by Harry on November 30, 2009

Talking of political philosophers’ job descriptions, Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (UK) has been out for a while now, but only just reviewed in the NYT (by Jonathan Rauch). It has the virtues that Sandel has honed over the years (and were notably absent from his first, influential, book): he has the remarkable ability to keep things clear and complex at the same time, and resists the temptation to repeat himself for the sake of the ungenerous or slow-witted reader. Rauch is right that the chapter on Kant is a gem, but equally striking is the chapter on Rawls which is accurate (as the earlier book wasn’t always), fair-minded, and to the point (and even, at the end, inspiring). The Economist review says, that he nudges the reader toward Aristotle, by being harder on the consequentialist and Kant-inspired accounts of justice, but that’s not really my read of the book: unless his experience has been radically different from mine, he believes that his students (and, probably, many of his readers) are unduly reluctant to incorporate a concern with personal virtue into their judgments and the book attempts to overcome that bias, putting the different accounts on a more level playing field. Every page makes some real world or literary reference that will be familiar to the non-philosophical reader. A couple of social scientist friends have recommended it to me as something to recommend to other social scientists as an excellent introduction to the field. (Update: See also George’s typically excellent critical review here).

But more to the point, his TV show is almost all up online now, free.

I’ve only watched the first and eleventh episodes, which are both brilliant: the rest will wait till the break when my eldest has time to watch them with me. I’ve not been to see him teach this course, and now I probably won’t bother (at least I read the book). I have to say that his teaching seems superb — at the start he looks a bit of a showman, but that impression disperses quickly, and it must be the case that most of the students in the class are thinking most of the time during the class. His certainty that the class will not get away from him when he hands it over to the students, and (justified) confidence that he can structure things so that they teach each other are… awesome.

A question occurred to me while I was watching it: will the fact that we can all watch Sandel doing this now, on TV, radically improve the quality of moral philosophy teaching at American universities in the coming year or so?

(Parenthetically, this might be a good moment to thank Alan Bostick for his acerbic comment 4 years ago that had a substantial impact on the way that I teach).



Russell Arben Fox 11.30.09 at 12:36 pm

I picked up an advance copy at the APSA meeting last Septemeber, and I agree with the praise: it’s an excellent introductory work. So much so, Harry, that I fear I may use it in place of your introductory book the next time I teach my Christianity and Social Justice course. (It’s longer than yours, but reads just as well.) Sorry!


mollymooly 11.30.09 at 12:42 pm

“…resists the temptation to repeat himself for the sake of the ungenerous or slow-witted reader”

That’s off my list, then. I can’t read books like that. I need to have the point made and remade. I never get it the first time. Constant repetition is the only way for the likes of me. Eventually I’ll get there, but it takes time.


Harry 11.30.09 at 12:55 pm

No, you shouldn’t take it like that. I’m like you — Sandel’s non-repetition is only a virtue because, in fact, you will get it the first time!


Harry 11.30.09 at 12:57 pm

I missed Russell’s comment in responding to mollymooly. Well, I do understand the choice, Russell, and especially in the context of your course I think his is a better introduction to moral thinking in general (you might want to hang on to chapter 2 of my book, though, which would fit reasonably well with his. I think it is kosher to pdf it and supply it to the students…).


Matt 11.30.09 at 1:01 pm

I heard him a bit on the radio a few days ago- on NPR thought I don’t recall what show, on an interview and call-in show. I didn’t know it was him at first (I turned it on when I got in the car, part-way in) and soon was thinking, “hmm, this is very good- sophisticated and much more clear than what you normally would hear even on better radio.” He was very clear and respectful with the callers as well. When I realized it was Sandel I felt a bit bad because I’ve never much liked him- I didn’t like his first book much at all and thought that several of the essays in Public Philosophy were unfair, superficial, and scolding, and that his _Case Against Perfection_ sounded too Kassian for me. (His first BBC lecture, discussed here in the past, made me more worried about this.) But this discussion made me much more sympathetic and willing to look at the Justice book. It was really a good discussion.


Bill Gardner 11.30.09 at 1:05 pm

“A question occurred to me while I was watching it: will the fact that we can all watch Sandel doing this now, on TV, radically improve the quality of moral philosophy teaching at American universities in the coming year or so?”

Or does it herald a massive downsizing of the academy?


Sherman Dorn 11.30.09 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the recommendation! I will admit that I am skeptical of virtue ethics primarily because the politics of virtue ethics in K-12 schools is nasty — because teachers have been presumed to be role models in the U.S. for well over a century, the primary qualifications for decades was anything but academics, and that is STILL true for those who specialize in teaching students with disabilities. Teachers in special education are “caring,” “patient,” … anything but knowledgeable and disciplined. It’ll be interesting to see if Sandel can nudge me off that.


