Michael Sandel: Can Self-Government Survive?

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In 1990, political philosopher Michael Sandel taught the largest undergraduate class at Harvard. Called “Justice,” it fulfilled Harvard’s core curriculum requirement in moral reasoning. Leading his students through works by Plato, Aristotle, Locke and Immanuel Kant, he helped them understand that they have a stake in ideas about the common good, distributive justice, democracy, and the civic challenge of our times. In this episode of World of Ideas, Sandel discussed his views on what is needed for self-government to survive in modern times.


MICHAEL SANDEL: [lecturing] Does liberalism stand for the idea that government should be neutral on questions of the good life, on moral and religious questions, or does it depend on a different idea?

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] For eight years now, Michael Sandel has been teaching the largest class at Harvard University undergraduate program. Called “Justice,” it fulfills Harvard’s core curriculum requirement in moral reasoning. Students read Plato, Aristotle, Locke and Immanuel Kant, and learn there is something at stake for them in the discussion of ideas about the common good, distributive justice and democracy.

Michael Sandel earned his Ph.D. at Oxford in England, and while there began writing his book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. In this and other writings, Sandel is concerned with the civic challenge of our times: self-government.

[interviewing] What are the chief questions you think, from your perspective as a political philosopher, that we will be asking, we should be asking, as we move now toward the 21st century?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, I think the first question that we should ask is, is self-government possible under modern conditions, and if so, what do we need to do to revitalize it? And I don’t think that the answer to either of those questions is obvious. Is it possible? Is self-government even possible under modern conditions? Well, we know that a certain kind of minimal-not very demanding -democracy is possible.

BILL MOYERS: You vote for whomever you can identify on the ballot.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Right. We vote in elections. And I think there is a widespread sense that individually and collectively, we’re less in control of the forces that govern our lives. And this, notwithstanding the fact that individual rights and entitlements have actually expanded in recent years. I think there’s a-people have a sense that the enter something has gone wrong with the enterprise of self-government, that in virtue of power being located in distant places, in the bureaucratic state or in the corporate economy, people sense that they aren’t really in control of their lives, individually or collectively, that the enterprise of self-government is somehow impoverished.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that we’re facing a world that we can neither summon nor command, in our individual lives as well as collectively.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Yes. I think that the present generation was weaned on unrivaled American power in the world, and unprecedented growth in the domestic economy, and I think it comes as a source of great frustration, suddenly we no longer. seem to be the masters of our collective life or our individual life in the way that we had come to expect~

BILL MOYERS: That old notion in American mythology that the individual mattered, that I can signify, that I’m a part of this democratic enterprise, and that I am a self-governing individual in a self-governing political culture.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Yes. It’s-the individual matters, and he or she matters partly insofar as he or she is a citizen, a member of a political community in whose fate and about whose destiny the citizen has some meaningful say.

BILL MOYERS: I had an interesting experience, after reading one of your essays in which you talked about how de Tocqueville came here, he marveled at the town meetings, and he said the town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science, they bring it within the people’s reach. After I finished that article, I picked up The New York Times, and there was a major story about how the last town meeting in New England was being put away, put to rest, closed down for good. And I thought, what takes its place?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, I think that’s the question that our politics should be addressing. I don’t have a quick answer to it, but I think part of the difficulty with the reigning political agenda is that it’s in search of a public philosophy that isn’t readily available, that we can’t just take for granted. And the starting place for debating and arriving at a public philosophy would be to raise the question you’ve just raised, about what are the institutions of self-government, and what are the forms of political association that could provide for meaningful self-government and political participation? I don’t think we have an answer to that question. The problem is, our political debate hasn’t even been raising it as a question.

BILL MOYERS: In the little village where I live, a major American corporation recently was bought-sold itself to a German corporation, and one of the first things that German corporation did was to put up for sale a prize piece of historic and beautiful ground that is now threatened by development, and we really don’t know how to fight that, because we don’t know where our enemy is. They’re somewhere east of the Rhine.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Yes. Yes. And what the conservatives who argue for local community control miss is just this kind of case, that communities are undone and unraveled as much, at least as much, by capital flight and by the structure of the corporate economy as they are by distant judges and bureaucrats in Washington.

