The National Catholic Review
John A. Coleman

I discovered it abruptly. Something more than mere intrinsic academic interest lies within Michael Sandel’s new book. I had been carrying the book in my hand when I was stopped by a stranger on the street in New York City in early October who wanted to know what I thought of certain of the author’s views. She had been reading the book in preparation for the PBS series based on it. Videos of the Harvard professor’s lectures for the course, which he has been teaching since 1980 and from which the book stems, are now ubiquitous on YouTube. Clearly he is a gifted teacher. How could anyone engage over 1,000 Harvard undergraduates in one lecture hall and yet make it seem, at times, like a genuine seminar, a spirited discussion, not just a lecture?

At one level, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a crisply written exposition of the classic positions on justice: utilitarianism, Kantian deontological principles, the views of libertarians, John Rawls, Aristotle’s treatment of justice as a virtue. Sandel insists that these more abstract philosophical accounts often deeply inform the way we ordinary non-philosophers construe contested policies on justice, such as affirmative action, same-sex marriage, price gouging and surrogate parenthood. In this well-honed treatment, Sandel attempts to bring moral clarity to genuine alternatives that confront us every day as democratic citizens.

Sandel looks at three variant approaches to justice. First, justice involves the maximization of social welfare (but are there any inalienable rights?). Second, justice fundamentally entails respect for human freedom. This latter position either follows the Kantian categorical imperative, a libertarian view that justice merely means informed choice, or the position of John Rawls that justice demands both respecting human liberties and arranging society so the worst off receive benefits, whenever inequalities are permitted. The third views justice as a virtue, following Aristotle. Sandel prefers this third variant.

As Sandel argued in an earlier book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), liberal theories of justice based on merely respecting human freedom remain stone deaf to moral ties we have not explicitly chosen. Liberal theories all assume some un-encumbered self, without pre-existing loyalties or obligations. Such theories of purely procedural justice always privilege the right (proper or fair procedures) over the good.

Aristotle (and Catholic social thought, inasmuch as it is indebted to Aristotle, through Aquinas) instead sees justice as a virtue, dependent on prior deliberation about the ends, purposes or goods of human actions and institutions. Despite the reputed attempts of John Rawls and other liberal justice theorists to finesse all questions of the good (in a sense, leaving such questions to mere human preference), Sandel argues that it is not possible to find some neutral, nonjudgmental, non-value-laden base. Debates about rights or liberties almost always are closely linked to underlying questions about the good.

Again, following Aristotle, Sandel is a champion of a politics of the common good. He wants us to think of ourselves as citizens, not just consumers or isolated choosers. For him, justice demands that we ask what kind of people and society we want (or ought) to be. Fair procedures alone will not suffice.

Justice, then, is as much about the political philosophy of citizenship as it is about a casuistry to determine, in difficult cases, what is the just thing to do. Sandel insists:

A new politics of the common good…requires a more demanding idea of what it means to be a citizen, and it requires a more robust public discourse—one that engages more directly with moral and even spiritual questions.

Sandel would not put some a priori liberal and secular gag-rule on the arguments brought to public debates about abortion, genetic manipulations and the like. “A more robust public engagement with our moral disagreements,” he maintains, “could provide a stronger, not a weaker basis for mutual respect.”

Not all readers or listeners of the PBS series will be satisfied that Sandel pays sufficient attention to the real dangers inherent in resurrecting true respect for dense loyalties and particular attachments or in controversial accounts of what constitutes true human or public virtue. Can one stress, as Sandel does, the importance of group solidarity without re-igniting the ethnic and religious tensions liberalism was designed to temper? Stephen Holmes, a New York University law school professor and a critic of Sandel, exclaims: “I wouldn’t want a government strong enough so it could make [the desired virtue] happen. Without the coercive power of the state, talk about the good life is just something that sounds nice in a seminar.”

Sandel deftly uses a Socratic style and presents vivid case studies to raise new questions about the common good. He insists, nonetheless, that whatever the dangers of imposing one’s view of the good in order to retrieve virtue, neglecting virtue leaves us with a hollow, merely procedural liberalism that rarely garners any deep loyalties or evokes a robust sense of citizenship.

John A. Coleman, S.J., a sociologist, is associate pastor of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, Calif.