The Limits of Neutrality

Academically inclined readers familiar with Michael J. Sandel’s work will find little new in his latest book. But that’s not the point. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a work of public philosophy, in two senses of the term. First, Sandel endeavors, with considerable success, to explain three different approaches to justice—utility-based, freedom-based, and virtue-based—not to fellow academics, but to a lay audience. His ability to find the broad issues at the heart of everyday concerns verges on the uncanny, and his lucid expositions of classic figures such as Mill, Kant, and Aristotle are worth the price of admission.

Second, Sandel links the individualized examples characteristic of moral philosophy to the principles on which he believes republican self-government should be based. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with his previous writings that he argues for propositions such as the following: We cannot detach arguments about justice and rights from arguments about the good. We cannot remain neutral on the substantive moral questions that propositions about justice usually embody. We are encumbered selves with morally significant loyalties reflecting relationships we have not willed. We should not try to exclude faith-based arguments from public deliberations concerning justice. When justice pertains to social institutions, we cannot proceed very far in our inquiry without asking quasi-Aristotelian questions about the purposes of those institutions. And to move a democratic society toward justice, we need a “new politics of the common good” that calls for citizenship, sacrifice, and service; recognizes the moral limits of markets; understands that excessive inequality undermines civic solidarity and virtue; and honestly engages the moral disagreements that inevitably arise in free societies.

Because Justice is a double-barreled essay in public philosophy, one should not be too surprised to learn that the book served as the basis of a twelve-part PBS series that began airing in September. One hopes that it will succeed in triggering the broad-based civic discussion that Sandel recommends.

Although this is not a book for academic specialists, it does raise some theoretical issues. Let me mention just four.

First: Although it’s hard to know for sure, Sandel’s argument suggests that he regards all questions of the form “What’s the right thing to do in social and political life?” as questions of justice. (In this respect, he resembles John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice he famously criticized.) But right and wrong are broader than justice and injustice. Even if justice is the “first virtue” of social institutions, as Rawls contended, it is surely not the only such virtue, from which it follows that injustice is not the only kind of social wrong.

Second, Sandel’s book does not fully engage a question at the heart of both liberal theory and much real-world contestation in the United States—namely, what are the appropriate limits of government? Sandel at least seems to believe that the fact that a policy would promote the common good constitutes a sufficient justification for the policy. But that’s true only if theories of limited government are beside the point, which cannot be an unargued premise of public discourse in liberal democracies.

This brings me to the third issue. Sandel treats public issues as free-standing questions that democracies are free to resolve, one by one, as they choose. But most modern democracies have written constitutions that delimit popular as well as institutional powers. What happens when democratic deliberation points in one direction and constitutional forms point in another? What moral weight should be accorded to the people’s decision to adopt, as the supreme law of the land, a constitution that may well embody moral compromises? While I am not suggesting that Sandel couldn’t address these issues within the intellectual framework of this book, his near-silence on legal and constitutional issues represents a significant lacuna.

And finally, while I agree with Sandel about the need for moral engagement in public life, he doesn’t say enough about why people have avoided such engagement in the first place. At the dawn of the modern age, the prevailing view was that government could not remain neutral on religious matters: there had to be a preferred faith that could serve as the basis for public policy—including the imposition of civic disabilities on adherents of other faiths. It took centuries of intellectual and political struggle to establish the counter-propositions that, within broad limits, the state can remain neutral concerning the faith of its citizens, that it would serve the common good if the state did so, and that one group of citizens should not use state power to force their religious views on other citizens. The question, it seems to me, is whether it is possible and advisable to expand the strategy of neutrality beyond the bounds of religion itself to include other matters of deep conviction. The answer may be no, but it is a mistake to assume that it must be no.

Published in the 2009-10-23 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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