The Philosophy Lesson Our Political Culture Desperately Needs

I’ve been making my way through Justice with Michael Sandel, and while it’s been pretty uniformly thought-provoking and engaging, no other episode thus far has been as remarkable as the eighth one, embedded below:

That’s actually a better articulation of the difference principle than I got in my own class on Rawls. But more importantly, it’s a critical perspective that, while highly influential among political philosophers and liberal intellectuals, is completely absent from the broader public debate.

That’s partially because the political soundbite culture is more friendly to dispositions and inclinations than cohesive theories of justice. And on that level, assertions like, “I have a right to my property”–a simplified version of the Nozick-ian view–are more viscerally persuasive than, say, “Much of what I possess I gained thanks to factors beyond my control, so I don’t ‘deserve’ it in any meaningful moral sense.” But the latter view, although it usually doesn’t get articulated in so many words, is pretty close to an inclination I think most socially conscious liberals feel. In fact, it pretty much has to be, since the Rawlsian position is probably the most potent philosophical justification for liberal redistributionist policies we have.

This video is a pretty good example of why political philosophy should be taught not just at the university level, but in public high schools across the United States. Not because I think everyone should be persuaded to the Rawlsian position–although my own views are certainly far closer to that end of the spectrum than to the libertarian end–but because this argument between Rawls and his critics is crucial to assessing the justice of redistributionist policies of the sorts we fight constant political battles over in this country (you may or may not have noticed, for example, that health care’s been in the news just a little bit recently). Given that we live in a representative democracy–meaning that much of the moral responsibility for the outcome of these arguments rests with each and every one of us–I think we should all be given the tools to think about those arguments on this level.

If you haven’t watched the video yet, do so. Especially Part 2, beginning around the 25 minute mark.

3 Responses

  1. […] 2, 2010 by Ned Resnikoff I just want to make a quick addendum to my most recent post. I wrote: That’s actually a better articulation of the difference principle than I got in my own […]

  2. […] I mentioned earlier, plenty of liberals are already proto-Rawlsians. Plenty of libertarians are proto-Nozickians. And […]

  3. I’m glad to hear that this series is worth watching, as I have downloaded the series on iTunes U. I would also recommend watching the recently posted video on of Sandel speaking at the TED Conference. Political philosophy is the lost subject of schools, sadly, and should be embedded in schools by at least the high school level.

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