BILL MOYERS: And what does that do to the public philosophy, which is your chief concern? What impact does that have?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, for there to be genuine self-government, it’s not enough simply that people vote, that they go into voting places every four years or every two years and vote for this candidate over that, for this party over that. It’s necessary that they identify with some political community that actually can exercise some meaningful control over its own destiny. This goes back-back in the history of political thought to Aristotle’s idea, that what it meant to have a polis and to be a citizen of a polis wasn’t just to vote, wasn’t just to secure one’s own self-interest, but to share in public rule in common things, and that presupposes that there be cities or states or political communities that are in effective control of the forces that govern their lives.

BILL MOYERS: And those are largely gone with the suburbs overlapping, with the metroplex, now, is the description for the urban areas


BILL MOYERS: —one works in Manhattan and commutes two hours to Mount Kisco, or someplace like that.

MICHAEL SANDEL: That’s right. And the nation-state itself, which for most of the century! has been the primary form of political association, is under siege from two directions at once. From one direction, it’s not big enough, it’s not strong enough, really, to govern the economic forces that play such a part in modern economic life. But from the other direction, it’s too big, the nation-state seems too big, really, to command the allegiance and the conviction and the sense of identity that traditionally has gone with self-government and political community. And so, what we’re finding are people trying to give expression to public identities at levels smaller than the nation-state, ethnic, regional, national, linguistic identity. It’s true in Europe, and I think it’s also true in North America.

BILL MOYERS: Expound on that a little bit more. In what way? How-what form does this take?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, I think the Moral Majority made very much this point. It sensed, and it spoke to a sense there was a certain emptiness in American public life, that American public life was not a place where people could address larger questions of meaning. The impulse, it seems to me, was authentic and admirable, to try to have-to try to achieve a public-within public life a way of expressing larger concerns, moral meanings and a shared identity.

What was wrong with the Moral Majority is not that it tried to bring morality and religion into the public realm, but that it tried to impose a narrow, cramped vision of morality and religion.

BILL MOYERS: But what’s apparent to me is that if we’re not going to get a new sense of our public life from the militant moralism of the fundamentalist right, we’re also not going to get it from the militant secularism of the modern state.

MICHAEL SANDEL: I think that’s true. And I think that what makes-that the moral of the story, the Moral Majority, of the fundamentalist right, is not here, after all is another lesson, we have to banish religion and morality from public life, which was very much the impulse, the reflexive impulse of many mainstream politicians. The better response would be not to flee moral argument in politics, but to engage it, to make it better, to offer a richer, more pluralistic, more democratic moral vision, drawing, in some cases, on religious traditions and on religious arguments.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the moral base of this pluralism we Americans espouse? Is there a moral base beyond simply my respect for your differences and your respect for mine? Tolerance?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, I think there are two philosophic grounds for pluralism, one of them, to my mind, more compelling than the other. One philosophic ground for pluralism is, it’s a fact of our life. We’re never going to persuade people. We have different conceptions of the good life. So let’s just try to accommodate and put up with the diversity that’s hopelessly with us.

A second philosophical ground for pluralism is to appreciate the distinctive goods that these different ways of life represent. Not just to put up with them, but actually to try to cultivate, through the educational system, but also through the content of our political debate. To appreciate and to draw on, to draw energy from, the distinctive moral visions and religious traditions that comprise American pluralism.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I agree with that, but you’re running right into the buzz-saw of reality. Take just-let’s just take two examples, abortion and homosexuality. Abortion. The state says it’s the woman’s right to choose. And in taking that position, isn’t the state, in effect, saying that for those women who choose it, abortion is a good?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, not necessarily approving it as a moral good, but at least saying that it’s morally permissible, which is to reject-to say that abortion is morally permissible is to reject the position of the Catholic Church, for example, which says it isn’t. So it seems to me the way to address that issue is not to pretend to a neutrality that can never be achieved, but to try to draw on the various moral and religious arguments and traditions that confront that question politically.

BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that the state should play a positive role in bringing the different religious theologians and moral philosophers together to arrive at a definition of abortion that would be acceptable to the body politic?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, in the–yes, ideally. In the first instance, at the level of the Supreme Court, I think that it’s disingenuous of judges trying to decide this question to deny that they have to confront the moral and religious questions that arise. And politically, yes, I think the debate would be informed and enriched and perhaps made more politically manageable if we were to explicitly admit into political discourse the competing moral and religious views, rather than to try to set them aside.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t that what the court did when it said that abortion is permissible in the first trimester of life? It was saying, in effect, that abortion is morally permissible during that period of time, and after the first trimester it’s not morally permissible. So the government the Supreme Court, as one arm of the government, was in fact doing what you have suggested.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, they were doing what I suggested, in that they were taking a moral stand, in that respect. But what they weren’t doing was being explicit that they were taking a moral stand, that in deciding the question of abortion, they were unavoidably making a judgment that was consistent with some moral and religious views, and inconsistent with others.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t that the necessary strain of a democratic state, that you cannot choose between the Catholic position on abortion and the Congregational position on abortion? Can you expect the Supreme Court to do that?

