Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Trouble with Sandelism

Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics
Michael J. Sandel
Harvard University Press, 2005
292 pgs.

Michael Sandel attained fame, and perhaps fortune as well, early in his academic career. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982), his criticism of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, established him as a major "communitarian" political thinker. As a result, he was promoted from assistant professor to tenured full professor in the Harvard Department of Government, an almost unprecedented feat.

What was he to do next? For Sandel, the question was readily answered. If commenting on Rawls was the path to academic success, why not continue with more of the same? It is hardly surprising that our author thinks very highly of his meal ticket. In a tribute that appeared after Rawls’s death, he recounts a touching story: "When I came to Harvard as a young assistant professor in the government department, I had never met the figure whose great work on liberalism I had studied. Shortly after I arrived, my phone rang. A hesitant voice on the other end said, ‘This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S.’ It was if God himself had called to invite me to lunch and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was" (p. 251).1

Public Philosophy contains several papers on Rawls, but Sandel has now taken wing. He wishes to use his criticism of the Master to establish a distinctive political philosophy of his own. This he intends as no mere academic exercise. Quite the contrary, he wishes to attract a wide public audience, and the present book includes both scholarly pieces and popular articles about current issues.

Both Sandel’s criticisms of Rawls and his own political philosophy are largely worthless, although the former is slightly better. After a number of bad arguments against Rawls, he manages to arrive at a conclusion that has something to be said for it. By contrast, his political philosophy consists largely of diatribes against the free market. For Sandel, the market is the enemy of good citizenship.

As Sandel correctly points out, Rawls thinks that in political philosophy the right is prior to the good. "For Rawls, as for Kant, the right is prior to the good in two respects, and it is important to distinguish them. First, the right is prior to the good in the sense that certain individual rights ‘trump,’ or outweigh, consideration of the common good. Second, the right is prior to the good in that the principles of justice that specify our rights do not depend for their justification on any particular conception of the good life" (p. 212).

So far, so good; but Sandel soon goes wrong. In Rawls’s famous "original position," no one knows his conception of the good. Conceptions of the good as a result play no role in establishing the principles of justice. Here Sandel detects a weakness and pounces. Why does Rawls leave conceptions of the good out of his account? Sandel maintains that Rawls does so because he believes in the "unencumbered self." People, Rawls, thinks, are autonomous: they can detach themselves from whatever view of the good they hold. Sandel denies this: often our attachment to other people and various institutions and practices that we esteem help to constitute our identities. We cannot detach ourselves from our conceptions of the good because these conceptions are part of what we are. Hence Rawls is wrong to exclude beliefs about the good from arguments about the principles of a just society.

The phrase "unencumbered self" is Sandel’s signature tune. He explains what he means here: "Now the unencumbered self describes first of all the way we stand toward the things we have, or want, or seek. It means there is always a distinction between the values I have and the person I am. To identify any characteristics as my aims, ambitions, or desires, and so on, is always to imply some subject ‘me’ standing behind them, and the shape of this ‘me’ must be given prior to any of the aims or attributes I bear" (p. 162).

Is not this view of the self radically false? The unencumbered self "rules out the possibility of what we might call constitutive ends. No role or commitment could define me so completely that I could not understand myself without it. No project could be so essential that turning away from it would call into question the person I am" (p. 162). Does it not make perfect sense to say that I could not, e.g., live my life without my family, country, or religion?2

Sandel seems clearly right to challenge the unencumbered self. But he is entirely wrong to think that the original position rests on this desiccated conception. Quite the contrary, Rawls makes no assumption about how closely people are tied to their ends. Rather, he asks, what should we do if people have different conceptions of the good? How, in this circumstance, should the benefits of social cooperation be distributed? Rawls thinks that a fair procedure would be to imagine what principles we would choose if we did not know our conception of the good. He may be right or wrong about this; in my view he is mistaken. But the contention has nothing to do with how hard or easy it is for people in their actual lives to detach themselves from their projects.

