Home > Books, Discourse, Listening, Privatize > Michael Sandel’s Untimely Response to the Libertarian Critique

Michael Sandel’s Untimely Response to the Libertarian Critique

Last week, I had the fortunate opportunity to hear two presentations by (and briefly meet) Michael Sandel, a leading political theorist and, less magnanimously, a substantial influence on my undergraduate thesis. While a review of his latest book, the New York Times bestselling Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, will have to wait until I finish Justice Breyer’s book, I wanted to make a timely note of the experience of hearing and meeting Sandel.

The morning lecture, thoroughly covered by The Chautauquan Daily, was a traditional presentation in which Sandel familiarized the audience with his approach to public discourse. Sandel carries the mantle of Aristotelian civic republicanism into this late-modern age, arguing that deliberation over the good life, morality, and spirituality, is an appropriate and necessary part of our public discourse. Rather than restraining public debate to a narrow set of political values and leaving things like religion and morality to the private sphere, Sandel believes– contrary to the prevailing view– that people should not have to hold back parts of themselves when participating in public discourse. While I’m not sure he’s gone so far as to say this outright, I think his approach rejects the public-private division contemporary liberal society mandates, instead advocating a broad spectrum of public life in which the public-private deliberative division melts away.


The afternoon lecture, by contrast, was styled after one of his interactive classroom presentations, in which he engaged the audience on questions of policy. Did the handicapped golfer, Casey Martin, have a right to use a cart in PGA events? Should state governments limit marriage to heterosexual couples?

At the end, he took audience questions, the last of which presented a good opportunity to explain his approach. The question came from a self-described libertarian, who told Sandel that he didn’t think the government had any business even answering the questions Sandel posed. The questioner said that the PGA, a private organization, should be able to include or exclude whomever it wants, and the government has no authority to say otherwise. As for state governments, the questioner explained, they should not be regulating activities, such as marriage, between consenting adults.

Sandel used this opportunity to “test” the questioner to see if he really would adhere to a libertarian viewpoint as applied to more controversial facts. For example, would the questioner allow the PGA to restrict its events to white golfers? The questioner said he would boycott the events, but the PGA could do so. Sandel also inquired of the questioner’s acceptance of various extreme activities between consenting adults, but the questioner stood by his position. Apparently satisfied that the questioner was, in fact, a true libertarian, Sandel concluded the presentation without further substantive comment.

This exchange was a missed opportunity for Sandel. Rather than defend his view, or at least helpfully contrast it with the libertarian perspective for the attentive audience, Sandel did little more than put the questioner through the paces of a libertarian litmus test. What’s unfortunate is that he had a good response. In his 1996 book Democracy’s Discontent, Sandel wrote about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when the two politicians debated slavery and other issues. Stephen Douglas supported a liberal position: because people disagreed as to the morality of slavery, the federal government ought to maintain a neutral position and allow the states and territories to decide the question for themselves. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, took a position in line with Sandel’s civic republican view and in opposition to slavery on moral grounds, observing that anyone can advocate political neutrality “who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he doesn’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down.” Michael Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent 22 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).

Lincoln’s view is a direct challenge to those like the questioner, who say that while they personally (morally) oppose a particular activity, the best public policy respecting it is one of neutrality. This is the query Sandel should have put before his libertarian questioner.

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    November 3, 2011 at 3:57 am

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      November 3, 2011 at 9:12 am

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  2. Hampus
    December 8, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Dividing personal morality from “civic” morality is sometimes necessary I think. Slavery is today condemned, and it seems fairly straightforward for us that it’s illegal. The problem is that a libertarian would maintain that slavery in it’s very essence is against their principles, since it goes against the liberty of the individual. So you couldn’t nail them with that response I think. What about more difficult things, like prostitution? Some would oppose it from a moral stand point, whereas others say that this kind of bedroom morality has no place in law. If you go back in time you had people making moral arguments against taking money for teaching, like Socrates, who was very skeptical about the sophists because they taught for a fee. Today we wouldn’t hesitate to say that teachers should be payed for their work (otherwise Sandel would have to resign). What is so different about taking money for sex? Morality has a dubious visage in my opinion, and although I highly respect it, I think some morality should be personal rather than regulated. The question would be “whose morality”?

  1. May 14, 2013 at 11:47 pm

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