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This Seeming Brow of Justice | The Nation

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This Seeming Brow of Justice

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To his credit, Sandel proposes to retain only parts of the ancient legacy for a modern account of justice. Unlike a few of his colleagues--Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, or some Straussians who see modernity as a moral catastrophe--Sandel wants collective virtue to invigorate liberal democracy instead of standing as a full-scale alternative to it. But perhaps what's most surprising about Sandel's career is that while he has argued that some vision of the good life must provide the first basis of a theory of justice, he has--given his critique of the aspiration to neutrality--remained surprisingly neutral toward various models of communal morality that might claim our allegiance. The peculiar result is that unlike Rawls, Sandel has abstained all along from offering any programmatic "theory of justice." He has limited himself to arguing that justice demands collective identity first, without getting specific.

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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There are a few probable reasons why. One is that vague appeals to a good shared in common allow Sandel to build a broad coalition while postponing inevitable disputes about its precise mission. It offers the false sense of a common agenda to people who in fact do and should differ. Nowhere is this clearer than in his sympathy for potential religious sources of collective ideals. Sandel recognizes that in contemporary America the priority of communal virtue is most appealing to the religious right, and his hymns to community often contain strong hints that religious perspectives could or should help define it. This approach will not satisfy those who need to know the exact moral dimensions of a religiously inflected definition of the good life before agreeing to its public endorsement. Should one champion the injection of religion in collective politics without first being clear about what it would really mean?

This concern is pressing even for the right, but it is especially serious for the left, where Sandel's sympathies seem to lie. Progressives, he warns, are mistaken to react to conserva-tive appeals to "values" by opposing all such talk as intrusive instead of providing their 
own better set. He writes in Justice, as he has written before: "Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread." Clearly, his heart is with a reinvigoration of liberalism based on appeals not simply to morality generally but also to religion specifically. "Not only the Taliban, but also abolitionists and Martin Luther King, Jr., have drawn their visions 
of justice from moral and religious ideals," 
he explains. And most revealing, Sandel is thrilled by Barack Obama's praise for the necessary role of religion in American politics.

Yet Sandel never squarely addresses the hard question of how to make religion a valuable source for progressive change, nor does he take up the question of whether it's justifiable to emphasize the progressive rather than conservative strains of existing religions, in their own moral doctrines or in contemporary politics. Sandel is probably right that Obama's elevation of religion as a moral source in contemporary life is good politics. But it is only "good political philosophy," Sandel implies, if a thinker is willing to engage in a contentious struggle to explain why religion can and should be freed from its distant past of subjugation in the name of revealed truth, and its recent history of conservatism in the name of the "moral majority." In an era of so-called new atheism, in short, it remains surprising to see Sandel frequently gesture toward the moral dimensions of religion when a defense of the moral credentials of religion, including his explanation of how to endorse one version of religion rather than another, is nowhere to be found in his writings. All things considered, it would be foolish to rush in just because fundamentalists do.

What is true of Sandel's strategic or vague endorsement of religion as a fund of collective morality is true of his general approach to justice. It need hardly be stated that there are secular visions of the common good that compete with various religious ones. Despite continuously advocating a politics of the common good, Sandel offers next to no means to help decide which of many rival proposals about the morally preferable life for people in common is best. It is all very well to champion a renewed citizenship, but--especially for a critic of neutrality--not without some more contentious indication of its foundation and implications.

There is likely a historical reason for Sandel's reticence. His first appearance in the New York Times, long before he became a professor who contributed op-eds on moral issues in contemporary politics, was in 1975, as part of the paper's spring review of commencement speeches. In his valedictory 
address at Brandeis, Sandel bemoaned the passing of the activist spirit of the 1960s, with its notion of citizenship wedded to public engagement and reform. It had already given way, Sandel ruefully noted, to moral "emptiness," as attention shifted "from the shortage of good in the world to the shortage of goods." Sandel has often invoked Robert F. Kennedy as the politician who promised to make virtuous citizenship, rather than rights and markets, the compass of liberalism. Strikingly, Sandel is still making the case decades later, but at a time when large social movements are even more of a dim memory. 
Absent new models, the nostalgia for a collectivist model of liberalism has been Sandel's fate, more than his choice, in an age of conservative ascendancy.

His attempt to shelter a guttering flame--if that is what in fact defines his role as public moralist--would be honorable, except that it critically affects how he has thought about justice, and taught it. Leaving aside what are either strategic feints toward religion or unacceptable failures to explain why religion should cut left instead of right, Sandel has ended up aligning his collectivism with Aristotle's ancient virtue ethics rather than the modern social movements that inspired him. Correspondingly, what's glaringly absent from Sandel's otherwise generous survey of theories of justice is the approach to the subject that has been the dominant one in modern times in the West, especially on the left and among social movements: justice as collective freedom and empowerment.

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