Michael Sandel argues forcefully against ‘procedural’ liberalism on the grounds that it requires a notion of community that it in theory rejects in favor of individualism (“The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self” [henceforth PRUS], 91). That is not to say that procedural liberalism is not in practice individualistic, as Sandel posits that procedural liberalism’s individualism undermines democracy in that it aims to protect the individual from what the majority might will (PRUS, 94). Sandel argues that “oppositions to democracy” arise from procedural liberalism’s emphasis on political and social rights (Ibid). Yet, while these rights foster individualism, Sandel argues that they also force us into an, “array of dependencies and expectations we did not choose and increasingly reject” (Ibid). Thus, Sandel propounds that procedural liberalism contradicts itself in that its promotion of individual rights leads to less liberty.
To rectify this contradiction Sandel thinks that procedural liberalism should embrace the underlying influence of community in cultivating the character of citizens (“Liberalism and Republicanism: Friends or Foes? A Reply to Richard Dagger” [henceforth, L&R], 210). In so doing, procedural liberalism would recognize civic virtue as included in the conception of the good life for citizens (Ibid). Yet, as procedural liberalism denounces conceptions of the good life, Michael Sandel rejects procedural liberalism due to his thinking that, “procedural liberalism imposes heavy restrictions on the formative project” (L&R, 211), such that, procedural liberalism does not allow for policies that form civic virtue in citizens. But let us look at the progression of Sandel’s argument more closely.
Sandel criticizes procedural liberalism for its emphasis on the rights of persons, such that according to Sandel procedural liberalism propounds that, “I am free insofar as I am the bearer of rights, where rights are trumps” (PRUS, 94). He thinks that this emphasis on rights undermines democracy, positing that citizens claim their rights when they are disadvantaged by majority rule in a successful effort to trump the influence of the majority will. Sandel posits that the consequence of this is that, “power shifts away from democratic institutions (such as legislatures and political parties) and toward institutions designed to be insulated from democratic pressures, and hence better equipped to dispense and defend individual rights (notably the judiciary and bureaucracy)” (PRUS, 94). Sandel thinks that this emphasis on individual rights has lead to the modern welfare state, yet at the cost that demands are placed on the citizens to aid others via taxation (Ibid). He postulates that there thereby exists a tension between our rights as trumps and our obligations that we did not agree to (Ibid). As such, Sandel propounds that procedural liberalism fails because, “in our public life, we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before” (Ibid).
Michael Sandel argues that this tension between rights and obligations is further bolstered by procedural liberalism’s failure to affirm a conception of the good life in its defense of rights (L&R, 210). Sandel thinks that if the government would affirm a particular conception of the good life then the government would be vindicated in working towards the formative project of the republican tradition (Ibid). It would not have to be neutral towards the ends valued by citizens, but rather, it could, “seek social and political arrangements that cultivate in citizens certain habits and dispositions, or civic virtues” (Ibid). In so doing, the political community would be involved in the development of moral character in its citizens, which Sandel considers an integral part of a polity (Ibid). In this way, Sandel thinks that a flaw of procedural liberalism is that it does not affirm any conceptions of the good life, such that, “procedural liberalism imposes heavy restrictions on the formative project” (L&R, 211). Thus, Sandel argues that because procedural liberalism disallows for a conception of the good life, the political community is not involved in the development of moral character in the form of civic virtues in its citizens.
Thus, Michael Sandel criticizes procedural liberalism in The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self for creating a tension between individual rights and obligations, and for failing to allow the civic virtue of citizens to be developed by political communities in Liberalism and Republicanism: Friends or Foes? A Reply to Richard Dagger. Yet, perhaps in concluding it would be beneficial to connect the two articles. It seems that the tension between individual rights and obligations arise because citizens do not think that political obligations are moral obligations. Sandel would likely posit that indeed, citizens do not think that political obligations are moral obligations because their moral characters were not developed by the political community. If the political community was involved in the development of the moral character of citizens then citizens would have civic virtue. As Sandel considers that civic virtues are, “certain habits and dispositions” (L&R, 210), we might posit that citizens would have a disposition to aid their fellow citizens, such that they would not reject their obligations as invasive. Thus, it seems that procedural liberalism leads to a tension between individual rights and obligations because procedural liberalism restricts the development of civic virtue in citizens.
Yet, while Sandel’s critique of procedural liberalism may be valid, it is evident that his civic republicanism is a far worse option. Sandel argues that procedural liberalism has led to tension between individual rights and political obligations, such that citizens experience, “a formidable array of dependencies and expectations we did not choose and increasingly reject” (PRUS, 94). Perhaps this is so. Yet, it seems that, “the republican tradition [that] accords the political community an explicit stake in the moral character of its citizens” (L&R, 210), is far more invasive than political obligations. This thinking seems to exclude the possibility that citizens did not choose and could increasingly reject the social and political arrangements that cultivate in citizens certain habits and dispositions. In this way, Sandel posits that in order to solve the issue of citizens rejecting obligations that they did not choose, the political community should be involved in the formation of their moral characters, which they do not choose. This is insane! As such, we must reject Sandel’s civic republicanism as a solution to the critique that he levels against procedural liberalism.