Michael Sandel BBC Reith Lectures II

(Primary version of this post, including graphics, is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog)

I posted on Sandel’s first BBC Reith Lecture on Wednesday June 10th, and I’ve just listened to a podcast of his second lecture on ‘Morality in Politics’. Sadly I don’t think the link will stay up on the BBC website for long, hopefully they will archive podcast or iPlayer versions of the lectures later.

Sandel spoke at the University of Oxford on how morality enters into politics. The largest part of his argument referred to gay marriage rights. He suggested that legalising gay marriage is not a position of moral neutrality. A position of moral neutrality properly belongs to a kind of libertarianism in which there would be no state law regarding marriage of any kind. A law which gives marriage neutrality to gays is based on a moral position about the value of legislating for marriage along with a moral position on giving equal value to gay and straight relationships.

I’m happy to agree with Sandel that there is no clear diving line between morality and politics. A political position which advocates marriage equality is based on some kind of moral judgement. There are conservative Christians who think gay relationships are sinful but that the state has no business preventing them, or discriminating against them. Sandel did not address that case, but I believe that the conservative Christian is still taking a moral stance, the stance that public laws is distinct from religious law. In that way, Sandel’s point can be made in a very general way: there is a necessary contradiction in saying that political judgements are distinct from judgements about morality, as such a position requires discussion about the boundary between morality and politics which must be at least in part a judgement about morality.

Sandel did not refer to such a paradox in excluding morality from politics, and I do not think he would want except perhaps in the most passing way. There is a strategy to his lecture, which is to lead his audience to a much more substantive commitment to a position about the best kind of moral and political thinking, which is an Aristotelian position, or Sandel’s version of Aristotelian thinking, of which there are many versions. What Sandel keeps leading his audience to is a notion of a fixed human nature, and of what is appropriate to humans. Aristotle’s thinking about humans, and other kinds of things, always refers to a kind of natural essence which exists in the final state of an object, the state to which it is necessarily and naturally moving.

Sandel’s view of what is not proper to humans, includes payment for surrogate births, payments for sexual services and payments for organ transplants as he makes clear in the lecture and in his previous lecture. This podcast in the Philosophy Bites series makes it clear that he regards genetic enhancement as ‘unnatural’ and in a related way he claims that there would be no audience for sporting events involving genetically enhanced athletes, it looks like he will discuss this in the third and last Reith lecture.

Sandel’s example from Aristotle is of flutes and flute players in Aristotle’s Politivs, Book III, vii. 2-3 (1282b-1283a). What Sandel says is that the best flutes should go to the best flute players, the contextual argument in Aristotle is that wealth does not make a flute player the best fluter player, and that the same applies to who should rule. Aristotle’s argument is the negative argument that the richest flute player is not necessarily the best flute player and that the richest citizen is not necessarily the best ruler. I do not see that this contributes to what Sandel makes as a positive argument about that is natural to all humans. Why does he offer the flute example? Does he argue that the community, which in practice means the state, should find the best flutes and confiscate them, or subject them owners to compulsory purchase, so that they can be given to those the state continues to be the best players?

This is an argument for eliminating, or severely subordinating private property tights and market exchange, and an extreme level of collective intervention in the allocation of property and judgement of deservingness. It’s clear that Sandel does not argues for such an extreme denial of individual choice and property, but the example he gives might lead us to be suspicious that he has tendencies in that direction. Even from a very welfarist. or even socialist, point of view, surely collective action can be limited to establishing minimum standards of economic welfare, not minute judgements to who should own what?

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