Jacob Rus 11.30.09 at 2:34 pm

A few thoughts:

Watching one of these videos was quite a trip, since they’re from my sophomore year, when I and many friends took Sandel’s course. It’s startling to see the camera zoom in on our faces.

Note that the videos do not include the full content of the lectures, but have been edited down. In particular, I think a fair amount of the student commentary has been condensed, and awkward pauses and slow transitions eliminated. Clipping some student questions and answers probably serves the videos, but might leave a misleading impression of how the lectures flowed originally.

I’m of somewhat mixed minds about students “teaching each-other” during a large lecture. I think it was useful for Sandel, rhetorically, but many, myself often included, were frustrated by the amount of time spent on it. Sometimes the questions were fantastic, to be sure, but just as often they were inane or redundant. I do think you’re right though that most of the students who showed up to lectures were awake and paying attention most of the time.

Sandel’s “office hours” were worth even more than the lectures, I think, or than the weekly hour-long discussion sections, and I regret only going to them a handful of times. Instead of 50 minutes in a giant lecture (over 1k students were enrolled; at least many hundreds showed up regularly to lecture), they were conducted as a sort of seminar, a couple hours long, with about 15 or 20 students. For all that Sandel is an excellent lecturer, he’s even better in smaller conversation.

Whatever anyone says about large courses, it’s fantastic to have a conversation-provoking courses like this include nearly a sixth of the student body. Everywhere on campus arguments about moral philosophy could be overheard at mealtimes.


Jacob Rus 11.30.09 at 2:36 pm

I’m not sure why all of my paragraph breaks were eaten in the previous comment (I suppose paragraphs aren’t supposed to start with ‘-‘ characters?), but the powers that be should feel free to fix them.


Harry 11.30.09 at 2:53 pm


Thanks for all that. I figured there was a fair bit of editing, but its good to know that he is not quite as absolutely brilliant as it makes him seem. What a waste that so many of those students go on to Wall Street.

The other huge advantage of large courses is that, even if done less well, they free up capacity for teaching smaller courses. If universities choose to use the capacity that way.


John Meredith 11.30.09 at 2:56 pm

I think it is superb that these are being put up for free like this. If this sets a precedent it will surely challenge the role of the university as a distributer of learning.

I also thought he came across as a great teacher but I was a bit surprised (from watching only the first one) by the level. This didn’t feel like undergraduate level teaching to me, much more like sixth form, although I would expect to be able to do most of this with younger students as well if they were bright. Perhaps it gets tougher as it goes along but it did strike me as odd that so many clever young people at a prestigious university seemed to find trolley dilemmas new and unnerving.


Jacob Rus 11.30.09 at 2:57 pm

(Just for clarification, the awkward pauses and slow transitions I mentioned were in student comments and the back-and-forth. Sandel’s speaking is pretty much like it seems. :-)


Harry 11.30.09 at 3:21 pm

I refer John Meredith to Sherman Dorn’s comment #7.

More seriously, I was not surprised by it (having taught a lot of this stuff myself to pretty smart and sophisticated students). I agree that the level of teaching seems suited for good sixth formers. In his blurb for the book George Will says that reading it is like taking the course but without all the bad bits, like term papers and exams. I assume (but Jacob can tell us!) that the papers and exams are quite demanding, and that what is happening is that the students are learning differently in the lectures from in the discussion sections and in the reading and writing. (In other words, that the papers and exams are not downsides, but contribute to the learning experience).


Russell Arben Fox 11.30.09 at 3:41 pm

I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with the class, Harry; I just know that after this year, I’m going to rework it extensively. I’ve like your book very much–and it’s gone over with the students quite well–because it lays down, in dense but accessible technical language, the bare specifics of many of the central secular perspectives on justice which I want my students to be aware of, before we go on to examine the Biblical and Christian traditions of justice themselves. The thing is, I feel like the students may need more than just your clear, concise descriptions; they may need a greater appreciation of how these ideas play out historically, and with real-world examples. Hence, Sandel’s approach. Even if I do choose his book, I probably won’t assign all of it: maybe chapters 2 (utilitarianism), 3 (libertarianism), 5 (Kant), 6 (Rawls), and 8 (Aristotle) would be it. We’ll see.


