reckless or quaint; reckless because it rests so much on moral argument, quaint because it recalls the traditional view that ties the case for privacy to the merits of the conduct privacy protects. But as the abortion and sodomy cases illustrate, the attempt to bracket moral questions faces difficulties of its own. They suggest the truth in the "naive" view, that the justice or injustice of laws against abortion and homosexual sodomy may have something to do with the morality or immorality of these practices after all.
    • Michael J. Sandel, "Moral Argument and Liberal Toleration: Abortion and Homosexuality" (1989)

Democracy's Discontent (1996)[edit]

  • Political philosophy seems often to reside at a distance from the world. Principles are one thing, politics another, and even our best efforts to live up to our ideals seldom fully succeed.
    • Preface
  • But if political philosophy is unrealizable in one sense, it is unavoidable in another.
    • Preface
  • A public philosophy is an elusive thing, for it is constantly before our eyes. It forms the often unreflective background to our political discourse and pursuits. In ordinary times, the public philosophy can easily escape the notice of those who live by it. But anxious times compel a certain clarity. They force first principles to the surface and offer an occasion for critical reflection.
    • Chap. 1. The Public Philosophy of Contemporary Liberalism
  • The idea that freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends finds prominent expression in our politics and law. Its province is not limited to those known as liberals rather than conservatives in American politics; it can be found across the political spectrum.
    • Chap. 1. The Public Philosophy of Contemporary Liberalism
  • Central to republican theory is the idea that liberty depends on sharing in self-government. This idea is not by itself inconsistent with liberal freedom. Participating in politics can be one among the ways in which people choose to pursue their ends. According to republican political theory, however, sharing in self-rule involves something more. It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community. But to deliberate well about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one's ends and to respect others' rights to do the same. It requires a knowledge of public affairs and also a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake.
    • Chap. 1. The Public Philosophy of Contemporary Liberalism
  • It is sometimes thought that liberal principles can be justified by a simple version of moral relativism. Government should not "legislate morality," because all morality is merely subjective, a matter of personal preference not open to argument or rational debate. "Who is to say what is literature and what is filth? That is a value judgment, and whose values should decide?" Relativism usually appears less as a claim than as a question: "Who is to judge?" But the same question can be asked of the values that liberals defend. Toleration and freedom and fairness are values too, and they can hardly be defended by the claim that no vales can be defended. So it is a mistake to affirm liberal values by arguing that all values are merely subjective. The relativist defense of liberalism is no defense at all.
    • Chap. 1. The Public Philosophy of Contemporary Liberalism
  • Kantian liberals thus avoid affirming a conception of the good by affirming instead the priority of the right, which depends in turn on a picture of the self given prior to its ends. But how plausible is this self-conception? Despite its powerful appeal, the image of the unencumbered self is flawed.
    • Chap. 1. The Public Philosophy of Contemporary Liberalism
  • Unlike utilitarianism, republican theory does not take people's existing preferences, whatever they may be, and try to satisfy them. It seeks instead to cultivate in citizens the qualities of character necessary to the common good of self-government. Insofar as certain dispositions, attachments, and commitments are essential to the realization of self-government, republican politics regards moral character as a public, not merely private, concern. In this sense, it attends to the identity, not just the interests, of its citizens.
    • Chap. 2. Rights and the Neutral States
  • To put the point another way, the republican sees liberty as internally connected to self-government and the civic virtues that sustain it.
    • Chap. 2. Rights and the Neutral States
  • Freedom of conscience and freedom of choice are not the same; where conscience dictates, choice decides. Where freedom of conscience is at stake, the relevant right is to perform a duty, not to make a choice. This was the issue for Madison and Jefferson. Religious liberty addressed the problem of encumbered selves, claimed by duties they cannot renounce, even in the face of civil obligations that may conflict.
    • Chap. 3. Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech
  • The assumption that government must be neutral among conceptions of the good generally appears in cases in which the Court protects speech that government would restrict. But the force of this assumption can also be seen where the Court has upheld restrictions on speech, most notably, in obscenity cases. Although the Court has been reluctant to protect obscenity under the First Amendment, its reasoning in recent obscenity cases displays the powerful influence of neutrality assumptions on constitutional law.
    • Chap. 3. Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech
  • Where the self is conceived as prior to its ends, independent of the roles it may occupy at any given time, reputation cannot be a matter of honor in the traditional sense. For the unencumbered self, not honor but dignity is the basis of respect―the dignity that consists in the capacity of persons as autonomous agents to choose their ends for themselves. Unlike honor, which ties respect for persons to the roles they inhabit, dignity resides in a self antecedent to social institutions, and so is invulnerable to injury by insult alone. For selves such as these, reputation matters, not intrinsically, as a matter of honor, but only instrumentally, as a business asset for example.
    • Chap. 3. Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech
  • Unlike Rousseau's unitary vision, the republican politics Tocqueville describes is more clamorous than consensual. It does not despise differentiation. Instead of collapsing the space between persons, it fills this space with public institutions that gather people together invarious capacities, that both separate and relate them.
    • Conclusion: In Search of a Public Philosophy
  • Since human beings are storytelling beings, we are bound to rebel against the drift to storylessness. But there is no guarantee that the rebellions will take salutary form. Some, in their hunger for story, will be drawn to the vacant, vicarious fare of confessional talk shows, celebrity scandals, and sensational trials. Others will seek refuge in fundamentalism. The hope of our time rests instead with those who can summon the conviction and restraint to make sense of our condition and repair the civic life on which democracy depends.
    • Conclusion: In Search of a Public Philosophy

Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982; 1998)[edit]

  • The liberalism with which I am concerned is a version of liberalism prominent in the moral and legal and political philosophy of the day: a liberalism in which the notions of justice, fairness, and individual rights play a central role, and which is indebted to Kant for much of its philosophical foundation.
    • Introduction
  • We have seen that Rawls’ theory of justice requires for its coherence a conception of community in the constitutive sense, which requires in turn a notion of agency in the cognitive sense, and we have hound that Rawls’ theory of the good can allow for neither. This calls into question the theory of justice, or the thoery of the good, or both.
    • Chap. 4. Justice and the Good
  • Not egoists but strangers, sometimes benevolent, make for citizens of the deontological republic; justice finds its occasion because we cannot know each other, or our ends, well enough to govern by the common good alone. This condition is not likely to fade altogether, and so long as it does not, justice will be necessary. But neither is it guaranteed always to predominate, and in so far as it does not, community will be possible, and an unsettling presence for justice.
    • Conclusion: Liberalism and the Limits of Justice

Public Philosophy (2005)[edit]

Michael J. Sandel, Public Philosophy (2005),

  • The Second World War supplied the occasion for the spending, and Keynesian economics supplied the rationale. But Keynesian fiscal policy had political appeal even before the war demonstrated its economic success. For unlike the various proposals for structural reform, such as vigorous antitrust action or national economic planning, Keynesian economics offered a way for the government to control the economy without having to choose among controversial views of the good society. Where earlier reformers had sought economic arrangements that would cultivate, citizens of a certain kind, Keynesians undertook no formative mis­sion; they proposed simply to accept existing consumer preferences and to regulate the economy by manipulating aggregate demand.
    • Chap. 1. America's Search for a Public Philosophy
  • The advent of the new political economy marked a decisive moment in the demise of the republican strand of American politics and the rise of contemporary liberalism. According to this liberalism, gov­ernment should be neutral as to conceptions of the good life, in or­der to respect persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own ends. Keynesian fiscal policy both reflected this liberalism and deepened its hold on American public life. Although those who practiced Keynesian economics did not defend it in precisely these terms, the new political economy displayed two features of the liberalism that defines the procedural republic.
    • Chap. 1. America's Search for a Public Philosophy

The Tyranny of Merits (2020)[edit]

  • Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too. This attitude is the moral companion of technocratic politics.
    • Chap. 1. Winners and Losers
  • Many liberals and progressives, especially those with egalitarian commitments, resist the claim that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor. They see this as an ungenerous, moralizing argument used by those who oppose taxing the rich to help the disadvantaged. Against the claim that affluence signifies superior virtue, egalitarian liberals emphasize the contingency of fortune. They point out that success or failure in market societies has as much to do with luck and circumstance as with character and virtue. Many of the factors that separate winners from losers are arbitrary from a moral point of view.
    • Chap. 2. “Great Because Good”: A Brief Moral History of Merit
  • Americans’ strong attachment to individual initiative, together with their willingness to accept inequality, leads them to exaggerate the possibility of rising through hard work. Europeans’ skepticism that individual effort conquers all, together with their lesser tolerance of inequality, leads them to underestimate the possibility of rising.
    • Chap. 3. The Rhetoric of Rising
  • One of the failures of the well-credentialed, meritocratic elites who have governed for the past four decades is that they have not done very well at putting questions such as these at the heart of political debate. Now, as we find ourselves wondering whether democratic norms will survive, complaints about the hubris of meritocratic elites and the narrowness of their technocratic vision may seem trifling. But theirs was the politics that led to this moment, that produced the discontent that populist authoritarians exploit. Facing up to the failures of meritocracy and technocracy is an indispensable step toward addressing that discontent and reimagining a politics of the common good.
    • Chap. 4. Credentialism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
  • Despite their differences, both Hayek and Rawls reject the idea that economic rewards should reflect what people deserve. In doing so, they acknowledge that they are challenging conventional wisdom. The notion that justice means giving people what they deserve seems deeply embedded in untutored common opinion. Rawls notes the “tendency for common sense to suppose” that income and wealth should be distributed according to moral desert, and Hayek admits that his renunciation of merit “may appear at first so strange and even shocking” that he must “ask the reader to suspend judgment” until he can explain.
    But even as free-market liberalism and welfare state liberalism set the terms of public discourse over the past half century, they did not dislodge the widely held conviction that what people earn should reflect what they deserve. To the contrary, during those decades, meritocratic attitudes toward success tightened their hold, even as mobility stalled and inequality deepened.
    • Chap. 5. Success Ethics
  • Luck egalitarianism defends inequalities that arise from effort and choice. This highlights a point of convergence with free-market liberalism. Both emphasize personal responsibility and make the community’s obligation to help the needy conditional on showing that their neediness is no fault of their own.
    • Chap. 5. Success Ethics
  • For the last several decades, the language of merit has dominated public discourse, with little recognition of the downside. Even in the face of deepening inequality, the rhetoric of rising has provided, for mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right, the primary language of moral progress and political improvement. “Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.” Meritocratic elites had become so accustomed to intoning this mantra that they failed to notice it was losing its capacity to inspire. Tone-deaf to the mounting resentments of those who had not shared in the bounty of globalization, they missed the mood of discontent. The populist backlash caught them by surprise. They did not see the insult implicit in the meritocratic society they were offering.
    • Chap. 5. Success Ethics
  • The most potent rival to merit, to the notion that we are responsible for our lot and deserve what we get, is the notion that our fate exceeds our control, that we are indebted for our success, and also for our troubles—to the grace of God, or the vagaries of fortune, or the luck of the draw. The Puritans found, as we saw in chapter 2, that a thoroughgoing ethic of grace is almost impossible to sustain. Living by the belief that we have no hand in whether we will be saved in the next world or successful in this one is hard to reconcile with the idea of freedom and with the conviction that we get what we deserve. This is why merit tends to drive out grace; sooner or later, the successful assert, and come to believe, that their success is their own doing, and that those who lose out are less worthy than they.
    But even in its triumph, the meritocratic faith does not deliver the self-mastery it promises. Nor does it provide a basis for solidarity. Ungenerous to the losers and oppressive to the winners, merit becomes a tyrant. And when it does, we can enlist its ancient rival to rein it in. This is what, in one small domain of life, the admissions lottery tries to do. It summons chance to chasten merit’s hubris.
    • Chap. 6. The Sorting Machine
  • One such question is what kinds of work are worthy of recognition and esteem. Another is what we owe one another as citizens. These questions are connected. For we cannot determine what counts as a contribution worth affirming without reasoning together about the purposes and ends of the common life we share. And we cannot deliberate about common purposes and ends without a sense of belonging, without seeing ourselves as members of a community to which we are indebted. Only insofar as we depend on others, and recognize our dependence, do we have reason to appreciate their contributions to our collective well-being. This requires a sense of community sufficiently robust to enable citizens to say, and to believe, that “we are all in this together”—not as a ritual incantation in times of crisis, but as a plausible description of our everyday lives.
    Over the past four decades, market-driven globalization and the meritocratic conception of success, taken together, have unraveled these moral ties. Global supply chains, capital flows, and the cosmopolitan identities they fostered made us less reliant on our fellow citizens, less grateful for the work they do, and less open to the claims of solidarity. Meritocratic sorting taught us that our success is our own doing, and so eroded our sense of indebtedness. We are now in the midst of the angry whirlwind this unraveling has produced. To renew the dignity of work, we must repair the social bonds the age of merit has undone.
    • Chap. 7. Recognizing Work
  • The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.
    • Conclusion: Merit and the Common Good

