Towards a Just Society
20th Fenruary 2010 The Guardian
Today, most of our political arguments revolve around welfare and freedom – increasing economic output and respecting people's rights. But a just society requires something more: reasoning together about the meaning of the good life. Whether we're arguing about financial bailouts and bankers' bonuses, or the growing gap between rich and poor, or how to contend with the environmental costs of economic growth, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of civic virtue and the common good.
In 2008, Barack Obama tapped Americans' hunger for a public life of larger purpose and articulated a politics of moral and spiritual aspiration. During the first year of his presidency, however, he has found it difficult to translate this politics of aspiration into governance. So, as frustration with politics builds on both sides of the Atlantic, it is worth asking what a new politics of the common good might look like. Here are four possible themes:
Citizenship, sacrifice and service: If a just society requires a strong sense of community, it must find a way to cultivate in citizens a dedication to the common good. It can't be indifferent to the attitudes and dispositions that citizens bring to public life. It must find a way to challenge purely privatised notions of the good life, and cultivate civic virtue. Traditionally, schools have been sites of civic education. In some generations, the military has been another. I'm referring not to the explicit teaching of civic virtue, but to the practical, often inadvertent civic education that takes place when young people from different economic classes and ethnic communities come together. It is a serious question – how can a democratic society that is cosmopolitan and disparate hope to cultivate the solidarity and sense of mutual responsibility that a just society requires?
The moral limits of markets: One of the most striking tendencies of our time is the expansion of markets and market-orientated reasoning into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms. Consider the outsourcing of war to private contractors; the rise of commercial surrogate pregnancy; the growing use of market incentives to motivate students and teachers; the advent of for-profit prisons. These questions are not only about utility and consent. They are also about the right ways of valuing key social practices – military service, child-bearing, teaching and learning, criminal punishment, and so on. As marketising social practices may corrupt or degrade the norms that define them, we need to ask what non-market norms we want to protect from market intrusion. We need public debate about the moral limits of markets.
Inequality, solidarity, civic virtue: In many countries, the gap between rich and poor is growing, reaching levels not seen for many decades. Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires. As inequality deepens, rich and poor live increasingly separate lives. The affluent send their children to successful schools, leaving other schools to the children of families who have no alternative. Private health clubs replace municipal recreation centres and swimming pools. A second or third car removes the need to rely on public transport. And so on. The affluent secede from public places and services, leaving them to those who can't afford anything else.
This has two bad effects – one fiscal, the other civic. First, public services deteriorate, as those who no longer use those services become less willing to support them with taxes. Second, communal spaces cease to be places where citizens from different walks of life encounter one another. The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends. So, inequality can be corrosive to civic virtue. A politics of the common good would take as one of its primary goals the reconstruction of the infrastructure of civic life.
A politics of moral engagement: Some argue that politics and law should not become entangled in moral and religious disputes, for such entanglement opens the way to coercion and intolerance. This is a legitimate worry. Citizens of pluralist societies do disagree about morality and religion. Even if it's not possible for government to be neutral on these disagreements, is it nonetheless possible to conduct our politics on the basis of mutual respect?
The answer, I think, is yes. But we need a more robust and engaged civic life. In recent decades, we've come to assume that respecting our fellow citizens' moral convictions means ignoring them, or conducting our public life without reference to them. But this stance of avoidance can make for a spurious respect. Often, it means suppressing moral disagreement rather than actually avoiding it. This can provoke backlash and resentment.
Rather than avoid the various convictions that our fellow citizens bring to public life, we should attend to them more directly – sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening to and learning from them. There is no guarantee that public deliberation about hard moral questions will lead to agreement – or even to appreciation for the moral and religious views of others. It's always possible that learning more will lead us to like them less. But we cannot know until we try.
* This essay is adapted from Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?
• Read the Citizen Ethics pamphlet in full here.
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