North 11.30.09 at 5:22 pm

@ Sherman Dorn: my read of virtue ethics (having read some other Sandel and a fair amount of Aristotle and other neo-Aristotelians, but not being a philosopher) is that the virtues that are important to Aristotle are only tangentially related to what we think of as virtues today. The modern virtues are things like kindness and patience and chastity, disproportionately associated with the social mores of a young Victorian woman. Aristotle would have seen intellectual curiosity (with which you get knowledge) and discipline and courage and even, in the right situation, aggression as virtues. At least in the version I learned, virtue ethics is about applying the right positive personal qualities (or virtues) to a situation, rather than relying on rule-based and impersonal decision-making.

Thus, my beef with the view you describe of teaching is not so much that it tries to identify personal qualities which will help teachers do their work well, and more that it identifies the wrong qualities. There’s quite a bit of gendered history in there, too.


LFC 11.30.09 at 7:26 pm

I’ve watched several of the lectures online (though sometimes in pieces and not in chronological order).
I thought the most interesting of those I saw was the session devoted partly to the case of conscription (the draft), pro and con. This is obviously a question in which many of the students have potentially a very direct stake, and one on which I thought Sandel made his own position — namely, that it is unjust to rely on an all-volunteer army, especially in wartime — fairly clear. He didn’t say that verbatim, but I thought it was clear anyway. (I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how Sandel handles the draft issue there.) Perhaps Jacob Rus, who was sitting in Sanders Theater at the time, can tell me whether my impression of this class on the draft vs. volunteer army tallies with his own.


Chris Bertram 11.30.09 at 8:04 pm

Just watched 11 on associative obligations, as I lectured on that myself last week, so have sent the link to all my students. I found it pedagogically excellent, and the heightened contrasts between different forms of the universal-local dilemma (from snitching on a cheat through to Robert E. Lee) was dramatically really effective. Contentwise, I found myself slightly disappointed by the fact that there were (to my mind) important options he neglected, such as Goodin’s assigned responsibility model. I also don’t think that British students (or Euro students more generally) would have been so agonised by a contrast between patriotism and universalism. That, or the intensity of it, seems especially marked in Americans (and hence over-represented in contemporary political philosophy). But I’m quibbling – it was terrific.


bianca steele 11.30.09 at 8:06 pm

I spent some time with Sandel’s critique of Rawls, trying to figure it out. ASIR he leaned heavily on an argument that Rawls pays too little attention to issues of as-it-were personal integrity, almost as if talents themselves (and even perhaps needs and desires) could be redistributed throughout society as the rulers might wish, rather than each talent, bit of knowledge or skill, and so forth being quite tightly tied to its individual holder. I find it difficult and indeed basically impossible to believe Rawls could possibly have believed that, and it seems like an exaggeration of a basically libertarian point that also applies for example to taxation. If it’s correct, though, I’ll have to give Sandel another chance, and maybe should move this book farther up my list.


Lm 11.30.09 at 8:08 pm

It is interesting to me that a book titled Justice doesn’t speak at all to/of/about the Left. At least, that is what I glean from the table of contents and index. Might be interesting to those of a non-liberal persuasion to read this for an account/critique “inside the church”.


bianca steele 11.30.09 at 8:09 pm

As support for my probable misreading not being quite as bizarre as it admittedly appears, I’ll offer a character in Infinite Jest who’s said to believe his celibacy contributes to the virility of other men.


joe koss 11.30.09 at 9:18 pm

“will the fact that we can all watch Sandel doing this now, on TV, radically improve the quality of moral philosophy teaching at American universities in the coming year or so?”

How about in our high schools as well?! My current placement at a non-traditional setting with high school seniors allows great latitude in subject matter, and I was just putting together a unit on moral reasoning (unquestionably something that all students should engage with before graduating), complete with discussion of the two moral principles, moral dilemmas (Sandelian, Kolbergian and otherwise) and even a showing of a educational film (maybe Alive or Do the Right Thing).
(other suggestions accepted)

The Sandel lectures are a goldmine! I can already envision whole units centered around select readings and parts of his lectures. Heck, a whole semester course: spend a day or two reading, discussing and preparing the students, watch a part of a lecture, spend a day or two unpacking. Have a few in class essay assignments, book project and final paper or project. You could cover 18 weeks very quickly, but you would have to convince your principle to sign off on it.

In my attempt to legitimate the unit, I even found a national (US) standard to fit:
IA-6.1 Discuss psychology’s roots in philosophy and natural science.
c. Analyzing how philosophical issues become psychological when tested empirically

This, of course, assumes you believe these types of things should be taught in schools…


Jeffrey D. Rubard 11.30.09 at 9:49 pm

Leaving the question of German archaisms to one side for a second, infantilizers, please to consider the wisdom of Edmund White’s observation “for the aged, pornography is a substitute for eroticism” and its consequences for didonai diken non Holbo.


