Newly available works from the renowned political philosopher Michal Sandel offer Catholics an opportunity to reflect on our distinctive faith perspective on his favorite topic: justice.
After teaching extremely popular courses on justice for decades at Harvard, Sandel is offering his instruction to broader audiences in two formats. First, PBS has been broadcasting a 12-part series of his lectures (check PBS listings  for “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”). Each of these programs is available for viewing at www.justiceharvard.org . Second, a companion volume with the same title has just been published. (Check out the review  by John Coleman, S.J., in the Dec. 21-28 issue of America.)
Michael Sandel is such an expert in explaining theories of justice that it is tempting merely to stand aside and allow his presentations to speak for themselves. As one who has taught courses covering most of the philosophers and schools of thought Sandel surveys, I can attest that he describes the relevant positions on justice accurately and consistently interprets the material fairly. While there is nothing here that demands refutation, members of religious communities will want to supplement and clarify the material covered by Sandel by adding a faith dimension. Religious people ask at least these two questions beyond what philosophers of justice teach us:
First, what ideals motivate us to practice justice in our lives? Second, what actions, concerns and duties does our discipleship demand? Catholic teachings on justice provide a particularly helpful and illuminating counterpoint to Sandel’s survey of secular thought on the topic of “what’s the right thing to do.”
To be fair, it would be quite impossible for Sandel to tell a fuller story of justice as he addresses the mixed audience of his Harvard undergraduates or the likely readers of his mass-marketed book. An instructor at a secular university cannot assume the presence of a coherent worldview uniting his or her students. The default approach is to proceed from the premise of the “lowest common denominator” and perhaps to build a modest set of principles that the diverse members of a class might agree upon based on sheer rationality or intuitive appeal.
As envious as I am of Sandel’s gorgeous wood-paneled classrooms and huge class enrollments, there is one reason I would not want to trade places with him. The great intellectual diversity of his Harvard students, for all their SAT-acing credentials, prevents Sandel from assuming any common predisposition to a distinctive version of justice. With the seminary students (lay, religious and candidates for priesthood) whom I have the privilege to teach, it is not necessary to start from square one when treating justice. While I have the luxury of appealing to a common set of commitments in my classes (that is, to a gospel-based vision of social justice), conversations about justice in Sandel’s classes are destined to remain rather thin and vaguely unsatisfying. His students’ responses to the moral dilemmas he poses bear this out.
How do some of these differences show themselves? Mostly in the responses Sandel’s students offer when confronted with the vivid case studies their skilled professor poses. Many of Sandel’s students get seriously tripped up by an inability to process the idea that the needs of others make a moral claim upon the privileged. This tendency is attributable not so much to selfishness, but rather to the default position of individualism that pervades our culture. Without the benefit of the communitarian thrust of the Catholic worldview, the students display a rather absolute notion of individual property rights. Discussions of what constitutes a fair distribution of social benefits and burdens (such as the principle of progressive taxation) reach a premature impasse, despite the obvious keen intelligence of these future leaders.
When Sandel asks his students to consider the morality of certain scenarios involving the sale of reproductive services, such as the use of sperm banks and paid surrogate motherhood, no student is prepared to consider any of the proposed transactions particularly problematic. People shaped by Catholic theology would be able to articulate objections to these and similar thought experiments (e.g., a proposal to allow the wealthy to buy their way out of military conscription) that raise the specter of gross immorality or injustice.
Overall, students in Sandel’s classroom time and again accept with studied nonchalance many ethical choices at which a classroom of Catholic ministry students rightly shudder. While it is no surprise nowadays that many intelligent people fail to share the particular ethical conclusions recommended in church teachings, viewing firsthand the inability of Sandel’s students to muster up any sturdy objections to blatantly immoral actions can be disheartening.
What principles could an astute Catholic add to the discussions of justice in Sandel’s classroom?
1. Some things are simply not for sale.
2. Some actions are simply not permissible, regardless of material gains that might accrue from them.
3. Concern for the desperately poor should take priority over further privileges for the wealthy.
4. Notions of consent, merit and autonomy (which dominate standard philosophical accounts of the meaning of justice) do not exhaust the whole human story.
In short, without certain themes featured in Catholic theology, no account of justice will be satisfying or fully adequate. Pope Benedict’s treatment of “the experience of gift” in his July 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate is the most recent reminder in church documents of certain requirements of human relationships that are surely part of what we mean by justice, but which come to be airbrushed out of Sandel’s syllabus.
These observations amount to a critique of our culture rather than of this fine instructor. Indeed, the more you know about Sandel from other sources, the more likely you are to imagine him as sharing many of the justice commitments embodied in Catholic social thought. John Coleman is correct in his review to portray Sandel as ultimately a “champion of the politics of the common good.”
Attentive viewers will detect that Sandel has a soft spot for Aristotle, preferring his account of the virtues and the good life in community to the more austere theorists of procedural justice he engages. Sandel made his early reputation with several works critiquing his Harvard colleague John Rawls. In these books and essays, Sandel challenged liberals to move beyond their portrayal of the unencumbered self—a picture of the human person that abstracts from lived human experience in family and community.
Such approaches easily slide into a sharply objectionable anthropology, one which reduces the human person to nothing more than a choosing and consuming monad, as Coleman points out. To recognize the ties that bind us, even though we may not have explicitly chosen those bonds, means that we are inescapably “citizens,” with all the obligations and commitments that accompany such a status. This is a point upon which Sandel and Catholic thought agree.
Most viewers will remember the PBS series above all for its vivid case studies that present tortuous ethical dilemmas. Michael Sandel’s consummate skill is the ability to move the viewer from pondering limit situations (such as the prospect of practicing cannibalism on a life raft, or choosing which lives to save in emergency scenarios) to considering the ethical commitments implicit in our daily choices. In an era of ethics breaches and scandals in all walks of public life, our society desperately needs more resources like this one. Even if Sandel is not in a position to offer a description of justice that people of faith will find fully satisfying, he does us a great service in linking theory to practice in a way that informs the daily decision making of all people.
Listen to the accompanying podcast  to hear further discussion of Michael Sandel’s PBS series with Thomas Massaro, S.J.