Monday, May 28, 2007

The ground on which liberals dare not tread...

I've just finished reading Michael Sandel's Public Philosophy, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. I found myself agreeing with Sandel more often than not (though I have been know to do that with many philo books I read). He's been labeled a communitarian by some, and he is openly uncomfortable with that label. Sandel does not endorse total rule by the majority or communities having the right to always impose their own values on their members, but he does think that the role of the community (and civic virtues) has been ignored too much in modern political discussion. Sandel rejects the individualistic ethos of modern political thought, and he tries to find a balance between the rights of individuals and their roles in the communities in which they live. Central to his dicussion is the role of morality in politics. Sandel understands better than many poli-philosophers I've read that poltical life cannot (and should not) be stripped of its basis in morality. Liberals do not dare discuss the moral foundations of their political philosophy, lest they offend somebody's fragile sensibilities. And I think the liberal line is the weaker for it. Not only do liberals loose political popularity when they abandon "values talk," but they also end up with a position that is more or less void of substance. Why are rights important? If the right is before the good it protects, and if we aren't allowed to discuss the merits of that good, then on what grounds is the right itself important? Is the right to live relatively autonomous lives intrinsically good? I can't see how... Autonomy is good in so far as it is useful for the person to live a good life that they can identify with, and so the good of this right is centered on the end that it achieves.

When you justify rights by the intrinsic goods they serve, you fall into the teleological/perfectionist camp (according to Sandel), a camp that I think I may belong to. This, of course, raises lots of objections because you have to actually make a moral judgement about the intrinsic worth of the goods in question. Some goods will be better than others, and those rights will have a stronger justification because they achieve greater goods. As sensible as that sounds, the obvious objection is that in a morally pluralistic society, there will be quite a bit of disagreement as to the worth of said goods. So, what is the political philosopher to do? Should she try to realign with the liberals and take a more neutral stance towards rights? Should she try to appease as many people as possible?

I think the answer to this is no, and I'll tell you why. Liberals only think that they are acting neutrally when they refuse to judge the worth of the ends that rights promote, but in actuality they are themselves promoting certain values (ends) over others. In Sandel's essay on assisted suicide, he rightly points out that the liberal position is in fact promoting a particular set of values. There was a council of six philosophers (Dworkin, Nozick, Rawls, Nagel, Scanlon, and Thomson... wouldn't you have liked to been on that panel!) that was assembled to advise the Supreme Court in two cases. The panel advised the court that it should remain neutral on controversial moral and religious questions because reasonable people will disagree on what the right answer is. So, the people should be allowed to choose for themselves what answer they will live (or die) by, and the court shouldn't ban assisted suicide for everyone (though the court ignored this advice and did so anway). While that sounds about as neutral as it gets, their advice was far from it. Sandel explains:

"The philosophers' argument betrays a certain view of what makes life worth living. According to this view, the best way to live and die is to do so deliberately, autonomously, in a way that enables us to view our lives as our own creations...The philosophers' emphasis on autonomy and choice implies that life is the possession of the person who lives it. This ethic is at odds with a wide range of moral outlooks that view life as a gift, of which we are custodians with certain duties. Such outlooks reject the idea that a person's life is open to unlimited use, even by the person whose life it is. Far from being neutral, the ethic of autonomy invoked in the brief departs from many religious traditions and also from the views of the founders of liberal political philosophy (Locke and Kant)..."

So, is neutrality even possible? By being neutral you endorse the value of neutrality itself. Not that neutrality isn't good, but you'd have to make a some sort of case that it is better than the alternatives, which makes even neutrality non-neutral. It's also not clear that liberals really do avoid values-legislation, because they legislate toleration, freedom and fairness. While I think these are worthy ends, they may not always be more worthy than other ends. Assuming that they always trump competing values is to take a definite, non-neutral, position.

Liberals don't escape this when it comes to justice either (and not just other moral issues). Rawls is willing to allow reasonable pluralism on moral convictions, but he makes a pretty strong claim that there can't be this sort of pluralism in justice. People may differ about how to apply principles of justice, but they should agree on the principles themselves. Well, no, that's not true. The libertarian and the egalitarian aren't disagreeing about the application of a common set of principles, but rather on the principles themselves. Sandel claims that Rawls reply to this justice pluralism must be that "although there is a fact of pluralism about distributive justice, there is no fact of reasonable pluralism." When libertarians disagree with Rawls, their disagreement is not reasonable and would not be sustained "upon due reflection." While I'm sure that Rawls really believed this, I highly doubt the libertarian would see it this way. So let's say there is reasonable pluralism regarding the principles of justice, Rawls (among other political philosophers) is not afraid to claim that his view is better than the others. Well, so much for toleration of all viewpoints. I'm sure you can see the game now. It's one I've always kind of wondered about, and Sandel did a wonderful job of pointing it out.

Now I'll tell you why this worries me. I may have sounded a bit harsh towards liberals, but don't get me wrong, I still have some liberal tendencies myself. I think there is something important about respect and toleration of other people's moral convictions. My departure from liberals is at the point where they would banish all talk of morality from political discussion. Ignoring people's conceptions of what makes life meaningful is not a great way of engaging them into political discussion. The best thing to do, according to Sandel, is to engage people's religious and moral convictions by challenging them and sometimes even contesting them. You respect a person's convictions when you acknowledge their importance, and you discuss them, and you evaluate them, and you evaluate your own, and you have a real discussion! Ignoring them doesn't do any good to anyone.

The real problem is that when liberals are too afraid to tread on this ground, other (less reasonable people) will tread there, and they will win people over for the sole reason that they are the only ones there. When the democrats avoided the values discussion in the 80's, the Moral Majority swooped in and they were the only ones discussing it. If people are hungry to engage their convictions in their politics, and if the only groups willing to participate are ones like the MM, then you can guess what happens. Liberals mustn't be afraid to talk about values, because when they don't, other people do and they may not promoting values that are good for our society.

