Justice Without the Good

I finished watching Justice the other night, and in the final episode–in which Sandel, for the first time, lays out an original argument of his own–my admiration for him only increased. Here’s the episode:

For those who don’t have an hour to watch, the argument he makes is that government can’t be neutral on competing conceptions of the good, because it will inevitably have to way in on issues where you can’t possibly pick a side without first making a judgment on what the good is. He makes a similar argument here.

In both cases, the example he uses is the gay marriage debate, although I think abortion (which is briefly mentioned in the episode) is a more potent one. After all, it’s impossible to form an opinion on abortion without first making a judgment about the value of the life of a fetus relative to the value of the life of a fully developed human. That’s a philosophical question.

Similarly, as Sandel points out, you can’t really engage in the marriage debate without thinking about philosophical issues such as what sort of unions the state should confer prestige on. Because state-recognized marriage isn’t just an economic status; it’s also an honorific, something that the state is endorsing as good.

Based on my preexisting conception of the good, it wasn’t very difficult for me to figure out where I stand on either of these issues: for choice, and for marriage equality. But the point is that I can’t deny that my conception of the good was relevant in the decision making process, beyond concerns about pure utility. Obviously, those concerns were relevant too, but that just reinforces my point. The two are not so easy to separate.

Which is another reason why I think Dylan is off-base here. I’m not suggesting that the entire conversation in either case should be dominated by abstraction, but we exclude discussion of these principles from the debate to the detriment of our decision-making process.


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