Michael Sandel on Communitarianism and Liberalism

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.




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  1. #1 by jmeqvist on September 28, 2014 - 7:00 pm

    Great entry. I agree with your point about the dangers of Sandel’s reading of the republican tradition.

    But i would be interested if you think that the state needs a stake in the formation of the character of citizens? I do but from the perspective that certain qualities are necessary to preserve just institutions and democracy, rather than from the perspective that the state ought to inculcate certain traits that are inherently good. From my perspective the problem with Sandel’s argument is not that the state might inculcate certain traits but rather that the reasons underlying his proposal to inculcate civic virtues do not justify this action. It may be problematic that people do not recognize their obligations to the state, but this is not a strong enough reason to support the inculcation of particular character traits, whereas the preservation or achievement of a just and democratic society seems to be a strong enough reason to support the inculcation of certain virtues.

    On another note Sandel is particularly bad for assuming that theories determine reality, and in this I think he is deeply misguided. The rise of bureaucratic authority and the welfare state has as much to do with the imperatives of capitalism, as it does with the academic theory of procedural liberalism. Whenever I read Sandel I find myself mildly enraged at how little he pays attention to the development of capitalism as a determinate of social reality.

    Also, and this is unrelated to this blog, I find the opposition between liberalism and communitarians largely useless because there are many who are both liberals in the sense of broadly supporting the values of equality, liberty and autonomy but also communitarians in the sense that they recognize the importance of social embedding, and the relation of identity to communal belonging. My point being that there is no opposition between being an ontological communitarian and a political liberal. For example, I would say that Kwame Appiah, Joseph Raz, and arguably Charles Taylor belong to this group. You have said nothing to disagree with this, but I just want people to stop talking about liberals and communitarians in such stark binary terms.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on September 28, 2014 - 9:14 pm

      Very interesting and informative comments! Per your first remarks (on the other two I will register my agreement with your sentiments now, wish that I did have more to say about them), I must admit that I am still largely undecided, though I appreciate the distinction you make between your view and Sandel’s, and do find your view plausible. I suppose that for me everything turns on how active the state is in influencing agents to have the virtues that would allow for a just and democratic society. It seems the spectrum would run from merely providing the fair institutions and distributions of wealth that would be sufficient for persons to have the opportunities to reflect on their role and place in society as contributing members, and mandatory educational programs and services that would foster such virtues. On this spectrum I come down on the former side, where the role of the state is to provide social, political and economic conditions that allow for moral development of citizens. It should be remarked that this would be a radical shift in itself, at least in terms of the vast changes that would need to be made to my mind. If this is similar enough to the way you would run a spectrum of involvement by the state in inculcating virtues, where would you fall? If this spectrum is different than how you would construe it, how would you understand the range of options for encouraging such virtues?

      • #3 by jmeqvist on September 29, 2014 - 9:36 pm

        The notion of a spectrum that you refer to makes sense to me, but to be perfectly candid it is largely an empirical question as to what kind of activities by the state are necessary to promote these political virtues that are required to sustain just institutions. Of course I am horrified by the idea of re-education programs, and the state trying to actively mold a person such that that person has no stake in what kind of person they become. So, I probably sit close to you on this spectrum although I don’t have problem with mandatory universal citizen service or using allotment (sortition) to fulfill the needs of local government to an extent that extends beyond jury duty. I tend to agree with Aristotle that these virtues are something that is it is difficult to teach in a classroom as one would teach math, science or history, Instead these virtues are developed in and through practises within the community itself. These practises allow us to develop the habits necessary to respond responsibly to the world.

        Arendt’s essay “The Crisis of Education” does not speak to virtue per se, but I completely agree with her way of getting at the problem. She notes that education can tend towards two very distinctive problems. The first is the obvious one that liberals rightly decry in which the state tries to ensure that people have certain values, aspirations and qualities as these are necessary for the freedom of the state. This is the idea that the state has to force people to be free. On the other hand liberal societies sometimes go to the opposite pole which is in itself problematic and that is refusing to prepare children for responsibility for their society and the world. The idea that any attempt to guide children is paternalistic and therefore wrong is what underlies this attitude, and it fails because it does not prepare people to be participants in taking care of their society or the world at large. So, ultimately the aim in my view of the inculcation of virtue is to allow children to have the qualities necessary for them to be responsible caretakers for the world. This is wider than, but includes the ability to sustain just institutions.

        I will say a bit more as I know this is all a bit vague. One example of how education in particular fails to prepare us to take responsibility for the world is the way we are taught critical thinking. Critical thinking is taught as instrumental problem solving to a given end, rather than reflection on ends or values. One capacity we must have if we are too be capable of being responsible is the capacity for judgment and this requires us to have experience and practise at reflecting not merely on means, but on ends.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on September 30, 2014 - 8:48 pm

        Very fascinating, thanks for answering my questions on your view. I think I agree with your view then. Perhaps institutions encouraging youth to be involved in community service projects would be an appropriate example? In that it pushes youth to think about what they think would benefit their community and thus, their role in that community, in ways that encourage critical thinking about values.

  2. #5 by jmeqvist on September 28, 2014 - 7:02 pm

    Just noticed a typo – My point being that there is no opposition between being an ontological communitarian and a liberal. – Raz is clearly not a political liberal because of his perfectionism, but he is a liberal nonetheless.

  3. #6 by jmeqvist on October 4, 2014 - 4:38 pm

    Yes I agree. Encouraging youth to be involved in community service projects would fit in with the perspective that I outlined above.

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