On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

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

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself).

This thread is continued later on in the conflict between the liberal, ‘voluntarist’ conception of freedom (people as “free and independent selves, unbound by moral ties we haven’t chosen”) and a more communitarian viewpoint (we have “obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory and religious faith”). Here’s how Sandel picks it up:

Communal encumbrances can be oppressive. Liberal freedom developed as an antidote to political theories that consigned persons to destinies fixed by caste or class, station or rank, custom, tradition, or inherited status. So how is it possible to acknowledge the moral weight of community while still giving scope to human freedom? If the voluntarist conception of the person is too spare – if all our obligations are not the product of our will – then how can we see ourselves as situated and yet free?

Alasdair MacIntyre offers a powerful answer to this question. In his book After Virtue (1981) he gives an account of the way we, as moral agents, arrive at our purposes and ends. As an alternative to the voluntarist conception of the person, MacIntyre advances a narrative conception. Human beings are storytelling beings. We live our lives as narrative quests. “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

All lived narratives, MacIntyre observes, have a certain teleological character. This does not mean they have a fixed purpose or end laid down by external authority. Teleology and unpredictability co-exist. “Like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but none the less our lives have a certain form which projects itself toward our future.”

To live a life is to enact a narrative quest that aspires to a certain unity or coherence. When confronted with competing paths, I try to figure out which path will beset make sense of my life as a whole, and of the things I care about. Moral deliberation is more about interpreting my life story than exerting my will. It involves choice, but the choice issues from the interpretation; it is not a sovereign act of will. At any given moment, others may see more clearly than I do which path, of the ones before me, fits best with the arc of my life; upon reflection, I may say that my friend knows me better than I know myself. The narrative account of moral agency has the virtue of allowing for this possibility.

MacIntyre’s view places an enormous amount of power on storytellers; if it’s true that human beings make moral decisions based on the context of their life seen as a coherent story with a beginning and end, then the process by which we form and interpret those ‘stories of our lives’ is vitally importance. This process is clearly influenced by the stories we see and experience around us, whether in novels or movies or games. After all, we can all recall difficult times, as children and as adults, when we have thought back to a character from whom we seek guidance. Depending on which stories we have been told (whether fictional or not), our decisions could vary greatly.

“What Would Chuck Norris Do?” indeed.

(I should add that this long quote shows off Sandel’s writing very nicely – not a wasted word, but instead clear, accessible prose that takes care to make itself readable and understood.)

Sandel ends with a quotation from Robert F. Kennedy on the Gross National Product, and some hopeful ideas on how to create a ‘new politics of the common good’. Sadly, I think that’s a long way off when vast numbers of the electorate are ill-educated and ill-informed by ugly stories, but one could do worse than giving a copy of Justice to every student in the United States.

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