Sunday, September 4, 2011

Michael J. Sandel's "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?"

I found this to be an excellent book. It posed thought provoking questions and walked me through various ethical standpoints. Unlike studying the ethics textbooks of my youth, this book was much more focused on real questions and applied principles much more clearly.

In my wasted youth studying philosophy, the texts on "ethics" were in fact more meta-ethics. They argued endlessly over what ethics could be, what ethical language could or could not convey, etc. They didn't actually dabble in the real world of action where choice is essential. This book is the kind of ethics text I would have loved to have seen back in the 1960s.

As he ends his book he broadens out the view of ethics. Here is his besst summary:
Three categories of moral responsibility
  1. Natural duties: universal; don't require consent

  2. Voluntary obligations: particular; require consent

  3. Obligations of solidarity: particular; don't require consent
He derives the above from three traditions of moral thinking:
  1. Kant's integration of morality, freedom, and reason into an ethic of "practical reason" that requires universal laws that treat individuals a ends and not means. From Kant's moral reasoning we get our natural duties but it says nothing of voluntary associations and collectives to which we belong.

  2. John Rawls' refined liberalism with a kind of virtual "social contract" that requires you to judge morality by using a "veil of ignorance" to decide if you could generalize a principle to one where you were subject to its consequences. From Rawl's moral reasoning we get our principles of voluntary obligations that require us to be sensitive to others and the needs for equality.

  3. Aristotle's teleological morality that requires ethical acts to be ones that "fit the true nature" of someone and which emphasizes the community in which one resides. From Aristotle's moral reasoning you get obligations of solidarity from being embedded in a community and the aspiration to be virtuous and fit the proper role in that community.
The above doesn't do justice to the book. It is rich with ideas and examples. It makes you wrestle with the author. I'm sympathetic to Sandel's desire to ground ethics in collectives, but I'm not happy with Aristotle as the theoretical foundation. I also have problems with Kant's metaphysical thrust of putting things just beyond the empirical world while to not be an idealist or rationalist.

I'm inclined to Sam Harris' project of trying to develop ethics from science. Sandel is right to reject utilitarianism as too simplistic. But the problem with most ethical thinking is that it picks principles out of thin air. Ethics needs to be grounded. Harris has a project to develop a "science of morality". From Wikipedia:
The science of morality is the controversial idea that morality can be prescribed only with the help of, and possibly priority of, the philosophy of the scientific method. This conception challenges traditionally held views both of morality and of science. This demands a philosophy of science and epistemological (theory of knowledge-based) justification that can deal with the "is–ought problem" (i.e."there are facts about what is real, but how do they ever become facts about what ought to be?"). The science of morality is a sort of ethical naturalism (moral facts are facts about nature) that challenges divine command and natural law-based moral justifications for first principles in ethics.
The wonderful thing about Sandel's book is that it makes you think. He maneuvers the reader to his point of view which left me a bit unhappy. But I was greatly impressed by the array of material he brought together and how wonderfully he weaved his story.

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