Steve LaBonne 11.30.09 at 11:36 pm

This review includes a shrewd critique of the vacuousness of Sandel’s carefully fuzzed-up version of communitarianism.


engels 12.01.09 at 12:20 pm

It’s a great course. And Sandel has been teaching it for decades to packed lecture theatres of 1000 or more Harvard students. The kinds of people who will go on, later in their lives (or indeed sooner in their lives), to top positions in American government, finance and industry. And yet looking around these kinds of circles today you could be forgiven to thinking that whatever ideas or forces have been shaping the way in which they have been run, a concern for Justice has not really been among them. I can’t help thinking that something has gone badly wrong…


harry b 12.01.09 at 1:41 pm

Come on engels, the real engels would not think that anything had gone badly wrong; he’d think (as I do) that the world is working exactly as predicted…


LFC 12.01.09 at 2:56 pm

engels@24: If a course like this has any concrete, lasting impact at all on the future behavior of the majority of students (and I think such an assumption is questionable), then I’d suggest it’s the sort of impact that will appear more on the margins, in the context of smallish decisions, rather than in terms of changing the basic character of “American government, finance, and industry.”
Moreover, how many of these students will end up in “top positions” in government and business? Some will, of course, but probably a lot fewer than you think. Even if you define “top positions” quite broadly, there are not that many of them, and the people who end up filling them have gone to a fairly wide variety of schools — even if, as is no doubt the case, the Ivy League and certain other elite institutions continue to be over-represented.


Mike T. 12.01.09 at 4:21 pm

This is an apt time to be discussing Sandel—isn’t the Swiss move to ban minarets just the kind of thing communitarians favor?


Steve LaBonne 12.01.09 at 4:32 pm

This is an apt time to be discussing Sandel—isn’t the Swiss move to ban minarets just the kind of thing communitarians favor?

I would rather say it’s the kind of predictable consequence of communitarianism that Sandel pretends to be unable to foresee, while claiming that he just wants to reinvigorate liberalism.


bianca steele 12.01.09 at 5:02 pm

On some readings, banning minarets in a non-theocratic state is absolutely not communitarian. Communitarian would be permitting each ethnic group its own rules. Therefore, Orthodox Jews and Muslims may have single-sex schools at municipal expense. Similarly, perhaps, Catholics (as well as agnostics and Christians of other denominations) might perhaps have vouchers to attend their church-subsidized, thus low-tuition private schools; evangelicals can attend their newer similar schools, again with taxpayer support; etc. So the Swiss government’s actions all seem justifiable on communitarian grounds; they are supporting their own community, and supporting the community of Iranians who (have a communitarian right to) believe their actions are not terroristic.

Sandel actually demurs from being lumped in with the communitarians, but then attempts to sketch a kind of communitarianism he would be willing to assent to: a communitarianism the mores of which are founded in ethical principles, or at least subject to critique from ethical principles. As I think Samuel Moyn points out in his Nation review, what Sandel doesn’t specify is where and by whom the critique will be conducted. It seems to be taken on faith that the critique is conducted in the correct place and according to correct principles.


bianca steele 12.01.09 at 5:04 pm

Also, wrt the “fantasy” thread, on a strict deontological view, Ender’s actions can presumably be read as, if not quite moral, then not strictly immoral. He didn’t believe he was killing actual people. And though (going on the summary posted on the thread) he did show willingness to kill real people in the real world, perhaps he also showed during his training period that he was a good person, not a murderer, someone who would actually never therefore kill people in the real world. (?)


Chris Bertram 12.01.09 at 5:09 pm

#27, 28. Not very compelling objections: it is a predictable consequence of freedom of speech that some people will say stupid or malicious things. It is a predictable consequence of democracy, that people will sometimes vote for bad leaders or policies. And so on.


Steve LaBonne 12.01.09 at 5:53 pm

#31: but there’s a crucial difference, in my opinion. The things you cite are unintended consequences (and, moreover, a rather trivial one in the case of unattractive speech by individuals who don’t have state power behind them.) The exclusion (or worse) of “others”, on any honest account of human psychology, is an integral and inevitable part of exalting communal solidarity as the ideal basis of morality.


Steve LaBonne 12.01.09 at 6:06 pm

I would also add that the worst elected leaders in democracies have tended to be precisely those who owe their success to calculated communitarian appeals (e.g., the Swiss People’s Party).


Chris Bertram 12.01.09 at 7:18 pm

_The things you cite are unintended consequences_

You think Sandel _intends_ minaret banning?


