Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Justice is an excellent overview of basic issues in moral and political philosophy written in an accessible style with interesting real world examples and thought experiments. Despite this though, I thought some of the coverage was inferior (or perhaps just unconvincing) and I likely disagree with Sandel’s overall communitarian perspective.
The reader gets an overview of the different subjects of utilitarianism, libertarianism, Kant, Rawls, Aristotle, affirmative action, complications of loyalty and justice and the common good. At best, this overview is a great repository of key bits of information without being overly dry or verbose. At worst, it is like a series of long wikipedia entries which do not link much with each other and of which the neutrality could be easily disputed.
I also found it peculiar that Sandel did not even mention, even in reference, the large amount of research being done on the biology and psychology of moral decision making, especially since fellow Harvard prof Marc Hauser wrote a big book on it (i.e., Moral Minds, which is to be the 3rd book in my justice trilogy).

As a follow up to Justice: A Restatement, I enjoyed Sandel’s examination of Rawls and the impact he had on political theory, as well as the clarification of certain view he exposed. Similarly, I had little prior knowledge of Kant so having the main themes of his work(s) presented was very useful. Ditto for Aristotle.

Unfortunately, I found Sandel’s discussion of utilitarianism lacking and even a bit fallacious. This was the first major topic he examined, so it cast doubt on his credibility for the coverage of other topics. My main issue is that he did a fine job of covering utilitarianism... right up until the 1880s. By limiting his discussion to the foundational works of Bentham and Mill, he does not address any of the variations in the idea of maximizing outcomes that have been developed in the past century. Utilitarianism is a subset of Consequentialism, of which there are at least 10 different types. What is one trying to examine? The hedonistic consequences? Is their equal consideration? The value of the consequences? Is it the actual outcome or do intentions matter?
The point is that Sandel often just describes utilitarianism as the view that seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain or he just links it to monetary maximization. While this may have been the dominant view, it is not quite the case that this is the most prevalent perspective currently, nor is it the strongest argument that can be made. On a related note, Sandel does not even mention Peter Singer who is a consequentialist and is one of the most famous philosopher’s in the world. I found the coverage quite sneaky (or just weak argumentation against a straw-man) and felt it unjust (of all things). He mentions how torture could be justified under consequentialism as one is just trying to maximize one thing or another. Sandel tries to use emotional appeals to indicate we wouldn’t want to torture someone (or their daughter). He does say that utilitarians would argue that even the most hard-line moralist would concede if 100,000s of thousands of lives were at stake, but he doesn’t find this convincing; I do. We may not like it, but IF such a situation were actually true in that 1 billion people would die if one person wasn’t sacrificed, I really think it is a forced move. It does make one wonder why we feel it is wrong even if we knew we had to save the billion lives (i.e., this is where the biological research would come in).

Whilst discussing utilitarianism Sandel brings in a thought experiment which I’ll summarize as follows: Would you accept living in a perfectly happy city if it was required that one child would spend all its days in misery. Sandel implies that this is morally unacceptable, and that a whole city’s happiness shouldn’t be maximized if one child had their rights violated. That would be a fair point if everyone didn’t already accept this. Millions of children suffer everyday and pretty much everyone accepts this suffering and they are do not even get full happiness in return (whatever that would be). It seems odd that Sandel would not have a greater international perspective that would allow him to realize his argument is sketchy.

Another thing that seemed like an oversight is that in various parts of the book Sandel talks about justice and freedom regarding economic necessity, but he does not mention minimum wage jobs which most hate. It is fine to make the point about a volunteer army that isn’t really volunteer because of economic necessity but he neglects the millions in the US and billions in the world who work because it is economically necessary.

My final main point is that when Sandel discusses (i.e., pushes) his communitarian angle, he seems to shift from prescriptive to descriptive writing. Throughout the book, Sandel has analyzed various thinkers and their notions of justice from a descriptive, observational perspective. These outlines are useful, but rarely along the way did he specifically indicate how people tend to do things. Yet, he does this in “Dilemmas of Loyalty.” I think this is a bit sneaky because when you read it you cannot help but think, “Well, many people do act like that, and much of it jives with my intuitions and what I already do, so perhaps that is the best perspective.” It is fine to make that argument, but he should have been more overt about it. Additionally, in the same chapter there are false dichotomies all over the place and some logical fallacies. Considering how often the false contrast of two options is used AND shown to be spurious in intellectual discussions, I’m a bit surprised it keeps happening. Quick example: consequentialists say outcomes matter while Kantians say intentions matter… why not both?
Additionally, ideas of freedom, choice, self-hood and justice are confused in this work or at least insufficiently described and elaborated upon. I am being more critical of Justice because I think Sandel should have been more balanced. It is as if the book is supposed to be an impartial overview, but then his perspective keeps creeping in. While this is understandable, great educators should be able to provide the best argument for each position such that the student is unaware of the instructor’s actual beliefs.

I appreciated this work but won’t be reading another of his. He dropped a big ball by not mentioning any of the science of moral decision making (even to say he will exclude it) and it also seemed very odd to leave out any mention of Peter Singer (unless you see Sandel as more tactical than I would like to). On to Moral Minds


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what are some fallacies you found?

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also found Sandel's argument against utilitarianism to be shallow and unjust. Sandel's argument is basically a straw-man argument utilitarianism. Even if we accept the hedonistic version of utilitarianism, the conclusion that Sandel wants to draw from utilitarianism is not justified by the principle of hedonism. Sandel wants to say that utilitarianism defends the silly view that we ought to only pursue the maximization of monetary value. But there is a missing link here: pleasure = maximization of monetary value. There is no reason why even a hedonist should accept this equation. Suppose I seek pleasure. It is still perfectly possible that I find it to be more pleasurable to help my friends and colleagues than maximizing my monetary asset. I may even find it more pleasurable to see people being treated fairly, equally, and the global community more equally developed.
So, Sandel distorts the notion of utilitarian value as if it should be limited to selfish monetary value. That's a gross misrepresentation. If anything, utilitarianism is opposed to ethical egoism and defends one of the most raidcal versions of communitarianism. The intention behind the greatest happiness principle is indeed to defend communitarianism.
Sandel seems to be one of those politically charged philosophers who aim to criticize capitalism by criticizing utilitarianism. But that's not fair--utilitarianism is neutral between those ideologies. Furthermore, even capitalism does not have to be understood as if it defends ethical egoism. In other words, there is no reason why capitalism and communitarianism cannot go together.

3:39 AM  

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