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Ideas of Michael J. Sandel, by Text

[American, b.1953, Taught at Oxford University, and then Harvard University.]

1982 Liberalism and the Limits of Justice
p.96 Choosers in the 'original position' have been stripped of most human characteristics
     Full Idea: Sandel argues that people in the 'original position' have been stripped of everything that makes them recognisably human: their conceptions of the good, their nationality, family membership, religion, friendships and past histories.
     From: report of Michael J. Sandel (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice [1982]) by Tuckness,A/Wolf,C - This is Political Philosophy 4 'Communitarian'
     A reaction: This draws attention to what a pure Enlightenment rational project Rawls is pursuing, in the spirit if Kant's ethics. Choosers in the original position become identical, and thus choose a homogeneous society.
p.86 p.25 The self is 'unencumbered' if it can abandon its roles and commitments without losing identity
     Full Idea: Sandel says liberals are committed to the 'unencumbered self', ..when it has no roles, commitments or projects that are 'so essential that turning away from them would call into question the person I am'.
     From: report of Michael J. Sandel (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice [1982], p.86) by Andrew Shorten - Contemporary Political Theory 02
     A reaction: This is a very penetrating criticism of liberalism. The liberal self that makes social and legal contracts and exercises basic political rights is not far from being a robot. It has the minimum needed to join a society. Belonging is quite different.
1984 Procedural republic and unencumbered self
'Kantian' p.159 Kant's moral law has no foundation - because that would undermine its priority
     Full Idea: Given the stringent demands of the Kantian ethic, the moral law would seem almost to require a foundation in nothing, for any empirical precondition would undermine its priority.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Procedural republic and unencumbered self [1984], 'Kantian')
     A reaction: The idea of a value with 'a foundation in nothing' is particular anathema to me, because my project is to find a foundation for everything (in nature, which is the Given). Kant's only foundational value seems to be rational consistency.
'Present' p.171 Modern liberal rights in democracies protect individuals against the majority
     Full Idea: Liberty in the modern procedural republic is defined in opposition to democracy, as an individual's guarantee against what the majority might will.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Procedural republic and unencumbered self [1984], 'Present')
     A reaction: And so I should hope. Sandel is sort of criticising this view, but it seems obvious that rights of this sort must be basic to any civilised democracy. But how do you decide those rights, if not by a majoritarian decision?
'The right' p.157 Liberals say rights always come first, and justice is neutral on social values
     Full Idea: The liberal claim that the right is prior to the good means that individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the general good, and that the basic principles of justice cannot be premised on any particular vision of the good life.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Procedural republic and unencumbered self [1984], 'The right')
     A reaction: In Rawls, the first thesis is chosen from a neutral position, and the second is all that is needed to affirm rights as basic. These two are the target of Sandel's communitarian claims. Utilitarians will make the sacrifices. No consensus on the good life!
'Transcendental' p.163 Liberal justice means the withdrawal of the self, as transcendental or as unencumbered
     Full Idea: For the liberal concept of justice we must stand to our circumstances always at a certain distance, whether as transcendental subject in the case of Kant, or as unencumbered selves in the case of Rawls.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Procedural republic and unencumbered self [1984], 'Transcendental')
     A reaction: Maybe the only way to be unencumbered is to be transcendental. There is an insecure feeling that if the self becomes immanent or encumbered it thereby loses its objective rationality. You wake up one morning and find you are a nazi?
1988 Beyond Individualism
p.35 p.35 Passion for progress is always short-lived
     Full Idea: Progress demands passions that cannot last for long.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Beyond Individualism [1988], p.35)
     A reaction: The obvious example, for me, is the Labour Government in the UK, 1945-51. This is the kind of realism which progressive politicians must face up to. Unfortunately it is the logic of very ruthless revolutionaries.
p.38 p.38 Conservatives are either individualistic, or communal
     Full Idea: Individualist conservatives believe people should be free to do as they please so long as they do not harm others. ...Communal conservatives, by contrast, believe government should affirm moral and religious values.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Beyond Individualism [1988], p.38)
     A reaction: Nozick represents the first group (as does J.S.Mill, usually seen as epitomising liberalism). He says the first group like volunteer armies and oppose welfare; the second group favour conscription and conservative welfare.
p.45 p.45 Modern liberalism fails to articulate a vision of the common good
     Full Idea: In recent years liberalism has faltered because of its failure to argue for a vision of the common good.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Beyond Individualism [1988], p.45)
     A reaction: This is Sandel's main theme. He derives his concept of the common good from the essential natures of persons and institutions. I greatly admire this.