Steve LaBonne 12.01.09 at 7:28 pm

You think Sandel intends minaret banning?

No, it’s perhaps even worse than that in a way- he knows damn well at some level that such things are an inevitable consequences of founding morality on community solidarity, thus he carefully and deliberately evades, and has evaded lo these many years, the issue of just which community’s vision of the good life we’re all supposed to be subject to (while- extra chutzpah points here!- simultaneously criticizing liberals for their supposed fixation on value neutrality.) A perfect example is his soft spot for the influence of religion in public life, supported by citing liberal-friendly examples like MLK Jr., while managing never to seriously address the overwhelmingly right-wing and punitive nature of political religion in the country he just happens to live in. That takes some gall.


novakant 12.01.09 at 9:49 pm

The US/UK have killed a couple of hundred thousand Iraqis in the past couple of years – I don’t know what “the right thing to do” is in such a case, but have a hunch that it might be overthrowing the governments that do such things, rather than giving young people the false impression that they can affect major change by adjusting their personal behaviour.


Barbar 12.01.09 at 11:31 pm

Wait, isn’t the “which community gets to decide what is just” question the obvious critique of communitarianism? As in, the sort of critique that gets immediately voiced when Sandel asks his 1,000-undergraduate audience for an opinion? I listened to an entire semester’s worth of lectures from his class and my one-line takeaway was something like “justice can’t be neutral.” I don’t recall any pleading for basing justice purely on community solidarity (“the Holocaust was really OK because of its unifying effect”), but rather arguments to the effect that our moral values are fundamentally linked to our community attachments, which we can also change and modify to some extent. Was I missing something?


Harry 12.02.09 at 12:54 am

I think Barbar has it. Sandel is, in the course and the book, asking us to make judgments based on a weighing of reasons, which reasons will include the value of connection and attachment, but also many others. I agree, very much, that a book he wrote 30 years ago contains several statements and passages which, if you took them seriously as the basis of a political philosophy, would have pretty awful consequences. And if someone had said (as no-one has) that that book has had some pretty lamentable effects on the thinking of scholars in other disciplines who simply jumped on Sandel’s critique of Rawlsian liberalism uncritically, I’d agree with that too. I was pointing to this book, and (without watching them all) this set of lectures. I thought Moyn’s review was marred by the imputation to Sandel of things that he knows Sandel has said in the past (and by a kind of indirectness and erudition that makes it hard for a simpleton like me to follow)


zdenekv 12.02.09 at 5:57 am

Harry says “See also George’s typically excellent critical review …” but this is what George says about Kant’s ethics : ” Kant’s transcendental idealism is simply dead in the water, like St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God. They are philosophical relics, as phlogiston and the ether are scientific relics.” What ? Is the guy serious ? Kant’s constructivism is most certainly not a relic comparable to phlogiston . On the contrary the idea is flourishing in the work of Rawls , Korsgaard , Scanlon and many others.


Chris Bertram 12.02.09 at 7:27 am

_perhaps even worse than that in a way_

So a political philosopher who underplays the possibly bad implications of his views is “possibly even worse” than someone who intends an actual bit of minority oppression?


novakant 12.02.09 at 8:04 am

So a political philosopher who underplays the possibly bad implications of his views is “possibly even worse” than someone who intends an actual bit of minority oppression?

Well, in a way (note the qualifier) the Democrats are worse than the GOP and “New Labour” is worse than the Tories, because they do essentially the same stuff only with better marketing, the latter giving people the warm and fuzzy feeling of change for the better occurring while it isn’t really. If you are at my stage of disillusionment this is worse – in a way.


zdenekv 12.02.09 at 9:00 am

With the Swiss vote, the communitarian chickens have come home to roost, but what about Sandel’s Mark 2 communitarianism to which he has added some epicycles ? Its not clear how the new Sandel would answer this question because its not clear whether his new position is coherent. It seems to me that as long as Sandel continues to hold on to the old communitarian guiding idea of his that shared values , community attachments and ‘situatedness’ are crucial he has no way to salvage the idea that in conflict cases ( where attachments to culture will conflict with what justice requires as it does in the Swiss case ) there is some notion of justice that is independent of these community attachments. Why should those who voted ‘yes’ feel that their obligation to the Swiss constitution trumps their obligation to what their community says is the right thing to so with which they identify and feel solidarity with ? As is clear from episode 11 Michael Sandel recognizes this type of problem but he has no working solution to these types of conflicts and he seems to be faced with a dilemma : embrace the old communitarian solution and go with the community or go with reason which is able to detach itself from community . The thing is that if he adopts the first solution then he has not added anything new to his old position , whereas if he opts for the second he has completely abandoned communitarian project.