But, alas, values talk isn't always safe. There is bound to be disagreement when you abandon neutrality. So what? Some of the most important movements in our nations history were rooted in serious moral convictions. The abolitionists defied neutrality, and they sought to impose their values on the rest of society. Was it okay for them to do that? Certainly, because the values they promoted were good and they were worthy of being integrated into our nation's laws. What about the civil rights movement? Things would be very different today had it been left up to the individual whether or not he or she wants to discriminate. Stores would be segregated on a store by store basis, and no amount of neutrality could prevent that. Sandel's point in many of his essays is to draw our attention to the fact that there are bound to be political issues that require a judgment of their value/worth. Allowing a practice is, in effect, condoning it. Allowing slavery or segregation is a way of saying that it's okay for some people to do so. But it's not okay, and so neither of those practices should be allowed. There are moral issues today that are similar to these, and they require a decision. Abortion, for example, requires a verdict. If abortion really is as bad as the Catholic Church says it is (on par with murder), then neutrality won't cut it. But if it's not, then we need to figure that out too (if you're curious what my views are on abortion, look here...). Leaving it up in the air does not solve the problem, and refraining from talking about the moral implications of abortion doesn't bring us any closer to a solution either. The same goes for other political hot topics that we shy away from. So I think its time we had a values discussion once and for all.

There was much more in the book that I'd love to discuss, and perhaps I will another day (affirmative action, stem cell research, advertising in schools, state lotteries, the list goes on). The book confirmed my suspisios that I'm not as liberal as I thought, but it also showed me that I'm not really a communitarian either. I'm somewhere in the middle, which is where I like to be anyway. It did show me, though, that I'm definitely a perfectionist (which I thought I might be after thinking about parenting issues) which doesn't exactly help me make friends in the philosophical world. Oh well. I encourage you to go read Sandel's book, and I'd love to hear your thoughts...


Wilson said...

It seems to me that even a purely individualistic social philosophy (if that is not a contradication in terms) involves a moral assumption. Why should I care about the freedom of other individuals? If securing individual liberty does not somehow make society better, then why go out of my way to do it?

Well, maybe the only way to secure my freedom is to secure everybody else's too. But I'm not so sure that's true. The liberty of white Protestant males like me could be quite safe even if the liberty of, say, Catholic Latinas were not.

Furthermore, as you point out, slavery and segregation illustrate the fact that one individual's freedom can conflict with another's. Smith's legal right to keep the property he bought, conflicted with Jones' (moral, not legal) right not to be owned. Doe's legal right not to associate with blacks, conflicted with Roe's (moral, not legal) right to participate as an equal in society.

Even a postmodern claim that different groups have different moral standards that should be respected by other groups, itself implies a universal moral standard -- a standard for what is good for society as a whole.

And in practice ... I have yet to run across a political activist who lacked a palpable sense of moral zeal and, when appropriate, indignation.

Robert said...

Allowing a practice is, in effect, condoning it.

Well, no. The first clause of the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, which essentially allows certain behavior, while simultaneously not condoning it.

Moreover, would you say that God condones evil, as He certainly allows it with astonishing regularity?

Lindsey said...

Touche. I see what you mean, but hear me out. Let's say rape was made legal. If it was permissable from a legal point of view, the government would be pretty hypocritcal to -at the same time- preach that rape is evil. I think there are certain things that I might consider to be "bad" or "evil" that the government shouldn't take a stance on, and maybe that is condoning it. But there are other circumstances where that's clearly not okay. Murder, prime facie, shouldn't be legal, and if it was legal that would say something about what our government (and the people who our government represents) condones as acceptable. About the God part, God only allows evil for a time being, but (the Christian God) he has made it clear that all acts will be judged eventually. The governement, on the other hand, wouldn't be postponing judgement but rather witholding judgement all together. Does that clarify things? Maybe only to me, in which case, my apologies. But I hope you realize that the acts I think the government shouldn't allow need to be bad enough (the threshold I'm uncertain of) to warrent its interference. So that wouldn't just be affirming some religion over another. Thanks for the comment.

Robert said...

It sounds like you’re saying that the government ought to prohibit only those actions that measurably harm others (without their consent), i.e. rape, murder, theft, etc. Am I reading you correctly? If so, you’re essentially making a libertarian argument. Do you consider yourself to be a libertarian?

With respect to God’s ultimate judgment (incidentally, I too am a Christian), I’m in full agreement with you. That said though, I think that He not only tolerates evil, but that He has incorporated it into His broader, eternal plan (which is to say that He uses it for His own ends). How do you see it?

Lindsey said...

I do not consider myself a libertarian (and, interestingly, I planned to post about that soonish). I actually think I'm an egalitarian, though I hadn't given either view much (serious) thought until recently. I didn't mean to limit the government's overall role to preventing/prosecuting those types of acts. I just meant that if the government were to allow them, then it would be condoning them (given their nature and the overwhelming consensus that they are really bad). Other concerns, such as promoting the flourishing of all citizens, are also important for the government (imo), but that's a seperate issue entirely.

I agree (in my limited theological knowledge) that God intends to turn the evil of this world into good, and that evil will then be an intricate part of his plan. The reason God can allow for this without condoning it is that He does plan on setting things straight in the end. If He didn't, He wouldn't be just (at least not in my conception of justice, though I realize He's not limited to my own conceptions). That's where the similarity with the government lies, in that the goverment ought to set things right if it can (as far as these sorts of things go, the sorts of things that we can all agree are pretty bad). I hope that clarifies it a bit more.

I have a feeling you and I share a good deal in common in our God views, but perhaps not matter.