Saturday, January 14, 2012

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Professor Sandel, as he does in his famous lecture series, invites us to make philosophical thinking through assuming concrete situations, the common way of reasoning in moral and political philosophy. Through using vivid examples, he represents ethical dilemma, or conflicting of moral principles, in which we ask to ourselves “what is the right thing to do?”. This book tries to answer to that question.

I. Three approaches to justice

Professor Sandel classified the approaches to justice into three ways. And the book devoted most of the contents for mentioning the strength and justice of the three approaches.

1. Maximize welfare: utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham founded the doctrine of utilitarianism which exerts a powerful hold on the thinking of policy makers, economists, business executives, and ordinary citizens to this day. According to him, the highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, or utility. (later John Stuart Mill contributed for the development of utilitarianism such that it becomes more humane one)

There are several objections casted to utilitarianism.

One is that it fails to respect individual rights. According to utilitarianism principle, it is possible to throw christians to lions for the sake of the happiness of the crowds (in ancient Rome), or, in general, sacrifice of individuals for the sake of majorities is allowed.

Second criticism toward utilitarianism is that utilitarianism assumes a common value among individuals, such that we can aggregate preferences of all the people. (Regarding this point, I don’t think the utilitarianism needs to assume uniformed utility function; as economists tried to establish their theory of expected utility hypothesis, they came up with some fundamental assumptions which are sufficient conditions to use the principle of utility maximization, thanks to the great contributions of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern.)

(By the way, though I do not agree with Bentham’s idea totally, I respect him in that he is strictly consistent with what he believes in. He provided in his will that his body be preserved, embalmed, and displayed at University College London. That was his answer to the question “of what use could a dead man be to the living?” He thought, in the case of great philosophers, it is better to preserve one’s physical presence in order to inspire future generations of thinkers, rather than making one’s corpse available for the study of anatomy.

2. Respect freedom:

There are two schools holding this view: Laissez-faire school or fairness school. Those who hold laissez-fair view are free-market libertarians who believe that justice consists in respecting and upholding the voluntary choices made by consenting adults. The people who support fairness views think that justice requires policies that remedy social and economic disadvantages and give everyone a fair chance at success.

Kant gave another refinement of freedom. According to him, to act according to a law I gave myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention - is the freedom. Only human beings with reason can do it, and in that sense person is different from any other creatures. He placed importance on duty but on inclination (moral), autonomy but on heteronomy (freedom), and categorical imperative independent from the situation but on hypothetical imperatives dependent on the condition (reason). Prof Sandel articulately summarized the relationship among moral, freedom and reason from page 116 to 124 in this book. Let me quote a part of it.

“Acting morally means acting out of duty – for the sake of the moral law. The moral law consists of a categorical imperative, a principle that requires us to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. Only when I act in accordance with the categorical imperative am I acting freely. For whatever I act according to a hypothetical imperative, I act for the sake of some interest or end given outside of me. But in that case, I’m not really free; my will is determined not by me, but by outside forces – by the necessities of my circumstance or by the wants and desires I happen to have.”

Many of objections against libertarians are senseless, but there are a few strong criticisms toward libertarianism.

- Is “free choice” really free and fair?

Professor Sandel quotes the case of a homeless living under a bridge. He may need to make a “free contract” for the sake of his life (e.g. the contract asks him to offer kidneys with price of just USD 100, far cheaper than it usually takes), regardless of the intrinsic unfairness of the contract

- Is libertarianism right in light of civic virtue and common good?

For example, in many countries, conscription is the obligation as a citizen, but when we select the market system in drafting militaries, the problem that David M. Kennedy mentioned would occur: “A hugely preponderant majority of Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.” (from “The Wages of a Mercenary Army”) Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the state in which citizens serve with their money than with their persons is not far from its fall. Here, professor Sandel says, the important issue to be discussed is that “what obligations do citizens of a democratic society owe to one another, and how do such obligations arise? (p90)”, the argument that “communitarians (seems like prof. Sandel does not like to be called so)” often make.

- Potential downgrading of personality

Let us think about surrogacy contracts (i.e. trade of pregnancy) and kidney trades. If we make even these things tradable in the market, the trade may lead to degrade those properties close to personalities. Immanuel Kant emphasized the distinction between persons (worthy of respect) and mere objects or things (open to use) as fundamental distinction in morality. In his “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”, he argues that morality is about respecting persons as ends in themselves on the ground that human beings possess reason.