Chris Bertram 12.02.09 at 9:19 am

I’m glad to read, Zdenek, that you’ve worked out a system for deciding what to do in cases of conflict between two genuine and irreducible values, the attractions of both of which you recognize. But don’t be too hard on poor Sandel. He is, after all, only in the same position as the rest of us who either have no systematic idea how to do this or who have tried and failed. I do hope a top university recognizes your genius soon.


zdenekv 12.02.09 at 9:56 am

“…what to do in cases of conflict between two genuine and irreducible values,…”

Oh I see , those Swiss who voted ‘yes’ because they felt the pull of a genuine value rooted in their community, were right to vote ‘yes’ …. Thank you for clarifying that one for us Chris.


kid bitzer 12.02.09 at 11:18 am

zdenek @ 39

george s. said the transcendental idealism is dead.
you say the constructivism is still alive.

perhaps both these things could be true?

more pointedly, could you show us where korsgaard and her ilk are basing their constructivism on a revivified transcendental idealism, or even adopting it coordinately?

my impression is that even the most ardent neo kantian constructivists are agreed that the transcendental idealism itself–i.e. the machinery of phenomenal and noumenal selves, the claim the noumenal is a separate but more real realm which is free from causal laws etc.–all that is dead.

but maybe you have a reading of korsgaard in which she is more wedded to the ding an sich?


harry b 12.02.09 at 12:02 pm

What, you don’t think a review can be excellent while saying things that you disagree with? I’d hate everything if I had that view.


zdenekv 12.02.09 at 12:53 pm

Here is what Scialabba says :

“…Sandel pilots readers skillfully through these philosophical rapids, giving each perspective its due with admirable judiciousness and perspicacity. He is quite right to highlight the moral limits of reliance on the market, since the superior wisdom of minimally regulated markets has been our main civic shibboleth for several decades now. Also illuminating is his argument, following Aristotle, that moral judgments about one or another policy should take into account the way of life and the type of character that the community in question aspires to produce.Nevertheless, to one who subscribes, as I do, to the James/Dewey/Quine/Rorty tradition of philosophical pragmatism, it is a little difficult to take Aristotle or Kant seriously. (It is, I should think, impossible for anyone at all to take Friedman and Nozick seriously.) Aristotle’s impersonal telos-es and Kant’s transcendental idealism are simply dead in the water, like St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God. They are philosophical relics, as phlogiston and the ether are scientific relics…”

This is obviously a criticism of Kant’s ethics but to say that TI is dead is either irrelevant ( if we Scialabba is assuming that Kants ethics is completely independent of his metaphysics what is the point of saying that his metaphysics is false ? ) or it is false / misleading ( if we recognize that K’s constructivism is a type of TI : moral facts are created/ constructed just as the phenomenal facts are created by us etc. ).


Chris Bertram 12.02.09 at 1:39 pm

#44 Ah yes, because that’s what I said, wasn’t it?

Actually, you said that Sandel has no “working solution” to the general problem of adjudicating between universal and associative values and then (falsely) implied that this would leave him paralysed in the Swiss case. I merely pointed out that wrt the general problem, we are all in same boat.


kid bitzer 12.02.09 at 1:59 pm


within kant’s own system, the ethics is very closely tied up with the t.i., in such a way that if we can no longer accept the t.i., then we can no longer accept kant’s own understanding of his own ethics. kant’s own system, as he understood it, is dead in the water if the t.i. is false. that was scialabba’s point.

you then change the subject by saying, “but there are other people who claim some inspiration from kant, and advocate ethical systems somewhat related to his, and their systems are not evidently dead in the water–so how can we take this scialabba guy seriously?”

that is not relevant to g.s.’s point, unless you think that any successes on the part of the korsgaard crowd would vindicate kant’s own system as kant understood it, i.e. the one that g.s. claims is vitiated by its reliance on t.i.

so, again–do you think that korsgaard is committed to the machinery of timeless noumenal selves that exist outside the manifolds of sensory experience and are exempt from physical laws? i don’t think so, and so i don’t think any vital signs on her part can revive kant’s own t.i., or his own ethics.

saying this: “K’s constructivism is a type of TI : moral facts are created/ constructed just as the phenomenal facts are created by us etc.” doesn’t really change anything, since it does not show that kant’s own t.i. is vindicated by neo-kantian constructivists, only that there is some other sort of quasi-idealism about the status of moral facts which might be implicated in constructivism.

you think anemic kantian ethics (a.k.a. constructivism) entails anemic idealism (about moral facts), and you think the work of korsgaard et al. vindicates both. but that still does not show that there is anything wrong with g.s.’s claim that problems with full-blooded, kantian t.i. make full-blooded kantian ethics unacceptable.


novakant 12.02.09 at 3:58 pm

Kant’s TI is very much alive and kicking.