MICHAEL SANDEL: The question is whether the Supreme Court can do otherwise. And so it seems to me the question is, how explicit, to what extent should the Supreme Court acknowledge what it can’t avoid doing, namely, making decisions about law that presuppose some answer to the moral and religious question. Let me give you an example that’s far removed from the abortion case and that, for most people, cuts the other way.

Back in 1858, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, there was a case there, too, was a debate about to what extent moral judgment should play a part in political decisions. It wasn’t a judicial case, but it was a political debate between Lincoln and Douglas. And Douglas’s position was precisely parallel to the position of those who today say let’s keep moral and religious convictions out of political debate. He said, “Let’s not take a stand on the morality of slavery, let’s just leave that to the territories to decide for themselves.”

Lincoln said, “That’s wrong. You can’t set aside moral questions from political questions.” Slavery should be treated as the moral wrong it is, and so, though he wasn’t an abolitionist, Lincoln argued it should be banned from the territories.

BILL MOYERS: And the parallel today is?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, the parallel is that people who argue for the woman’s right to choose want also to say that they’re not making any moral judgment, that the state shouldn’t make any moral judgment at all. I’m sympathetic to their actual position, but I disagree that you can really defend that position without acknowledging that you are taking a stand in a moral and religious controversy. So in that respect, I think Lincoln’s position, in his debate with Douglas, that morality has to play a part in politics, actually argues for those who would say the abortion question can’t be separated from the moral and religious controversy that surrounds it.

BILL MOYERS: You’re certainly arguing that the state shouldn’t be neutral on these issues.

MICHAEL SANDEL: No. I don’t think the state can be or should be neutral. I think-

BILL MOYERS: On moral issues.

MICHAEL SANDEL: -on moral issues. I think that public life is itself a kind of, at its best, public life is a kind of education, of civic education. And the relevant education for the questions we’ve been discussing, toleration and pluralism, is in education in the appreciation of distinctive ways of life. The content of the pluralism, not just the fact of it, is something that our public life should address and appreciate.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you say that in recent years liberalism has faltered because of its failure to argue for a vision of the common good? Why has that happened?

MICHAEL SANDEL: I think partly it’s for laudable reasons. After all, liberalism, from the time of the New Deal to our time, has been combating some genuine and seemingly intractable ills. One of them is racism. And in fighting the civil rights battles, local autonomy, local control was often a code word for racism and prejudice. And so liberals rightly wanted to argue for rights that would be the rights of all American citizens, and appealed to the federal government, not only in the case of racial questions, but also as the list of rights, social and economic rights expand. If I have a right to something, see, if I have a right to free speech, it can’t be one thing in New York and another thing in Alabama.

But what happens when what counts as a right is enlarged, beyond legal and political rights? The right to a trial by jury, say. To social and economic rights. To a minimum income, for example, or a minimum level of education for my children. Well, the more rights expand, the greater is the tendency to provide them at the most comprehensive level of political association, which for us has meant the nation. But that has the effect of-in a good cause, nonetheless has the effect of draining political importance from smaller forms of political association. I think that’s one reason that contemporary liberals have not been as alive as they might be to the importance to self-government of local communities and particular attachments.

BILL MOYERS: So the only flaw of liberalism, as I listen to you -and I don’t mean the liberal Democratic party -the argument, the philosophic argument -the only flaw is not simply that by attending to needs at the national level, we are neglecting the localism of America. That’s not the only flaw, is it?

MICHAEL SANDEL: No. No, it’s that the reason for worrying about local communities and de Tocqueville’s town meetings isn’t just because they were a place where people felt good and could be more intimate and experience politics less impersonally. Not that. Not even primarily that. It’s that smaller forms of political association and of community life are necessary if public life is to have a genuinely civic dimension, if it’s to. address the moral character of citizens, without indoctrinating from a great distance, imposing values that people may not genuinely share. So it’s community for the sake of a civic project that is the-that’s my concern, and that seems to be missing from the reigning public philosophy.

BILL MOYERS: You’re not arguing that we put something back in the bottle that no longer exists, are you?