3. Cultivate virtue: Communitarian

In contemporary society, the view is often associated with cultural conservatisms or the religious right.

Established by Aristotle, communitarian philosophy has the longest history than anyone else. Central to Aristotle’s political philosophy are two ideas (chapter 8):

- Justice is teleological. Defining rights requires us to figure out the telos (a Greek word meaning the purpose, end, or essential nature) of the social practice in question

- Justice is honorific. To reason about the telos of a practice – or to argue about it – is, at least in part, to reason or ague about what virtues it should honor and reward

According to Aristotle, virtue is not knowledge. It should be the integration of knowledge, habit and practical wisdom.

He insisted the importance of action. Habit is the first step in moral education, but that is not enough. The challenge is to do the right thing “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way”. That means moral virtues requires judgment, a kind of knowledge Aristotle calls “practical wisdom”.

Above is the basis on which Aristotle claims that politics is essential to one’s good life (life following moral virtue). The laws of the polis inculcate good habits, form good character, and set us on the way to civic virtue. Also, the life of the citizen enables us to exercise capacities for deliberation and practical wisdom that would otherwise lie dormant. (here, citizen has narrower meaning than we use today)

II. Libertarian vs Communitarian

Libertarian’s criticism toward communitarian

Kant and Rawls reject Aristotle’s teleology because it doesn’t seem to leave us room to choose our good for ourselves. Libertarian place more importance on choice, not fit. Communitarian view could be somewhat totalitarian.

Communitarian’s Claim

In chapter 9, professor Sandel finally claim the flaw of libertarian.

“I do not think that freedom of choice – even freedom of choice under fair conditions- is an adequate basis for a just society. What’s more, the attempt to find neutral principles of justice seems to me misguided. It is not always possible to define our rights and duties without taking up substantive moral questions; and even when it’s possible it may not be desirable.

The weakness of the liberal conception of freedom is bound up with its appeal. If we understand ourselves as free and independent selves, unbound by moral ties we haven’t chosen, we can’t make sense of a range of moral and political obligations that we commonly recognize, even prize. These include obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory and religious faith – moral claims that arise from the communities and traditions that shape our identity. Unlesswe think of ourselves as encumbered selves, open to moral claims we have not willed, it is difficult to make sense of these aspects of our moral and political experience.”

Here I would note that the controversy between libertarian and communitarian regarding moral is not totally different. They agree each other to some extent. Let me summarize it.

a. Natural duties: universal and don’t require consent: agreed

b. Voluntary obligations: particular and require consent: agreed

c. Obligations of solidarity: particular and don’t require consent: disagreed

Here, obligations of solidarity are the obligations native to the one’s own situation. For example, if we see two children drawing, one is your kid and one is not, you would help your child first. Prof. Sandel argues that “if you believe that patriotism has a moral basis, if you believe that we have special responsibilities for the welfare of our fellow citizens, then you must accept the third category of obligation – obligations of solidarity or membership that can’t be reduced to an act of consent”. (P234)

The obligations of solidarity may sound like it is expanded selfishness. In fact, it is not. These obligations ask us to act as if the community is the unit of moral behavior to the certain extent. That is, I am responsible for the deed of my community, regardless of past or present.

“Obligations of solidarity and membership point outward as well as inward. Some of the special responsibilities that flow from the particular communities I inhabit I may owe to fellow members. But others I may owe to those with whom my community has a morally burdened history, as in the relation of Germans to Jews, or of American whites to African Americans. Collective apologies and reparations for historic injustices are good examples of the way solidarity can create moral responsibilities for communities other than my own. Making amends for my country’s past wrong is one way of affirming my allegiance to it.”

III. Remarks

It is a nice book as a political philosophy class 101. Though professor Sandel holds his position as a communitarian, he made fair assessment of utilitarianism and liberalism. Introducing practical examples (maybe that is the way of Aristotle), he illuminated the strength and weaknesses of three main ideas in political philosophy.

The communitarian view reminds me of the idea I learned when I was a high school student. The view told me to admire my parents and my community, and correct them if they are not doing the right thing. It was not ethnocentrism, but the moral principle based on community. If applied correctly, communitarian idea would develop the society, which is, especially in developed country, dominated by libertarianism and utilitarianism.

The book is also useful for those who are interested in and participate into the social action to alleviate poverty, famine, etc. Those people are definitely following one’s own moral principle, and it would be beneficial to verbalize what you believe in. This book helps you to shape your idea of justice.

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