Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice

*this is a quick review/summation of the book, really for my own good

Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (LLJ) is a response to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (TOJ), which was at the time (1982) the most compelling and articulate vision of political liberalism. More specifically Sandel’s book is an examination and critique of the philosophical anthropology implied and required by deontological liberalism.

LLJ argues that while TOJ isn’t always explicit about the self/subject it assumes, there is a necessary distance any deontological perspective must assert between a self and its ends. Sandel’s argument is that such an ‘unencumbered’ view of the self is an abstract an unrealistic one. Finding him unable to articulate an adequate understanding of the self, Sandel argues Rawls is guilty of the same problem Rawls locates in Kant: reliance upon a disembodied and ultimately untenable understanding of the self.

There are two main criticisms in this book. First, Sandel argues that a deontological self is thoroughly voluntarist: all of its ends are freely chosen. For Sandel, to presume a separation between a self and its desires, interests, and community – all of which are the product of free choice – is an absurdity. The self, rather, is encumbered at least in part: we’re born always already amid communities, and the obligations to them are not always chosen. Likewise, at least some of our desires and interests are native in us and others are at least partially the product of growth within certain contexts over which we have limited control. Surely not all of these things are the result of individual free choice.

The second criticism has to do with Rawls’ egalitarianism. Given his sense of self, Rawls posits that traits and skills (‘assets’) are never the rightful property of a person. The process by which an individual receives her assets is entirely random, and they are one’s own by virtue of accident. Rawls claims then that the benefits of such assets are therefore not the right of an individual, even that to whom the assets belong. Rather, due to his ‘difference principle,’ these benefits are the community’s and ought to be disproportionately directed toward those who need them most. This is clearly what separates Rawls from a libertarian like Nozick.

While Sandel find Rawls’ reasoning here compelling, he is skeptical about the conclusion because of the sense of self it requires. Sandel claims that the notion of ‘common assets’ blurs the line between self and other in a way that contradicts Rawls’ strong sense of the self.

While LLJ isn’t a constructive text, Sandel’s response to Rawls is that an intersubjective self is more appropriate to our situated selfhood and that choice isn’t an accurate way to conceive of our relationship to many of our ends. I wish the book went quite further in this direction, arguing socially and/or ontologically about the nature of the self and its political significance. Nevertheless…

In response to critics like Sandel, Rawls published an updated version of his liberal project entitled Political Liberalism. In this text Rawls moves to acknowledge such problems with his earlier notion of the self and posits that the deontological subject need be only a way to understand a person’s public identity. That is, the distance between a self and its ends is not an ontological proposition, but the pragmatic one necessary for democratic life. This public/private split is problematic for Sandel, mostly because it means bracketing out our moral and religious convictions. Making these off-limits for discussion and debate impoverishes our political conversations by creating a morally vacuous public square.


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