being right

My friend Daniel gave me a book called Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, written by Harvard Philosophy professor Michael J. Sandel. The book describes several different philosophical schools of thought regarding justice, and now I know why people say that philosophers see the world differently. With my new brief philosophical education, I now hear Rawls and libertarianism, virtue, duty, and morality underlying every discussion.

I was thinking I was very much a Rawlsianist*, and that within a few centuries everyone would join me in the light of true justice, but then I read the last 2 chapters. Sandel introduces the idea that you can’t separate morality from the law. “Why does that contradict being a Rawlsianist?” you ask.

In political liberalism, under which libertarianism and Rawls are classified, the theorists want to make sure one person’s beliefs don’t outweigh another’s…who’s to say that one person’s moral framework is more correct, valuable, or just than another’s?  

Yet our actions and beliefs do reflect a moral system that is in turn reflected in the law, most obviously regarding abortion, definition of marriage, church & state, etc. 

A pro-choice argument is often that the government can’t tell a woman what to do with her body (in fact, the Supreme Court cited the 14th Amendment in its Roe v. Wade decision). This argument has never appealed to me…regarding murder I think the government does have a right to tell a woman what to do. Abortion is about whether you think the fetus is a living, human being and if you do think it’s a live human, if you think it’s ok under certain conditions to kill it.

Similarly, all the hooplah regarding gay marriage comes down to some people believing marriage means man + woman and some people believing it means committed relationship. That’s a moral belief. At the end of the day I believe it’s RIGHT for anybody to enter into a marriage (including polygamous marriages). My belief isn’t based on the fact that the government can’t tell me who I can’t marry, it’s based on the fact that I define marriage as a committed relationship between humans, and I morally believe in human rights that extend to homosexuals and polygamous individuals. I believe it’s WRONG not to do so. Even if government had no involvement whatsoever in the institution of marriage, I would still believe in this right.**

But why is my belief more legitimate than someone else’s? I think that’s why liberalism takes the “individual freedom” argument: you don’t have to deal with who’s right and who’s wrong.

However, the reality is that one moral framework rules out another, and what’s seen as most legitimate is what most people believe at a certain point in time. 

If you look at the course of human history, morals have changed and people have never fully agreed on them. That doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t an underlying, moral truth, it just means that we obviously can’t agree on what it is.

Now that Sandel pointed out to me that the law can’t be free from morality, I really don’t know how it’s supposed to incorporate morality in a fair way. If the U.S. is split 51/49 over abortion, would it be fair for the opinion of the majority to win? And how do we account for fluctuating moral beliefs? You can see in this recent Gallup poll how quickly opinions have changed regarding gay marriage over the last 15 years. For the moment I’m stumped and my only response is to insist that the law represent my moral beliefs. Wouldn’t it be immoral not to insist such a thing?

A very good outcome from reading this book has been achieving a better understanding of where I and other people are coming from. Instead of getting angry over what I perceive as bigotry or selfishness, it helps me to understand that others simply approach the world from a different philosophical and moral perspective than I do. I can now fit isolated ideas and statements into a larger framework of thought guiding the individual.

I’m still right, of course.


*Meaning, since we have no control over the circumstances of our birth (intellect, class, era, etc.), we should create a system that evens people out without depriving them of incentives for hard work. Also, the idea that since our success is somewhat arbitrary, we can’t accept full credit for it, and it therefore belongs to the community as a whole. (That’s my interpretation…for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rawls#Justice_as_Fairness)

**I actually don’t care if we disestablish marriage and leave it to the private realm. The whole “institution” of marriage is so weird anyway. We haven’t quite figured out it’s role in modern society. The only problem is, the law awards rights to people in marriages…would recognizing polygamous or homosexual marriages be equivalent to a moral acceptance of them? Argue with me if you can use logic better than I can, but it seems like if you’re going to fully carry out the libertarian argument, you’d have to argue that the government does not have the right to sanction marriage nor award benefits to its participants. Even so, for those who morally define marriage as a man and a woman, it would still be wrong to allow non-monogamous and non-heterosexual marriages to take place, even if the government weren’t involved. Such people may not have a legal case, but they would still feel like it was wrong.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “being right

  1. Hannah Abrams

    Not that I necessarily agree, but one counter to that is to note that Rawls describes the ideal, “well-ordered” society towards which we are constantly striving, and from there assume that his argument becomes valid if “reasonable” becomes a true and feasible absolute that can consistently produce the same set of morals. The Rawlsian social contract, then, forms a useful “blueprint” for moving society closer to justice as humanity progresses toward self-actualization (Maslow)/ a more benevolent “general will” (Rousseau). If all of the lawmaking population were of the same moral maturity, they would hypothetically be able to produce perfectly just laws and then simply adhere to positive justice. Until then, the only moral thing to do is to work for our best approximation, which could be interpreted as electing the most “mature” lawmakers we can discern, trying to be objective enough to disregard our own political biases when voting for the sake of the greater good (which, I suppose, goes back to the Rawls’ veil of ignorance.)

    Amartya Sen also has some interesting things to say about this, though I’m now interested to read Sandel’s book. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • throwinginthetowel

      Hey Hannah! You’ve obviously read more philosophy than I have, but I will say that, at least from my limited understanding of Rawls, I don’t agree that bar all biases all people would choose the same moral principles. Maybe it would happen in many cases, but it seems like there are a lot of complicating factors. For example, societies around the world and throughout history have radically dif ideas about sexuality. It seems like any veil of ignorance scenario cannot escape the fact that you must start with several social constructs before making your moral decision, and social constructs are obviously not absolute truths. I don’t think Rawls evaded moral relativism in other words.
      Based on your notations, the book might be elementary to you but it at least uses real world examples to demonstrate manifestations of philosophical thought.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Talya

    Thoughtful piece.

  3. Pingback: Haters, they gonna hate | Throwing in the Towel

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