Quotes about Sandel[edit]

  • Because Sandel ignores most of the merchant-right policies that undermine working-class prospects, his discussion of ideas for restoring dignity to work is limited, tentative, and based on false assumptions. He mentions, without endorsing, the recommendations of Oren Cass, a conservative policy wonk, who calls for wage subsidies, rollbacks of environmental regulations, and immigration and trade restrictions that would bring back something close to the 20th century’s family wage. Yet there is little evidence that immigration reduces working-class wages, and in an era of catastrophic climate change, destroying the environment is hardly a viable way to restore decent working-class jobs. More generally, policies that were originally designed for heterosexual white working-class men can’t serve the working class as it is constituted today. Sandel doesn’t consider important core issues faced by many contemporary workers, such as the feminization of poverty, the lack of paid family leave and affordable dependent care, and our failure to honor dependent-care labor as an essential contribution to the common good—not only when it is wage labor but also as unpaid family labor. He never mentions the gross exploitation of immigrant workers or the precarity of those who are (or whose families include) undocumented immigrants. He doesn’t consider how the residential hypersegregation of Black workers causes unemployment or how mass incarceration is used to create a substantial class of unpaid prison laborers exploited by major corporations.
    As Sandel rightly stresses, a politics that detaches access to material goods from claims to the dignity and honor of work fails to deliver the kinds of recognition that workers deserve. But to deliver that, it isn’t enough to repudiate the condescension of meritocratic liberals or to take higher education out of the meritocratic sorting-and-ranking game. The whole battery of merchant-right strategies for disempowering workers must be dismantled as well. Wage subsidies that partially compensate for these strategies while leaving them intact won’t deliver the recognition workers need.
    There is a close connection between respect and power. For workers to regain respect, they need the power to exact it from their employers. This requires strengthening and expanding labor unions, as Bernie Sanders has proposed, and empowering workers to elect board members at top corporations, as Elizabeth Warren has urged. But it also means directing more of our attention not only to meritocracy but to capitalism itself. Without an empowered working class, democratic institutions will remain in the grip of disdainful elites—not just the highly educated elites whom Sandel criticizes, but also the wealthy business elites who promote populist authoritarian politics to escape accountability for the damage their actions inflict on everyone else. To move forward, we need to build on the ideas of Sanders, Warren, and younger Democrats and radicals to reconstruct social democracy for the 21st century.
    • Elizabeth S. Anderson, "What Comes After Meritocracy?", The Nation (Feb 23. 2021)

External links[edit]

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