Wayback Machine Time: A Look at Liberalism and the Limits of Justice

In my review of Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, I briefly touched on the philosophy of Michael Sandel, whose lectures on Justice became wildly popular in China around 2010. I first became familiar with Sandel’s work when studying political theory in university. His most famous work, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, effectively critiques the work of John Rawls but does not explain how Communitarian theory would construct a just society (Sandel does this in later work, while Amitai Etzioni, always on C-Span during the 1990s, was a more direct evangelist for Communitarianism).

Osnos’ interview with Sandel led me to dig up this review of the second edition of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice I wrote way back in 2000. Sandel’s emphasis on constitutive attachments remains as important today as when he first wrote Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in 1982. In brief, we are who we know, where we came from, what we believe in, and who we are related to, as much as we are individual, rational selves.

Warning: pretentious undergraduate philosophy writing ahead.

Communitarianism and the Limits of Explanation

If one were to peruse Michael J. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice hoping to find lucid statements of Communitarian principles, he or she would probably walk away disappointed. For although Sandel is found among the ranks of Communitarian authors, his presentation of Communitarian ideas remains elusive; he seems less an advocate for Communitarianism and more an adversary of competing ideological conceptions. While Sandel’s critique of Rawls’ deontological liberalism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is at points compelling from the Communitarian perspective, Sandel is arguably at his best when arguing against Rawls from perspectives other than Communitarianism. As we shall see by exploring Sandel’s closing essay from Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, his critique of Rawls’ Theory of Justice does more than present arguments from a Communitarian position; Sandel invokes both Kant and Rawls himself to question the practicality of Rawls’ ideas.

At the start of Sandel’s summation, he provides a condensed restatement of what he calls “deontology’s liberating project.” He writes that only in the post-modern conception of “…a universe empty of telos” can the constructivist ideal be realized (175). The subtextual question here is whether or not we agree that the universe is empty of telos. If we agree that the telos of the universe is either nonexistent or too complicated to be understood, then we may proceed with the constructivist project; otherwise, we will likely have objections to Rawls’ procedure. Nonetheless, Sandel would not have us think that deontology is nihilistic, for he reminds us that “…this liberalism does not hold that just anything goes. It affirms justice, not nihilism” (176). Thus, liberal deontology allows that we are only teleological beings in the sense that we choose and affirm our own ends, instead of possessing ends a priori to our selves, and that an affirmation of justice is necessary to achieve this autonomy. However noble this project may be—and the implications of dignity achieved through the realization of autonomy make deontology seem quite noble—Sandel argues that the procedures and conceptions Rawls utilizes are flawed, starting with the veil of ignorance.

In contradistinction to Rawls’ depiction of the veil of ignorance as a device whereby subjects freely choose principles of justice while divorced from their own biases, Sandel presents the veil of ignorance as a device guaranteed to produce arbitrary results (177-178). According to Sandel, Rawls’ free and equal moral persons match “…pre-existing desires … to the best means available for satisfying them” (178). Because the free and equal moral persons are similarly situated and come to into the veil of ignorance possessing mutually disinterested, yet—according to Sandel—nearly identical, “thin conceptions of the good,” Sandel regards them as agents of discovery rather than choice, which means they lack the ability to actually engage in a contractual agreement or “construct” anything (178). Therefore, Sandel turns Rawls’ own words against him: Rawls’ two principles of justice cannot be “freely chosen” if the subjects behind the veil of ignorance are incapable of choice.

With regard to Rawls’ two principles of justice, Sandel finds fault with the difference principle by analyzing it from the perspective of traditional deontology. “[The difference principle] begins with the thought … that the assets I have are only accidentally mine. But it ends by assuming that these are therefore common assets and that society has a prior claim to the fruits of their exercise” (178). If this were simply a matter of the assets in question being material in nature, then Rawls’ project would be economically redistributionist, and would not necessarily provoke any deontological objections; however, for Rawls, “assets” includes natural talents, skills, and abilities, all of which would be arranged to meet preexisting societal ends. To understand the implications of this idea, we may note that such assets, no matter how we wish to abstract them, are inherently linked to specific persons. If society arranges these assets in certain desirable patterns, it must do the same to the persons the assets are attached to. However, this violates the Kantian maxim that individuals should always be treated as ends, never as means, which is central to the deontological conception of justice. As Sandel writes, “[w]e cannot be persons for whom justice is primary and also be persons for whom the difference principle is a principle of justice” (178).

If Sandel’s argument against Rawls’ procedures seems to dwell on their contradictory nature, then his critique of Rawls’ conception of the self tends to focus upon its incompleteness. For Sandel, our constitutive attachments are “inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are” and are the source of character and moral depth (179). The deontological self, because of its detachment from constitutive associations, must weigh all ends as equally valid; conversely, only a self which possesses character is actually able to choose among ends in a manner that is not morally arbitrary (180). Furthermore, the deontological self, barren of constitutive attachment, is also barren of self-knowledge; it cannot reflect upon itself, for such reflection presumes a self encumbered by awareness of its position in history and society (179). Lastly, the deontological self is incapable of achieving friendship in any real sense. Friends share and help to revise each other’s conceptions of the good, and by doing so, impart to each other their interpretations of identity and worth (180-181). But the deontological self cannot share conceptions of the good; such conceptions are a purely private manner, and any self-knowledge that would be learned through sharing is lost to it (181).

Sandel concludes this half of the critique by suggesting Rawls’ rejoinder. Rawls, we are told, argues that the necessary thinness of the deontological self only applies in public life and does not need to apply in private life (182). Against this, Sandel invokes the universalist character of deontology, noting, “…the deontological conception of the self cannot admit the distinction required [by Rawls]” (182). The nature of deontology is such that it requires duty to be categorically blind; therefore, one cannot act in private differently than he or she would act in public and still claim to be adhering to deontological principles. In this fashion, Sandel paints Rawls’ theory of the self as incomplete vis-à-vis Rawls’ own claims.

The ironic nature of Sandel’s arguments throughout Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is not that they make it impossible to embrace Rawls’ theories, but rather, that they make it difficult to embrace Rawls’ theories from a Kantian perspective. The Communitarian arguments against Rawls surface when Sandel invokes the importance of constitutive attachments, but these points are minor compared to the Kantian arguments against Rawls, because Rawls makes no claims of being a Communitarian in the first place. What is not explored, unfortunately, is how Communitarians, in the absence of a liberal political system, would establish a well-ordered society, or what methods they would use to differentiate between conceptions of the good; Sandel seems content to leave these issues philosophically opaque to us. If the object of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is to point at John Rawls, the grand old man of modern liberalism, and say that the emperor has no clothes, Sandel is at least partially successful. As for broadening his audience’s knowledge about Communitarianism, alas, we all remain behind a veil of ignorance.