Does Character Count?

Public Philosophy

Essays on Morality in Politics

Michael J. Sandel

Harvard University Press, $25.95, 304 pp.

Michael Sandel is a leading political philosopher and public intellectual. In his first major book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, published more than two decades ago, he challenged John Rawls’s influential account of liberalism. Rawls’s conception of the individual as a “free and independent self, unencumbered by prior moral ties,” he argued, could not make sense of moral and political obligations, let alone aspects of human identity, whose claims on us do not rest on choice. Sandel’s critique of Rawls-style liberalism helped spark the so-called communitarian movement, although Sandel subsequently sought to distance himself from aspects of communitarian thought.

In his second major book, Democracy’s Discontent, Sandel explored the relationship between the contemporary liberal conception of the individual and the public philosophy by which Americans now live. He links the unencumbered self to the proposition that freedom consists in the capacity of each individual to choose goals and ways of life. So far as possible, then, government should remain neutral concerning competing conceptions of good lives and should refrain from attempting to shape the character of citizens. In this context, economic policy is all about growth and prosperity, and its civic consequences all but disappear from public view.

One difficulty with this politics of the freely choosing self, Sandel claimed, is that it overlooks the desire for a second kind of freedom-civic freedom-which allows citizens to govern themselves through public deliberation and decision oriented toward larger public purposes: “A politics that brackets morality and religion too completely soon generates its own disenchantment. When public discourse lacks moral resonance, the yearning for a public life of larger meaning finds undesirable expression.” A second difficulty with contemporary liberal public philosophy is its tendency to overvalue markets and to downplay their moral limits. Third, contemporary liberalism pretends that stable self-government can be maintained without attending to the character of its citizens. The “formative project” may be risky, but less so than the effort to evade it.

The book under review, a collection of previously published essays, offers an accessible introduction to Sandel’s thought. The most substantial essays-“America’s Search for a Public Philosophy” (chapter 1) and “Political Liberalism” (chapter 28)-are useful summaries of Democracy’s Discontent and Liberal—ism and the Limits of Justice, respectively. Other important essays explore the moral limits of markets through the prism of policies such as state-sponsored lotteries and product commercials in public-school classrooms; argue for the possibility of substantive public moral discussion of issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and human embryo research; and show how religious thought can serve as a source of moral illumination, even for nonbelievers.

The fair-minded, soothing sanity of Sandel’s authorial voice is likely to impress most readers, so much so that they may be moved to accept his conclusions without much reflection. That would be unfortunate, since his book is at least as valuable for the questions it raises as for the answers it offers. Consider first the distinction Sandel draws between encumbered and unencumbered selves, between unchosen and freely assumed obligations. Even if we accept this distinction, it does not force us to choose between the alternative conceptions it defines. Within liberal societies, some individuals are bound to lead more encumbered lives than others. Indeed, each life represents a unique blend of the chosen and the unchosen. While the liberal state must stand ready to defend one’s right to change jobs, locations, even religions, it should not compel or even encourage one to do so.

Consider, second, Sandel’s depiction of each individual’s life as a “gift,” a morally laden description he uses to argue against physician-assisted suicide. He is on solid ground when he denies (as did a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court) the existence of a broad constitutional right to assisted suicide. But he does not come to grips with those circumstances-such as pain-racking terminal cancer or the late stages of ALS-in which a person can reasonably conclude that his gift has become a curse. Openness to the morally relevant features of particular cases should make us wary about applying general concepts such as “life as a gift” too bluntly. Besides, one may ask whether there can be a gift without a giver, any more than design without a designer. In regarding life as a gift, are we tacitly compelled to endorse the existence of a giver? Where would that leave the tens of millions of North Americans who believe that it is possible to be moral without being a believer?

Consider, third, Sandel’s opposition to tradable emission rights as a mechanism for reducing environmental pollution. He is right to suggest that the approach reduces the moral stigma otherwise associated with polluting activities. But this merely pushes the argument back a step: Should we define pollution as a moral wrong in the first place, or rather as an undesirable byproduct of desirable activities? A hint of this question is buried in Sandel’s phrase “excessive pollution”; would we speak of excessive murder or excessive burglary? If the point of environmental policy is to abate nuisances and promote better states of affairs, then maybe a moralized language that focuses on individual acts rather than aggregate consequences is out of place.

Consider, finally, Sandel’s advocacy of a deliberate effort to use public institutions and policies to foster a specific ensemble of civic virtues. Sandel is aware of the standard liberal objections to this practice, but it is fair to say that he doesn’t take them very seriously. Yet there is no way of cramming the genie of diversity back into the bottle of consensus-even if we concede that less diversity would sometimes be preferable. This leaves us with three options: (1) engaging in a considerable amount of coercion, (2) looking for areas of agreement among competing conceptions of good lives, or (3) eschewing the formative project altogether. I agree with Sandel that the third alternative isn’t desirable and may not even be possible. For practical as well as moral reasons, my preference would be for some version of the second option. But this would yield conceptions of virtue and the human good that are bound to be thin and partial. Much of Sandel’s rhetoric, and some of his argument, suggests that he would prefer option 1 (it’s hard to be sure). If so, he owes his readers a fuller account of how his brand of civic republicanism can avoid throwing out the baby of liberty along with the bathwater of moral vacuity.

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: 

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.

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The Limits of Candor

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