Despite spending much of his professional life studying Rawls, Sandel has fundamentally misunderstood him. He does at one point gesture toward the objection just made, only to fall into further mistakes. "The objection to the conception of the person presented in A Theory of Justice does not depend on failing to see the original position as a device of representation. It can be stated wholly in terms of the conception of the person presented in Part III of A Theory of Justice, which Rawls now recasts as a political conception" (p. 274).

Sandel has once again got things wrong. He cites from Part III a passage in which Rawls asserts that "the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it" (p. 218). He disregards completely the context of the passage he cites. Rawls denies that people have a single dominant end, such as happiness, which they can use to measure all their other ends. He contends that one’s goals are heterogeneous. Once again, he does not address the question of how closely people are attached to their actual ends.

But am I not being unfair to Sandel? Is there not a crucial part of Rawls’s account of justice that does indeed depend on separating the self from its attributes? Notoriously, Rawls argues that people do not deserve to profit by virtue of their superior abilities. Tiger Woods’s great skill as a golfer is "arbitrary from the moral point of view," and so is the further fact that many people value his skill highly. Why should he profit from mere matters of luck?

If it is objected that Woods still had to choose to develop his talents, Rawls responds that having the ability to commit oneself to a long-term plan of development is itself a matter that depends on luck.

Here for once Sandel’s point is telling. Does not Rawls, in taking more and more attributes of a person as morally "arbitrary," assume that there is some ghostly self entirely distinct from its characteristics? As Nozick remarks, "This [Rawlsian] line of argument can succeed in blocking the introduction of a person’s autonomous choices and actions (and their results) only by attributing everything noteworthy about the person completely to certain sorts of ‘external’ factors" (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974, p. 214).3

Unfortunately, Sandel not only neglects his own argument: he thinks that Rawls is right. "Rawls offers a rich array of compelling arguments on behalf of the difference principle and against libertarian conceptions: the distribution of talents and assets that enables some to earn more and others less in the market economy is arbitrary from a moral point of view; so is the fact that the market economy happens to prize and reward, at any given moment, the talents you or I may have in abundance" (p. 235).

Rawls, then, according to Sandel, wrongly separates people from their attributes and ends—except, of course, when doing so justifies anti-market social policies. In that case, people are entirely distinct from their "arbitrary" attributes. In Sandel’s theory, animus against the market trumps opposition to the unencumbered self.

I am afraid that Sandel has yet another bad argument to deploy against Rawls. Here he throws into question Rawls’s notion of "public reason" developed especially in Political Liberalism. Rawls’s theory is an exceptionally bad one, quite easy to attack; but Sandel manages to make his usual botch of things.4

Rawls argues that, when people decide on the basic principles of justice, they should put aside their own moral and religious doctrines. Instead, they should restrict themselves to "public reason," a set of considerations that everyone who holds a "reasonable" moral or religious view can agree to accept. If everyone uses the same set of reasons in deliberating about justice, then we will promote social solidarity.

Sandel thinks that he has caught Rawls in a contradiction. Rawls himself argues against other views of public reason than his own. He holds, e.g., that people should accept his egalitarian difference principle rather than Nozick’s libertarianism. Is he not then claiming that Nozick’s position is unreasonable? But if there can be unreasonable views of public reason, why not unreasonable moral and religious doctrines as well? If so, why can we not argue about them when we reason politically? "[I]f moral argument or reflection of the kind Rawls deploys enables us to conclude, despite the persistence of conflicting views, that some principles are more reasonable than others, what guarantees that reflection of a similar kind is not possible in the case of moral and religious controversy?" (p. 236).

Sandel has entirely misapprehended Rawls’s contention. Rawls does not claim that rational argument about morals and religion is impossible. He thinks, rather, that in deciding major political issues, you should not appeal to controversial moral or religious views. To do so, he thinks, manifests lack of respect for those of differing views. They could not accept what you say as a reason for action. Suppose, e.g., that you think that homosexual conduct should be prohibited because the Bible condemns it. Someone who does not accept the Bible as authoritative would not take into consideration what it teaches. If you insist on appealing to the Bible, you can at best attain a modus vivendi with him.

