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sandel’s ‘moral’ tribalism

I greatly enjoyed the first two-thirds of Michael Sandel’s new book, Justice: A Reader, which only made the final third more disappointing. Sandel begins his book with a long and fruitful discussion of philosophical thought, ranging from Rousseau to Nozick to Rawls, with compelling thought experiments and concise explanations of the different schools of thought. In the end, Sandel argues that each school falls short, in part due to neglecting the moral legitimacy of communal bonds, such as family, ethnicity, and nation, which, he argues, are not contractual, voluntary decisions made by the individual, but inescapable moral obligations that do not depend on individual consent.

Sandel anticipates my objection “that so-called obligations of solidarity are actually just instances of collective selfishness, a prejudice for our own kind. These critics concede that we typically care more for our family, friends, and comrades than we do for other people. But, they ask, isn’t this heightened concern for one’s own people a parochial, inward-looking tendency that we should overcome rather than valorize in the name of patriotism or fraternity?”

Sandel disagrees, citing examples of shame that ethnic groups feel for the behavior of their ancestors. He rightly notes that “pride and shame are moral sentiments that presuppose a shared identity.” I don’t disagree that nationality, for example, serves as a focal point; Americans are ashamed by the behavior of other Americans that might only offend a German. It would be hard to deny that such tribalism is natural. Sandel loses me when he argues that what is natural, ipso facto, is morally just.

Sandel proceeds to examine the cases of Robert E. Lee and David Kaczynski (brother to the “Unabomber”) in light of his moral perspective. As most are familiar, Lee opposed secession and slavery, yet not only turned down an offer to lead the Union army, but led the rebel forces out of allegiance to his kinsman in Virginia. While admitting it is difficult to defend Lee’s decision, Sandel finds “it is hard not to admire the loyalty that gave rise to his dilemma. But why should we admire loyalty to an unjust cause? You might well wonder whether loyalty, under these circumstances, should carry any moral weight at all. Why, you might ask, is loyalty a virtue rather than just a sentiment, a feeling, an emotional tug that beclouds our moral judgment and makes it hard to do the right thing? Here’s why: Unless we take loyalty seriously, as a claim with moral import, we can’t make sense of Lee’s dilemma as a moral dilemma at all. If loyalty is a sentiment with no genuine moral weight, then Lee’s predicament is simply a conflict between morality on the one hand and mere feeling or prejudice on the other.”

A fanciful way to restate the debate: if Lee’s tribal loyalty is moral, then it’s a moral dilemma, if it is not, it is not.

Sandel proceeds:

The merely psychological reading of Lee’s predicament misses the fact that we not only sympathize with people like him but also admire them, not necessarily for the choices they make, but for the quality of character their deliberation reflects. What we admire is the disposition to see and bear one’s life circumstance as a reflectively situated being—claimed by the history that implicates me in a particular life, but self-conscious of its particularity, and so alive to competing claims and wider horizons. To have character is to live in recognition of one’s (sometime conflicting) encumbrances.

Unless I am really missing something here, Sandel’s claim for the morality of Lee’s decision lies in the facts that a) some people sympathize and admire people like him, b) the decision was the product of careful deliberation, and c) a particular life will have a particular context. I do not find these justifications sufficient. If you accept that humans are not perfectly moral in nature, then there is a (strong) possibility that humans might admire a decision that was carefully arrived at and yet immoral.

Sandel then argues that you cannot explain David Kaczynski’s difficult decision to turn in his brother unless you appreciate the moral import of family loyalty. While David made a different decision than Lee, “the dilemmas they faced make sense as moral dilemmas only if you acknowledge that the claims of loyalty and solidarity can weigh in the balance against other moral claims, including the duty to bring criminals to justice. If all our obligations are founded on consent, or on universal duties we owe persons as persons, it’s hard to account for these fraternal predicaments.”

I completely disagree. Evolutionary studies have done a pretty effective job of explaining such fraternal predicaments. Fraternal loyalty has been an evolutionary advantageous trait. Humans exhibit it. The fact that Joe Blow wants to start bow-legged Joe Blow, Jr., at shortstop on his little league baseball team does not mean that this nepotism is the least bit moral; it does suggest that natural selection has conditioned human behavior.

To restate my objection, Sandel equates humans’ natural behavior with morally-just behavior; a slight of hand that avoids engaging the moral question at hand. In the end, his argument fails to dissuade me from that “familiar idea of freedom … the idea that says we are unbound by any moral ties we haven’t chosen; to be free is to be the author of the only obligations that constrain us.”


Filed under: Philosophy

One Response

  1. Vince says:

    I tend to agree.

    Just because we feel natural moral attachments does not mean they’re morally justified. See also Jonathan Haidt’s work on the five foundations of morality.

    Liberals tend to favor two basic things: harm/care and reciprocity/fairness. Conservatives agree with fundamentally agree with those, though they may dispute what’s considered harm and contest what’s actually fair (e.g., flat tax vs. graduated income tax), but they have three other foundations or channels: ingroup loyalty, respect for heirarchy/authority and notions of sanctity.

    People all over the world experience a natural revulsion to incestual relations, but who cares if the couple uses birth control? Or what about gay sex?

    These moral sentiments may prove advantageous in a natural environment but they’re not necessarily moral.

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