Responding to Wes Alwan’s Critique of Sandel

I’m not interested in becoming a Michael Sandel apologist. I find his critique of the Rawlsian project compelling for a number of reasons, as I’ve written about, but I also have concerns about his alternative.

I’m an infrequent listener to the podcast Partially Examined Life and became aware that Wes Alwan, one of the show’s hosts, wrote a piece about Sandel’s critique of Rawls. Naturally, I’m interested, especially because I find Wes to be a shrewd and powerful thinker. This was actually a while ago, but I remembered it in conversation with a friend more recently. I posted a response to Wes in the comments of his post, which I will repost here.

Wes’s critique is essentially this:

Sandel seems to assume a) that a derivation of principles of justice from theoretical unencumbered selves imply that there is no more to one’s “theory of the person” than these unencumbered selves and b) that the negation of encumbered selves in any theory used to justify principles of justice means that these principles must be actually opposed, or causally negating, to the actual existence of thickly constituted selves and communities.

None of this follows.

I don’t think Wes got Sandel’s project quite right. Two thoughts:

First, I don’t think Sandel is making the strong argument that deontological liberalism (with its reliance upon unencumbered selves) CAN’T result in/produce “thick” selves. Rather, Sandel seems to be claiming that the unencumbered self implied and promoted by deontological liberalism is at odds with our actual selfhood; that it is overly abstract and an inaccurate way to describe at least some of the relationships we have with our ends and our community. The implication is that such an unencumbered picture provides an impoverished understanding of the self. Ultimately, Sandel argues that it isn’t just deficient in terms of how the self is actually constructed, but also that it stands at odds with the justification Rawls provides for the difference principle. 

Sandel’s project in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice seems quite clearly to be about determining whether the comprehensive selfhood Rawls depends on in A Theory of Justice is sensible and adequate, both in terms of how the self is actually constructed and for the needs of Rawls’s theory (the difference principle). According to Sandel, the sense of self Rawls’s project implies suffers from excessive abstraction and inconsistency. 
Second, Rawls seems to have admitted that the notion of the self he proposed in A Theory of Justice was indeed a comprehensive or metaphysical one (or at least admitted that it could be reasonably read that way). Rawls responds in Political Liberalism by claiming that the self implied and required by liberalism need not be a comprehensive one – the unencumbered self is merely a public/political one and not comprehensive. This is the move Wes wants to make as well, or at least imply is operative in ToJ. Rawls encourages us in this later work to see a public/political self and a private one, the former which is appropriate for liberal democracy and the latter which preserves the possibility for “thicker” and more “communally constitutive” selves. This helps Rawls quite a bit to avoid Sandel’s critique in LLJ, even if it doesn’t fully get him off the hook. However, it also creates a new problem, which is what Sandel’s new and final chapter in the second edition of the book addresses – which is not merely some “afterthoughts meant to remedy” potential problems, as Wes suggested. It is in this change, amid the bifurcation of the self, that Sandel points out the problem with bracketing out religious and moral reasoning from the public square (i.e. the problem of neutrality).


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