So far as the dispute with libertarianism is concerned, Rawls can inquire whether this position rests on a controversial moral or religious view. If it does, it is excluded from consideration by public reason. If it does not, Rawls is free to argue against it without displaying a lack of respect for its proponents.

Even though all of Sandel’s arguments against Rawls misfire, I think his conclusion is defensible. Rawls has not given us good grounds to exclude arguments about the good from public discussion. Why should not discussions about justice take into account all of our moral beliefs?

 Unfortunately, Sandel’s efforts to develop a public philosophy based on thinking about the good fail completely. He seeks a republican conception of freedom. (I hasten to add that he does not mean the Republican Party; he is a Democrat who admires Robert Kennedy and, to a lesser degree, Bill Clinton.) "Central to republican theory is the idea that sharing in liberty depends on sharing in self-government. . . . 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 for the community whose fate is at stake. To share in self-rule therefore requires that citizens possess, or come to acquire, certain civic virtues. But this means that republican politics cannot be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse" (p. 10).

We must, if Sandel is right, develop certain civic virtues. How do we do so? Sandel’s recipe is simple: we revile and restrict the free market as much as possible. He notes the "big but unworthy idea [that] is at the heart of Bob Dole’s proposed [1996] tax cut; people should keep more of what they earn. It is not clear why they should . . . the government needs the money . . . by offering no higher purpose than lower taxes, Dole contradicts the admirable declaration in his acceptance speech that presidents should place moral considerations above material ones" (p. 50).

Here the heart of Sandel’s public philosophy lies exposed. The market deals with "material" affairs and is thus base. It must be subordinated to "higher" things. Let us sacrifice for the common good instead of selfishly seeking our own happiness: "Unlike customers, citizens sometimes sacrifice their wants for the sake of the common good. This is the difference between politics and commerce, between patriotism and brand loyalty" (p. 79).

What exactly does Sandel think is bad about commerce, and what is good about the "higher" values to which we are to devote ourselves? He never tells us; instead, he repeats his position again and again. He carries his view to absurd extremes. In a discussion of pollution, he advocates imposing fixed levels of emissions for each country rather than allowing trades in pollution rights among countries. (Needless to say, the libertarian approach through individual rights, classically defended by Murray Rothbard in "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution," in The Logic of Action Two (pp. 121–70), never enters his mind).

Is not trading a more efficient way of reducing pollution than the imposition of fixed levels? Never mind: emission trading among countries "may undermine the sense of shared responsibility that global cooperation requires" (p. 95). Under a trading system, might not developing countries complain that "trading in emissions allows wealthy nations to buy their way out of global obligations"? (p. 96). How terrible that the spirit of sacrifice might be undermined, just so the ostensible goal of the sacrifice can be better realized. It is apparent that this eminent Harvard scholar practices a form of sacrifice he does not discuss: the sacrificium intellectus.5

1At the time of the incident that Sandel relates, there was another, and in my view much better, political philosopher besides Rawls on the Harvard faculty. Concerning Robert Nozick our author has had little to say; perhaps Sandel did not view writing about Nozick as a good growth stock. Readers may be interested to know that Nozick had a poor opinion of Sandel. 

2Enoch Powell, an ardent British nationalist, was once asked what nationality he would have wanted to be had he not been born British. His instant reply was, "British." I owe this story to Jan Lester.

3See also Susan Hurley, Justice, Luck, and Knowledge (Harvard University Press, 2003) and my review in The Mises Review 9, no. 2 (Summer, 2003).

4See my review of Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press, 2001) in The Mises Review 7, no. 4 (Winter, 2001).

5Lest I be accused of undue negativism, I highly recommend the excellent essay about Rabbi David Hartman (pp. 196– 210).


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