To cut a long story very short, Kant’s problem was: if everything is governed by the laws of nature, we have determinism, if we have determinism we cannot have free will and if we don’t have free will we cannot have morality.

You can find variations on Kant’s TI in numerous contemporary responses to this problem, and while his TI might not provide “the answer” to the problem, it remains unsolved and Kant’s approach a valid one.

Also, Habermas relies heavily on Kantian TI and while one is of course free to reject his approach, nobody can deny that he is an influential major player in these debates.

When you talk about “full-blooded kantian ethics” you are simply setting an impossibly high bar and your usage of “dead in the water” doesn’t conform to our ordinary language understanding of the expression.


zdenekv 12.02.09 at 5:08 pm

“within kant’s own system, the ethics is very closely tied up with the t.i., in such a way that if we can no longer accept the t.i., then we can no longer accept kant’s own understanding of his own ethics. kant’s own system, as he understood it, is dead in the water if the t.i. is false. that was scialabba’s point.”

I really dont think this is right. His ethics is not tied to his metaphysics in any significant way and that is why Kantian ethics is untouched by TI being false ; TI is optional in other words. Here are four core elements of his ethics and you will see that one doesnt have to invoke TI at any point in spelling them out :

1) Kant’s distinctive and influensial notion of autonomy which he defines as the property of the will by which it is a law to itself etc does not depend on TI .

2) His distinctive emphasis on moral principles being discoverable a priori ( another central feature and distinctive feature of Kants ethics ) is not dependent on TI at any point.

3) His important and distinctive claim that morality presents itself to human beings in the form of categorical imperative is not dependent on TI being true .

4) Kant’s notion of the highest good is independent of TI. While rational nature is v . important in his account he also offers another conception of ultimate value that can be conceived of as the complete object of practical reason, towards which moral action points towards.

Kants ethics is not dependent on TI and that is of course why its been so influencial and why also it makes sense to talk about neo Kantianism– we see in Rawls or Christine Korsgaard say–as full blown and not something unconnected to Kants philosophy.


john c. halasz 12.02.09 at 6:08 pm

Kant’s moral philosophy was very much bound up in the architectonic of his system. The second Critique, after all, was meant to repair the gaps left by the first Critique. The paradox of the thing is that practical reason for Kant was basically pure reason made practical or construed from the practical standpoint, but, in some sense, practical reason, as “will”, from the outset subtended the whole system, (as Fichte was to make explicit), as if, in order for something to be true, we must will it so. But then, from one side, Kant was a sheer skeptic about “free will”, as the phenomenal world had, by assumption, to be construed and organized in terms of a strict linear determinism a la Newton, such that the only “evidence” for the “free will” was the painful sense of constraint one experiences, when one “freely” imposes upon oneself the moral law, “Ehrfurcht”, reverence, “honor-dread”. Only the compulsive “necessity” of the moral law, (conflated with the bindingness of norms), permits one to surmount phenomenal determinism. If TI is an empirical realism, (and thus encodes a notion of the knowledge as product, of the productivity of knowledge), it is nonetheless rooted in a purely noumenal will. Add on the strange solipsism, with the ego equivalent only to itself, such that it imposes the very law to which it is subjected, and strives to render itself “identical” with itself, and with the other only an intellectual posit, who is accorded respect only as equally an autonomous “author” of the moral law, which a forteriori can in no wise be phenomenally apparent, and the very rigorism and purism of Kantian morality, as concerned only with intentions, comes to seem “grounded” in sheer skepticism. It’s hard to see how any of this could be “saved” in its original conception and form. But the placelessness, the non-situatedness of the “autonomous”, self-chosing individual in Kantian-type moral thought does seem to carry on the imprint of its “origin”.