1998 The Limits of Communitarianism
'Free speech' p.258 If persons define themselves by a group membership, insults to that group are a real harm
     Full Idea: For persons who understand themselves as defined by the ethnic or religious group to which they belong, an insult to the group can inflict a harm as real and as damaging as some physical harms.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (The Limits of Communitarianism [1998], 'Free speech')
     A reaction: In Britain many people fully define themselves by their allegiance to a football club. Really! They usually learn to laugh off an insult to their club, but it hurts. Laughing off an insult is an essential modern skill - up to a point.
'Free speech' p.258 In the liberal view an insult to my group doesn't hurt me, since I'm defined by choices not groups
     Full Idea: By the liberal conception of a person, my dignity could never be damaged by an insult to a group with which I identify, because what matters is not my social role, but my capacity to choose that role.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (The Limits of Communitarianism [1998], 'Free speech')
     A reaction: If I'm defined by my capacity to choose, and I choose to join some group, why is an insult to that group not an insult to my capacity to choose? How do you insult a liberal? 'I despise your individual freedom!'.
'Religious' p.257 The case for religious liberty depends on the religion contributing to a morally good life
     Full Idea: Unless there were reason to believe that religious beliefs and practices contribute to morally admirable ways of life, the case for a right to religious liberty would be weakened.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (The Limits of Communitarianism [1998], 'Religious')
     A reaction: I think many religious people would deny that their religion is primarily moral. (W.Blake: 'If morality is Christianity, then Socrates was the saviour'). Whose concept of a morally good life is Sandel referring to?
'Where' p.252 I can't defend the view that the majority values of a community are thereby right
     Full Idea: Insofar as 'communitarian' is another name for majoritarianism, or for the idea that rights should rest on the values that predominate in any given community at any given time, it is not a view I would defend.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (The Limits of Communitarianism [1998], 'Where')
     A reaction: I should hope not. You could soon end up as a good nazi if you follow that route. Sandel defends a critical view of community values (implying a role for philosophy?). The community good must be continually negotiated. Sounds fine to me.
2009 Justice: What's the right thing to do?
01 p.19 Justice concerns how a society distributes what it prizes - wealth, rights, power and honours
     Full Idea: To ask whether a society is just is to ask how we distribute the things we prize - income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honours.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 01)
     A reaction: There is, of course, the prior question of what things should be controlled by a society for distribution. But there is also justice in the promotional and pay structure of institutions within a society, including private institutions.
01 p.19 We can approach justice through welfare, or freedom, or virtue
     Full Idea: We have identified three ways of approaching the distribution of goods: welfare, freedom and virtue. ...and these are three ways of thinking about justice.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 01)
     A reaction: Virtue is Sandel's distinctively Aristotelian contribution to the problem. The best known instance of justice is punishment, which is a distribution of harms.
05 p.124 The categorical imperative is not the Golden Rule, which concerns contingent desires
     Full Idea: The Golden Rule depends on contingent facts about how people like to be treated. The categorical imperative asks that we abstract from such contingencies and respect persons as rational beings, regardless of what they might want in particular situations.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 05)
     A reaction: I think the Golden Rule is wrong for a different reason. It assumes that we all want similar things, which we don't. Focus on other people's needs, not yours.
05 p.130 Man cannot dispose of himself, because he is not a thing to be owned
     Full Idea: Man cannot dispose over himself because he is not a thing; he is not his own property.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 05)
     A reaction: [Kant lecture note] This is an important qualification to persons as ends. If a person owned themselves, that would separate the person from what they owned. Sandel mentions selling your own organs. Kant is considering prostitution. Why is slavery wrong?
05 p.132 Speak truth only to those who deserve the truth
     Full Idea: The duty to tell the truth applies only to those who deserve the truth.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 05)
     A reaction: [from Benjamin Constant, in opposition to Kant] I prefer the idea that we should use people 'after our own honour and dignity' (Hamlet), which means speaking the truth even to Donald Trump (for those of you who remember 2018). But not always.
05 p.137 Careful evasions of truth at least show respect for it
     Full Idea: A carefully crafted evasion pays homage to truth-telling in a way that an outright lie does not.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 05)
     A reaction: Nicely put. He refers to an incident in Kant's life. I think of the great equivocation controversy at the time of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. See the porter in Macbeth. All I ask is that people care about the truth. Many people don't. Why?
