Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Kant, Sandel and Justice

Here in the UK Michael Sandel is hosting a series of TV programmes on the topic of justice, in accord with his Harvard course on the same topic and which was summarised in a different way in his recent book. Sandel's talent with public engagement cannot really be doubted. He is superb at bringing out how philosophical principles are already being tacitly invoked in daily arguments concerning politics and that such arguments do often involve commitments to views of the right and the good that are more substantial than many realize.

So my initial response to the TV programmes and to Sandel's general activity is a positive one as was indicated also today over at Crooked Timber by Chris Bertram. However, Bertram's enthusiasm for the series covered particularly the episode I saw last night and in which Sandel provided a contrast between Jeremy Bentham, Kant and Aristotle. This contrast covered a number of topics amongst which was the decision in Germany not to allow the firing down of an aircraft that it was alleged would have saved other lives. Bertram follows the lead Sandel offers in the programme to regard the decision as crazy. 

I'll return to the case in a moment but, prior to looking at such a particular, I have a general problem with the nature of Sandel's focus. In a programme on justice it was somewhat odd that Sandel focused exclusively on Kant's moral theory, citing the categorical imperative as an impressive contrast with the principle of utility. The point of this contrast was basically to subsequently present Aristotle as providing in some sense recognition of what was valuable in both the previous approaches and how to supersede the limits of each. However, whilst it is certainly the case that utilitarianism has a notorious problem with recognising justice as a specific subject and is constitutionally opposed to the notion of "rights" it is a distortion to think that a Kantian approach to the topic of justice is based primarily on the categorical imperative.

Kant's response to the topic of justice is laid out in the Doctrine of Right, not in the Groundwork and the formula that guides the latter work is the supreme principle of right. This principle concentrates on the conditions of external freedom and in the context of the elaboration of his account of justice Kant defends conceptions of public and private right that are grounded in the principle in question and not directly upon the categorical imperative. Since Habermas makes a similar error about Kant's view of justice in his otherwise seminal work Between Facts and Norms this is hardly an unusual error but it is an error none the less and distorts any serious contrast between Kant and Aristotle. Aristotle, like Kant, distinguishes the subject matter of politics from that of ethics and does not approach politics, as Sandel suggests, just from the standpoint of virtue.

In the light of these failings Sandel resorted in the programme to a fairly standard process of presentation that turns on hard cases, something common in elementary ethics classes and not to be despised in itself. It was in this context that he made Peter Singer admit that the utilitarian conception of the right thing to do does always come down to quantitative analysis. Oddly, when he turned to Kant, whilst he did approach a thinker from a Kantian philosophical background, it was not someone that has comparable standing to Singer, but instead went to Carolin Emcke who, despite her philosophical training, works primarily as a journalist. To Emcke he put the "hard case" of the shooting down of an airplane and she affirmed the unconditional nature of the dignity of the persons in the plane. The constitutional judgment makes clear further the commitment to the sense of such dignity.

The case in question is intended by Sandel to show the lack of attention to consequences in Kantian theory but what it in fact shows is that a certain type of interpretation of Kantian theory refuses to allow consideration of consequences. The point was to have a sharp division between Kant and utilitarians on the basis that Kant can give no basis for attending to consequences whereas the utilitarians can give no value to anything other than consequences. In this context, however, and as I will be focusing on in future postings, it leaves aside the growing debate over the question of whether Kantian ethics is so constrained that it can give no room for consequences. I have argued previously that this is not so and that Kantian ethics does have to be seen as consequence-sensitive. Others have increasingly been arguing for a version of Kantian consequentialism and it is has become less clear than Sandel's standard presentation would suggest that this is oxymoronic. Incidentally the case of the airline is, in any case, less obviously a knock-down argument against a view of Kantian ethics that refuses to incorporate concern for consequences than might be thought. It requires complete certainly that 1) the airline would definitely otherwise crash into a target full of civilians and there is no way at all that the hijackers could change their mind or be persuaded to act differently and 2) that there is further no possibility at all that the plane could not be retrieved from the hijackers. Such conditions are rarely met.

So in conclusion the basic problems with Sandel's presentation were the following: 1) it conflated Kant's ethics with his approach to justice and as a consequence did not focus on its alleged topic; 2) the same also occurred with Aristotle; 3) it had an asymmetry in the nature of the "specialists" appealed to; 4) it neglected the possibility of a position that combined the polarities in ethics whilst still including central elements of both and was not Aristotelian; 5) it failed to include any serious criticism of the Aristotelian view or to pose any "hard cases" in respect of it.

Despite all this it was certainly a worthwhile programme and if proper philosophical contestation could have more place on TV then this would be all to the good. Sandel's model of public engagement is definitely worth attention and it would be great if more philosophers of many different persuasions could be taken on board with such an enterprise.


HarryMonmouth said...

I agree completely. I have been tasked with teaching business ethics to a class next term and Kant comes up in the first couple of days, as does deontology.

As I was given no materials from which to teach and having had no formal education in the subject I did a little checking. It was then that I realised that Kant's philosophy was radically different from the representation Sandel made on his programme. It surprised me as he is so well known and I gather so well respected.

The view that he has is not unusual around the net either. And indeed most people I have spoken to casually have a very dim view of Kant, tarring him with the same brush they save for creationists. I kind of get the impression that Kant is deeply misunderstood. This site seems to be the first that has come close to what I believe Kant's views were.

The only thing you have said that I am unsure about is that your explanation of Kant's ability to use common sense seems to discard the categorical imperative. It struck me that any categorical imperative is much like a legal precedent; it cannot be created as a perfect thing straight away it can only be applied to the situation in contemplation. As new situations develop there must be a process of distinguishing the different elements of the new situation and extending the moral equation.

For me the imperative part comes in the fact that if you have adequately purified your mind then you can only behave in one way. You must behave in that one way.

It is the utilitarians who make cold calculations about whether something is more or less beneficial. Kant would have been a man of immediate action to do what he had to do as dictated by his conscience.

However this understanding is built more on practical understanding than academic study.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comment Harry. Terrible that you were put in to the position of having to teach something about Kant's ethics with so little preparation. I'm pleased though to see that you agree with me that Sandel's view is a standard misrepresentation. You are right that a lot of people dismiss Kant without having seriously given his views attention and that this is due to certain standard representations of his view that don't reflect it well.

With regard to the categorical imperative and common sense: there are a number of points needed here. Firstly, it is necessary to distinguish "the mere concept" of the categorical imperative from Kant's references on occasion to "categorical imperatives" (plural) or to something as being "a" categorical imperative. The "mere concept" is the Formula of Universal Law though this is not directly applied by Kant to examples. When examples are considered it is by means of either the Law of Nature or the Formula of Humanity. Further examples that are considered are looked at in the context of decision situations.

With regard to the situations it becomes possible to see the appeal to "common sense" as being part of how to elucidate what we are already committed to in order to uncover what it is that is "binding" in pre-existent commitments and why. This is how we arrive at the understanding of duty in terms of necessity and universality.

This point has to be distinguished from "categorical imperatives" or "a" categorical imperative. In these cases Kant is referring to specific duties and indicating the binding character of them. This is a short-hand way of suggesting the relationship of them to the formulas.