MICHAEL SANDEL: No. And that’s the difficult thing about it. I think it may be that geographical location may no longer be available as a primary source of community. And so–and-

BILL MOYERS: I think it is.

MICHAEL SANDEL: -but then the question is, what other forms of genuine political community in public life, less expansive than the nation state, are available? And some of the answers may come from religious traditions. Others may come from social movements, from protest movements. One of the shining examples of political communities that actually did provide an exercise in civic education is the civil rights movement. Now, there was a regional aspect, but it was not, as a movement, tied to a particular community. And yet that social movement wasn’t just a way of achieving certain ends politically, though it was surely that. It was also itself in the debates, in the arguments and in the sympathies and public awareness that it generated, it was itself an embodiment of the kind of civic life that citizenship in a democracy ideally realizes. A richer notion of democracy, and one that has genuine roots in the American political tradition, is one that attends to the habits and dispositions of its citizens and worries if they become too oriented toward narrow self-interest, and tries, through the shape of public life as well as the content of education, to try to enlarge those habits and those sympathies, to orient them to the common good, away from purely private pursuits.

BILL MOYERS: You say the common good. What’s your working definition of that commonly spoken and uncommonly misunderstood term?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Yes. Yes. Well, I don’t have a quick answer. If I did, it would preempt the very kind of democratic debate that I’m arguing for.

BILL MOYERS: So your point is, we’re not even debating the common good now, that we’re so caught up in providing and protecting rights-


BILL MOYERS: -that we’ve lost the purpose of public life that lies beyond individual interest.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Right. There is a long tradition in political thought, and even within the American political tradition, that sees liberty as depending on self-government, but self-government as depending on cultivating in citizens an orientation to the common good, to shared pursuits, that thrashing out in public life the most important decisions that govern their collective destiny. The challenge is to find forms of community and of shared identity that aren’t just inward looking, that don’t simply define themselves vis-a-vis outsiders. And this is always a great danger, in trying to figure out what forms of community life could serve the larger enterprise of meaningful self-government in the context of the American nation.

And I think what struck de Tocqueville about the New England town meeting was not just its coziness or its quaintness, which very often strikes us in retrospect, but here was a form of local life where people felt that they had some stake in the fate of their community. They shared a common life with their fellow citizens, but it was a form of particularity, of localism, that pointed or gestured outward as well as inward. The qualities it cultivated in its members -the concern for common things, the responsibility for the whole, the experience in exercising power and asserting rights -that these qualities gestured outward and made for better American citizens, not just narrow, insular, parochial citizens of some small New England town.
And a great many communities lack just this feature. They may have a very strong sense of internal belonging, but they don’t cultivate the qualities that gesture outward and that make for the kind of more expansive citizenship that contemporary democratic life requires. And that raises the question how the structure of modern life, economic life and political life, could possibly address the structure to address the ambition of self-government under modern conditions.

BILL MOYERS: So philosophy is not irrelevant to what we face in the next 10 years of our society, right?

MICHAEL SANDEL: I don’t think so. To the contrary, I think the more the aspirations for self-government and the frustrations in the face of seeming disempowerment go unanswered, the more pressing will be just these philosophical questions.

BILL MOYERS: But a lot of people say, well, that’s just theory, without realizing that we all live a little theory every day, don’t we?

MICHAEL SANDEL: We do. I go back to Thomas Jefferson. He was worried about the shape and the structure of the economy, and whether it would undermine the possibility of civic virtue and independent citizenship. He argued against large-scale domestic manufacturing in the United States. He said: “Let all sweatshops remain in Europe. Let them have the proletariat class, the urbanization that saps citizenship and democratic possibilities. Let us instead favor free trade and be an agrarian country.” So that–not just so that economic growth would be greater, not just so that we could consume more and GNP would be spurred. But primarily, Jefferson said, so that we will preserve the qualities of character, the habits and dispositions necessary to independent citizenship.

BILL MOYERS: And Jefferson lost.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, he lost and he won. He lost in the sense that the specific vision he had, the agrarian vision, became hopelessly outmoded even in his own lifetime. But even once it did, the terms on which the industrial economy would be organized continued to be a subject of debate. And from this point of view, a debate from the standpoint of the citizens it would create, even well into the 19th century and up to the time of the Civil War, and in the time even of FDR, there were debates about how to restructure the economy to make it more hospitable to genuine democratic political community. And so it’s really only since World War II that this concern has dropped out of our political debate, and I think that we would do well to pick up that tradition, to revitalize democratic political debate in our country.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This has been a conversation with Michael Sandel. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.

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