05 p.138 A just constitution harmonises the different freedoms
     Full Idea: As Kant sees it, a just constitution aims at harmonising each individual's freedom with that of everyone else.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 05)
     A reaction: [source?] Nice statement of the project. I increasingly see political philosophy as constitution design. I say philosophers have got fifty years to design an optimum constitution, and they should then down tools and promote it, in simple language.
06 p.140 Just visiting (and using roads) is hardly ratifying the Constitution
     Full Idea: It is hard to see how just passing through town is morally akin to ratifying the Constitution.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 06)
     A reaction: They say that philosophical ideas are never refuted, and no progress is made, but this sure put paid to John Locke.
06 p.142 Not all deals are fair deals
     Full Idea: The mere fact that you and I make a deal is not enough to make it fair.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 06)
06 p.143 A ratified constitution may not be a just constitution
     Full Idea: The fact that a constitution is ratified by the people does not prove that its provisions are just.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 06)
     A reaction: Yes indeed. And the fact that a majority won a referendum does not make their decision wise. Hence all constitutions must be open to evaluation. Gun laws in the US are the obvious example.
06 p.144 Does consent create the obligation, or must there be some benefit?
     Full Idea: Legal thinkers have debated this question for a long time: can consent create an obligation on its own, or is some element of benefit or reliance required?
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 06)
     A reaction: Clearly mere consent could be under some compulsion, either by the other party, or by some other forces. Keeping a deathbed promise usually brings no benefit, but is a matter of honour. Ah, honour! Can anyone remember what that is?
06 p.149 Moral contracts involve both consent and reciprocity; making the deal, and keeping it
     Full Idea: Despite a tendency to read consent into moral claims, it is hard to make sense of our morality without acknowledging the independent weight of reciprocity. If my wife is unfaithful I have two different grounds of outrage: our promise, and my loyalty.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 06)
     A reaction: The point is that Hobbes and co over-simplify what a contract is. Compare a contract with a promise. One must be two-sided, the other can be one-sided.
06 p.157 Libertarians just want formal equality in a free market; the meritocratic view wants fair equality
     Full Idea: The libertarian view of distributive justice is a free market with formal equality of opportunity. The meritocratic view is a free market with fair equality of opportunity.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 06)
     A reaction: The obvious question is what has to be done, by intervention, to make the market fair. There are two major rival views of equality here. Is the starting point fair, and is the race itself fair?
07 p.170 Should we redress wrongs done by a previous generation?
     Full Idea: Can we ever have a moral responsibility to redress wrongs committed by a previous generation?
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 07)
     A reaction: Just asking for a friend. It seems to depend on how close we feel to the previous generation. Regretting the crime committed by a beloved parent is one thing. Despising the crime committed by some right bastard who shares my nationality is another.
07 p.179 Distributive justice concern deserts, as well as who gets what
     Full Idea: Debates about distributive justice are about not only who gets what but also what qualities are worthy of honour and reward.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 07)
     A reaction: So the 'undeserving poor' get nuffink? Does just being a human being deserve anything? Obviously yes. That said, we can't deny the concept of 'appropriate reward'.
08 p.190 Teleological thinking is essential for social and political issues
     Full Idea: It is not easy to dispense with teleological reasoning in thinking about social institutions and political practices.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 08)
     A reaction: I think teleological thinking is also indispensable in biology. You can't understand an ear or an eye if you don't know what it is FOR. If it relates to a mind, it is teleological. The eye of a dead person is for nothing.
08 p.203 Work is not fair if it is negotiated, even in a fair situation, but if it suits the nature of the worker
     Full Idea: For the libertarian free exchange for labour is fair; for Rawls it requires fair background conditions; for Aristotle, for the work to be just it must be suited to the nature of the workers who perform it.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 08)
     A reaction: [compressed] Aristotle's idea is powerful, and Sandel performs a great service in drawing attention to it. Imagine the key negotiation in an interview being whether this particular work suits your nature!
09 p.221 Liberal freedom was a response to assigned destinies like caste and class
     Full Idea: Liberal freedom developed as an antidote to political theories that consigned persons to destinies fixed by caste or class, station or rank, custom, tradition or inherited status.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 09)
     A reaction: Virtually all human beings before modern times found that they had been 'assigned destinies'. The huge exception is war, especially civil war, which must be a huge liberation for many people, despite the danger.
10 p.261 Justice is about how we value things, and not just about distributions
     Full Idea: Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.
     From: Michael J. Sandel (Justice: What's the right thing to do? [2009], 10)
     A reaction: This is Sandel's distinctively Aristotelian contribution to the justice debate - with which I have great sympathy. And, as he argues, the values of things arise out of assessing their essential natures.