Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sandel with a Hole in the Middle

Still trying to master the kind of stuff a first-year law student might want to know (cf. link), I nosed into a Kindle copy of Michael Sandel's Morality. It's billed generally as an introduction to major doctrines and issues; I assume it is a rework of his first-semester teaching notes. On these terms, it is every bit as good as so many other reviewers have said it is, but I want to note an aspect which, so far as I know, others haven't showcases yet. That is: it is also an elegantly crafted piece of advocacy. But it's advocacy with a hole in the middle--a gap big enough to drive an a priori through, and enough seriously to impair the cogency of its own central point.

It's not that Sandel has ever been particularly coy about his views on competing approaches tohis topic. From the beginning of his career, he's made himself perhaps the most persuasive public advocate of a perspective of ethics that you could well (even if he does not) "communitarian." At Harvard, he has long occupied the chair of the guy is who is not John Rawls and not Robert Nozick. A bit like being the most important Beatle after John and Paul.

In this new offering, Sandel operates with deceptive ease, but at the top of his form. He begins with a couple of chapters of standard classroom hypos, as if to beguile his students into believing his topic is interesting. He then moves on to an account of classic utilitarianism which skewers the doctrine so suavely and thoroughly that you have cudgel your mind to remember why it counts as a doctrine at all.

He then moves on to libertarianism (that's Nozick, whom he treats respectfully) and then exposition of Kant. Taken at face value, this presentation of Kant may well be the centerpiece of the book. It's really about the best non-technical exposition of Kant's ethics I ever read (indeed, the next logical step along the same line might be Rawls' own undertaking in his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy 143-234 (2000)). But Sandel's cape work is exemplified through so many elegant flourishes, you may not notice how many banderillas he seems to have planted along the way.

After Kant there's a bit on Rawls which is respectable enough in itself, although I have never been able to shake the conviction that Rawls was put on earth to reassure Harvard students that they deserve their life of ease and privilege. Sandel moves thence to a discussion of "virtue ethics" by which he suggests that he means Aristostle, but don't kid yourself. Sandel understands perfectly well that Aristotle dates on us after 2300+ years, but he is a grand legitimatizer for the capstone of the analysis---the communitarian program.

In crude oversimplification, it goes something like this: this Kant fellow (with his sidekick, Rawls) is all well and good, but he operates on a model of humanity which is way too abstract, and ends up leading him to untenable positions. "I" am not an abstraction. "I" am a whole tangle of relationships, past and present, which together determine what I am: my mother's daughter, the apple of my father's eye, the Man who Knew Coolidge, the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, whatever. My job in life is to try to retell these stories--to reweave the fabric, as it were into something coherent that I might call "integrity." My view of morals/ethics, by corollary, cannot be reduced to a formula. My views on these issues most be a product of my very human situatioin (Sandel doesn't cite Hegel here, but I think he is describing sittlikheit.

This is all wonderfully well done (albeit he draws heavily on Alisdair MacIntyre; if you want an expanded version of Sandel, you would go to M's After Virtue, or maybe all the way back to his Short History of Ethics). Indeed, I am profoundly in sympathl;y with this view and if I wanted to sell anybody on it, Sandel might well be the place where I would start.

The trouble is that, unless I was dozing, Sandel offers not a hint of advice on how we address the greatest difficulty of "virtue" ("communitarian") ethics--the question of how, after all, we define the good life. He's entirely right to say that Kant's dispassionate "reason" is weirdly inhuman when it says I should treat my own child an a Solami orphan as having equal claims on my responsibility and care. He's right to say that Robert E. Lee did something attractive when he puzzled his personal conflict between loyalty to the union and loyalty to the state. But he's equally right to recall the deal-killing endpoint with regard to Lee: slavery is wrong, and it took us four years and uncounted bloodshed to make the point.

Sandel is forgetting (or more likely, just ignoring) the central reason why "liberal" or "privatized" ethics came into being in the first place. Go back to the 17th Century and the end of the Thirty Years' War. Europe had gone through one of the bloodiest and most unsaatisfactory spasms in its long and bloody history. No wonder that any number of thinkers (start with John Locke, but there are others) wanted to stand up and say "okay, everybody just shut up, simmer down, and go home. I will keep out of your hair if you will keep out of mine."

That root difficulty--the difficulty getting consensus on the definition of the good life--is what has individualist liberalism so enduringly popular (Kant is only its most elegant exponent). Sandel is right that it ends with incoherence--was there every a philosophical doctrine that did not end with incoherence? But it may be that this incoherence protects us all against an even greater sacrifice. I'd love to see Sandel deal candidly with this topic. Might be a good subject for his next book.

Footnote: I see that the "most helpful critical review" of Macintyre's Short History of Ethics gets an Amazon customer vote of 0 for 2. Huh? But then the others get 0 for 7, 0 fo 11 and 0 for 13 (FWIW, it appears that all four negative may have been "written" by the same person).

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