Descent of the West? Part 3, Michael J. Sandel: How Concepts of Freedom Came Poised to End Freedom

Brett Alan Williams
7 min readOct 11, 2022
The Caryatids on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece by Sergio García on Unsplash, modified by the author in GIMP
The Caryatids on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece by Sergio García on Unsplash, modified by the author in GIMP

In Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel’s book, Democracy’s Discontent, he declares two anxieties at the heart of democracy’s restless present: “we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives [and that] from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.” Sounding like Patrick J. Deneen’s assessment 22 years later, Sandel claims what we now perceive as liberty “cannot secure the liberty it promises.”

America lives a theory, says Sandel. “Our practices and institutions are embodiments of theory of rights and obligations, citizenship and freedom, democracy and law. Political institutions are not simply instruments that implement ideas independently conceived; they are themselves embodiments of ideas.” This theory manifests itself by what Sandel calls public philosophy: “the political theory implicit in our practice, the assumptions about citizenship and freedom that inform our public life.” But that practice and those assumptions — until about 70 years ago — had a very different cast of mind.

Sandel decerns seeds of our demise in contradictions of the West’s foundational fabric, specifically its concepts of classical liberal freedom vs. republican (not Republican) freedom. For classical liberalism, which mutated into modern liberalism, “government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views its citizens espouse,” writes Sandel. “[Government] should provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends. Since this liberalism asserts the priority of fair procedures over particular ends, the public life it informs might be called the procedural republic.” This version of liberalism sees people as free and independent islands, “unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen.” Not only does this put the social contract in question but also the idea of a nation-state, where members belong to an extended abstraction of community. If each person is genuinely independent of a larger body, there is no state as conceived, only a common space occupied by sovereigns. As Sandel has it, this view of liberalism withdraws the civic resources necessary to sustain self-governance. (See Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Government moral neutrality is agnostic on the question of the good life, an inversion of the ancients who thought the purpose of politics and the state was to foster virtuous members of society. Otherwise, by Aristotle’s assessment, we sink into a mere alliance, different from others only in their physical separation from each other. “Law becomes a mere covenant…‘a guarantor of men’s rights against one another,’” says Aristotle. “The end and purpose of a polis is the good life, and the institutions of social life are means to that end…our highest ends.” Like Puritans, who saw their work in this world as unified with salvation in the next, Aristotle appears to seek unification of purpose and meaning. The purpose of cultivating virtuous individuals for society is in service to the meaning society provides for individuals. But James Madison and the Greeks agreed: governments can’t make everybody virtuous. For Madison, why bother? Accept their lower nature; use other means to tame them — moral neutrality in practice.

Yet leaning toward the ancient perspective, the republican view was not neutral toward values and ends. “The republican concept of freedom, unlike the liberal conception, requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities self-government requires.” Contrary to classical liberal notions, “republican theory is the idea that liberty depends on sharing in self-government,” claims Sandel. “It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community. But to deliberate well about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and respect other’s rights to do the same. It requires a knowledge of public affairs and a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake.”

Beyond the clickbait of conspiracy theories, talk radio outrage, and government representatives who lie as they breathe, what do most Americans know of public affairs? Politics is now entertainment — reality TV: people in compromising situations or compromising themselves as we watch the wild peculiarities of primate behavior under stress. And thanks to identity politics compounded by the segregation of multiculturalism under the guise of respecting one’s separate heritage, the melting pot is dead. Beyond today’s mass murder “community,” what belonging do Americans feel?

Unlike republican theory, “liberal political theory does not see political life as concerned with the highest ends or with the moral excellence of its citizens,” Sandel writes. “Liberal political theory insists on toleration, fair procedures, and respect for individual rights — values that respect people’s freedom to choose their own values. [However,] if liberal ideals cannot be defended in the name of the highest human good, then in what does their moral basis consist?” Instead, the capacity for morality is questioned by moral neutrality and defended with moral relativism. “Relativism usually appears less as a claim than a question,” writes Sandel, “Who is to judge?” But “toleration and freedom and fairness are values too, and they can hardly be defended by the claim that no values can be defended… How is it possible to affirm certain liberties and rights as fundamental without embracing some vision of the good life, without endorsing some ends over others?”

