Chantal Mouffe’s Critique of Michael Sandel

There’s much I admire about Chantal Mouffe’s work, which I’m sure I’ll write about in the future… Here I want to talk about her critique of Michael Sandel.

In an article entitled “American Liberalism and Its Communitarian Critics,” Mouffe provides a survey of the liberal-communitarian debate. [1] After agreeing with Sandel’s critique of Rawls (laid out in his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice) she pushes back against Sandel’s brief constructive alternative.

Mouffe takes issue with Sandel’s collapsing of the two worlds of morality and politics. By arguing for an Aristotelian notion of the common good, she claims he necessarily conflates the two, which undermines any attempt at preserving any form of liberalism. [2] I’ve also noted essentially the same concern.

Mouffe recognizes that John Rawls does respond to Sandel with a workable solution, which is to maintain a distinction between the moral good and the political good – or what Rawls later refers to as the distinction between the private and the public self. [3]

Yet Mouffe recognizes this doesn’t solve the central problem. As she notes, “It is because…liberal individualism does not allow conceiving of the collective aspect of social life as being constitutive that there is – as the communitarians indicate – a contradiction at the heart of Rawls’s project.” [4]

Unhappy with Rawls’ individualism and Sandel’s collectivism, Mouffe provides a characteristically postmodern answer. Recognizing the need to consider the common good, she argues that doing so “must be done in a modern fashion, without postulating a single moral good.” This allows her to maintain the important gains of liberalism while accounting for its deficiencies. [5]

This makes plenty of sense, and there are a number of voices arguing for such plurality. However Sandel’s more recent work provides interesting pushback. Recently Sandel has focused much more on the problem of liberal neutrality and how very often on controversial issues (such as abortion) government is forced to make a decision that is not neutral. Mouffe never deals, in this essay, with the problem of liberal neutrality. While Mouffe’s response is an admirable one, Sandel seems to be right that very often a non-neutral position must be taken in the end. I wonder how she’d respond to this line of thinking… How can a plurality of goods be accommodated within a system that, at least on occasion, must decide on an issue of substantive moral concern? And I’m still wondering how Sandel accounts for pluralism…



[1] Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 2005) 23-40. Originally appeared in Praxis International in 1988.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Ibid.


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