But then the strict Laplacean determinism has long since be supplanted by more stochastic accounts of natural causality. And reflection on selfhood and agency has since become far more socialized. Habermas’ kind of neo-neo-Kantianism, by which he waters down, if not jettisons, the more Hegelian and Marxian aspects of his heritage (Adorno), is emphatically materialist and doesn’t make appeal to TI. And it’s precisely designed to try to reconcile the situated socialized “nature” of selves/agents and their differing ways of life with the “unconditional” demands of universal justice. How successful his attempted mediation is and whether an hermeneutically thicker conception of the life-world, a more Hegelian sense of the “contradictoriness” of the dynamics of such mediation and a more Marxian sense of its material conditioning might not be preferable as more realistic is another matter.


geo 12.02.09 at 8:22 pm

@50: if we don’t have free will we cannot have morality

Why not? In fact we don’t have free will, and we do have morality. Metaphysical freedom has been becoming progressively less intelligible for three hundred years and will soon be (like phlogiston, etc.) an intellectual relic. We’ll still have all the same moral problems. We simply won’t have morality’s traditional theological baggage: ie, sin and eternal punishment.


novakant 12.03.09 at 8:34 am

geo, I know where you’re coming from, but please just take a look at almost any legal system: the supposition of free will is essential and has significant consequences for people standing trial. I’d say that the supposition of free will is also of great importance to our relationships with other people and to our sense of self. Also, you would have to discard quite a bit of our everyday discourse as nonsense, if free will is not assumed. And even when tackled with the means of cogsci etc. it remains an incredibly difficult and central problem.


JoB 12.03.09 at 8:43 am

“tackled with the means of cogsci”?

Who told you cogsci had means to tackle the free will. Don’t take him or her seriously.

On 53: Davidson. Whether he’s right or wrong, the fact he existed shows you’re wrong.


geo 12.03.09 at 5:17 pm

Novakant: Yes, I suppose I sounded pretty cavalier. I know we’ve got to have some working notion of personal responsibility, for everyday legal and moral purposes, and the traditional concept of “free will” serves that purpose well enough. In my own upbringing (and for most of Western history), it served another, less benign purpose as well: ie, as the rationale for eternal punishment, which could hardly be justified if our behavior were caused rather than uncaused (ie, “free,” in the theological sense). So once humanity is free of the awful incubus of eternal damnation, radical pragmatists will no longer fuss about “free will.”

Well, maybe a little. “Free will” also makes some mischief in the realm of social policy. It lets the rest of us off too easily from helping lazy, foolish, or even depraved people, who are said to be “responsible” for their own bad behavior and its consequences. Yes, they are responsible — in the sense that we shouldn’t give them a free pass for that behavior; but no, they’re not responsible — in the sense that we mustn’t ignore the probably large and intricate web of causes that produced it, almost always including inadequate material, social, and intellectual resources in early life. Of course, ignoring those causes is exactly what conservatives want to do, since addressing them would cost money, which said conservatives have of course earned through their own free and responsible behavior and are not going to part with for the sake of some damn deadbeats.

JoB: How exactly does Davidson’s existence entail the existence of free will?


JoB 12.03.09 at 5:24 pm

His existence is a set of facts that disprove the thesis of 53 re intellectual relics.


Christopher Eastwood 12.05.09 at 2:21 pm

I live in Ireland, and I am currently studying for a Master’s Degree in International Human Rights Law. I have watched these lectures with interest, and I have been amazed with the quality of the lectures. Sandel has such command over the attentions of the students, all the more impressive given the size of the theatre and the number of students in attendance.

I must say, however, that I was shocked at how unintelligent the average students seemed to be. This is Harvard, after all, and all of these students are at least 18 years old (many are older still). Am I being unfair? I would certainly concede that isolated comments are hardly reliable portents into the students’ respective capabilities, yet I was still surprised.

In Ireland, where I am from, students of this age really would be much more well informed. Aside from knowledge (one may believe that, before the age of 18, people would be better served developing aspects of their lives other than knowledge of political philosophy, and I would wholeheartedly agree) two more concerning perceptions forced their way continually into my mind…
1. The average level of innate intelligence and thoughtfulness was much lower than I would have expected from Sophomore students at Harvard…
2. The relatively inarticulate way many of the commenting students phrased their contributions was disappointing (all the more so if Jacob Rus is right about the extent of the post-lecture editing)…

I am sorry if this seems unreasonable. It is just that, from my experience in Ireland (and in other places in Europe) students here – on the whole – seem to be much more advanced in their intellectual development by this age. Here, this would be especially true for those especially who have had every possible opportunity in life (such as nearly all of the students in Sandel’s class).


Christopher Eastwood 12.05.09 at 2:26 pm

Just to balance out the apparent harshness of my judgments, can I just reiterate how impressed I was with the standard of teaching. I have NEVER (and I mean never) attended a lecture anywhere in Europe which came even close to the standard of instruction evident in these lectures. If these students failed to impress me during the course, there is no doubt that they would most likely impress me after its conclusion.


McMurphy 12.06.09 at 6:40 pm

sandel’s a neo-con pedazo de mierda.

no wonder the EotAW skank approve of him

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