Monday, May 3, 2010

Conservative justice, liberal justice, and the common good

"Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread." That's a comment that Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel, author of "Justice: What's the Right Thing to do?", might regret. It's just too easy, and tempting, to quote out of context.

I can't stuff hundreds of pages of careful, witty, and smart philosophical writing into a little blog. But here's a brief summary: After demolishing libertarianism as a source of justice (What? We have no ethical responsibility toward our fellow men besides not harming them?), Sandel takes up liberal thought. He chooses Kant and John Rawls, an important late 20th century thinker, to discuss such issues. Among many, many other things, these liberal thinkers believe that there are two basic categories of moral responsibility: natural duties (like not hurting others) and voluntary obligations (those that you have specifically agree to).

Sandel (and others) say there is a third category: Obligations of solidarity. Think family obligations, patriotism, etc. Aristotle certainly wouldn't have tried to keep such ideas out of the equation!

(I'm simplifying like a mad man; if Sandel ever reads this, I'm going to have to go out and eat deer poop.)

Anyway, he asks questions like: "If you think most moral obligations can't be REAL obligations unless you've consented to them - hell, your freedom is at stake! - what about moral obligations to a family member, or to a community member, or to a fellow member of your country. You didn't consent to those obligations, after all. You were born into them.

And, says Sandel, a politics "emptied of substantive moral engagement" - as ignoring such obligations would do - would impoverish civic life.

It would, he suggests, become "an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms." Say goodbye to justice.

As I re-read this, I see I need about another 20 pages. Or 200. But, hey, think about it anyway. And read Sandel's book for a decent conclusion.

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