The answer comes in what good the ancients and moderns endorsed. Moderns reallocated the subject of the good to the individual. The community was demoted to inferior status or seen as hostile to the person. The good of the community no longer trickles down because there is no community. Morality becomes a matter of choice. When states don’t define the good life, each to his own, the death of community is sealed, but the peaceful coexistence of differing values, customs, and religions is facilitated. Social islands are spun off at a distance from one another in order to attenuate waves between them — waves that can become earthquakes on land. Outside family ties antecedent to choice, fleeting associations are as meaningful as our connections can get, eschewing coercion endemic to communities in favor of unencumbered selves.

Modern liberalism acknowledges that there are moral and religious matters that demand our obligation, but they should be set aside as relative matters in the public arena, fenced off for political peace. A “distinction between our personal and political identities…public selves, independent of any particular loyalties or conceptions of the good.” But Sandel asks, “Why should our political identities not express [those] moral and religious convictions?” And how are we able to do this, if not by another form of obligation when obligations are seen as a violation of the sanctity of free choice? Can morality and politics really be separated? And wasn’t politics about the philosophy of moral matters — freedom, justice, equality under law — practically applied?

Sandel provides two examples of moral bracketing: the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and abortion. “Since people were bound to disagree about the morality of slavery, [Stephen Douglas argued] national policy should be neutral on the question,” left to the territories to decide. Since people disagree about when the viability of human life begins, moral bracketing of abortion makes it permissible. The state should be neutral. Women should decide as a matter of individual rights, exempting the fetus as an individual. The central problem expressed is that it’s impossible for a procedural republic to exclude moral questions generated by the radical social dynamics of democracies — impossible by the psychology of human brains. The acrobatics of logic and reason become exhausted; the gap between theory and reality grows until the issue is swallowed in strife. Democracies either exclude morality or include it. Either way, democracy can be risked as a result. As Marcel Gauchet says of states, so too democracies: they hurl themselves apart as they struggle to hold themselves together.

Barring moral judgment from moral questions as though they could be ignored on the basis of neutrality and the expediency of political peace creates its own detachment, says Sandel. A detachment of the people from their creation of a society no longer their own. People won’t forget that slavery is a moral question any more than they will forget abortion is merely because current fashion says otherwise. This process “creates a moral void that opens the way for narrow, intolerant moralisms.” Like retribution for an election that wasn’t stolen; campus micro-aggressions invented for the purposes of supremacy over others; untrammeled free speech for the benefit of broadcasting disinformation; campus speech codes to muzzle “hate speech” so defined by self-defined victims of it.

Liberal freedom serves well a purpose-centered universe. Republican freedom joins others on a terrain of belonging and belonging means meaning. Both have benefits and penalties. The individual is paramount in a liberal world, while the individual is important but secondary to community in the republican, which happens to be where self-governance resides. Representing interconnected but opposing forces, this yin and yang of political philosophy is based on the same fundamental conundrum we’re faced with by the biological facts of life. We possess independent bodies. Bodies that were dependent on and built by somebody else, assembled cell-by-cell by our mother. But unlike cyanobacterial colonies or Star Trek’s Borg, as maturing beings, we are not a physically interconnected collective. As prewired social animals, heightened by the connections our mother enhanced, our attachments become not physical but psychological. Psychological connection and belonging are fundamental to the human definition. The liberal idea of individualism runs counter to that but satisfies the physical reality we experience every day: that we are alone in our own bodies, while simultaneously demoting the connections we feel but can’t see, especially when we lose them as modernity requires.

References:

Paragraph 1: “we are losing…” Sandel, p. 3. “cannot secure…” Ibid., p. 6

Paragraph 2: “Our practices…” Ibid., p. ix

Paragraph 3: “government should…” Ibid., p. 4, italics added. “unencumbered by… Ibid., p. 6

Paragraph 4: “Law becomes…” Ibid., pg.7. “The end…” Ibid., p. 7

Paragraph 5: “The republican…” Ibid., p. 6. “It means…” Ibid., p. 5

Paragraph 7: “liberal political…” Ibid., pp. 7,8. “Relativism usually…” Ibid., p. 8. ““toleration and freedom…” Ibid., pp. 8,10

Paragraph 9: “distinction between…” Ibid., p. 18. “Why should…” Ibid., p. 18

Paragraph 10: “Since people…” Ibid., p. 21. “creates a…” Ibid., p. 24

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Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com