Before I read Michael Sandel’s book, Justice: What’s the right thing to do?, I hadn’t realised that I was once a Kantian. That was before I became a utilitarian, libertarian and then classical liberal. Sandel hasn’t persuaded me to become a communitarian, but he has challenged me to think some more about just conduct and limits to individual freedom.
Communitarians argue that we can’t reason about justice by abstracting from, or setting setting aside, our personal aims and attachments. For example, they seem to be saying that it is fruitless to ask ourselves what rules of society we would favour behind a veil of ignorance that made us unaware of our own personal circumstances.
The particular issue I want to focus on here is whether our perceptions of identity, based on our individual life stories, make us all communitarians. Sandel follows Alasdair MacIntyre in arguing that we can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’, if we can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’. In terms of this perception, moral deliberation is more about interpreting your life story than exerting your will.
I see no problem in going down that path. It seems to me to be appropriate to think about personal morality in terms of life stories and personal identity. That approach is consistent with the following views previously supported on this blog:
- Jonathan Haidt’s view that hiving comes naturally, easily and joyfully to humans, and serves the function of bonding individuals together into communities of trust, cooperation, and even love;
- the identity economics of George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton which suggests that people gain utility when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity (or social category e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) and lose utility when they do not; and
- the social intuitionist view of Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund that moral beliefs and motivations come from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop and that these intuitions then enable and constrain the social construction of virtues and values.
So, where do I part company with Michael Sandel? I leave him at the point he proposes that governments should use coercion in an attempt to strengthen a sense of community. For example, he proposed increased taxes on the wealthy “to rebuild public institutions and services so that rich and poor alike would want to take advantage of them”. He puts that forward as a remedy for a perceived problem arising from the growing inequality: a tendency for rich and poor to live separate lives, which tends to undermine the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires.
I am prepared to accept that some coercion is necessary to oblige all citizens meet obligations that are imposed on them according to democratic processes that are supported by the vast majority. The democratic system would break down if individuals were permitted to choose to disobey laws without incurring a penalty. The legitimacy of the system is enhanced by rules that enable people who do not like existing processes to propose constitutional changes, or to seek some other country to live that has a system of government that is more to their liking.
However, respect for the system of government is not enhanced by forcing people to fund facilities that they would prefer not to use. Such action is more likely to fragment a community than to promote social cohesion. When wealthy people have the option to escape high taxes by moving their business activities to a different jurisdiction, they often choose to do so. Some even change their country of residence.
More fundamentally, I think Sandel under-estimates the ability of individuals to set aside their own personal circumstances and interests when considering issues such as the provision of a social safety net, funding of public services, and taxation of wealth. Steven Pinker is probably correct in the view he expressed, in The Better Angels of our Nature, (discussed here) that an "escalator of reason" has provided a basis for taking intuitive moral foundations beyond family and tribal loyalties as education levels have risen and skills in abstract reasoning have improved.
The escalator of reason involves ascending to the vantage point of an impartial spectator (i.e. detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint). Pinker argues that a value system in which human flourishing is the ultimate good can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation.
As I have previously argued, rather than seeking to promote community solidarity through coercive means we should be seeking to reinforce voluntary social cooperation.