Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? (Harvard)

Episode 12:

Debating Same-sex Marriage /
The Good Life

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Michael Sandel: We ended last time talking about the narrative conception of the self, we were testing the narrative conception of the self and the idea of obligations of solidarity or membership that did not flow from consent, that claimed us for reasons unrelated to a contract or an agreement or a choice we may have made. And we were debating among ourselves whether there are any obligations of this kind or whether all apparent obligations of solidarity and membership can be translated into consent or reciprocity or universal duty that we owe persons que persons. Then there were those who defended the idea of loyalty and of patriotism, so the idea of loyalty and of solidarity and of membership gathered a certain kind of intuitive moral force in our discussion and then as we concluded we considered what seems to be a pretty powerful counter example to that idea, namely the film of those southern segregationists in the 1950s and they talked all about their traditions, their history, the way in which their identities were bound up with their life history. Do you remember that? And what flowed from that history? From that narrative sense of identity for those southern segregationists, they said we have to defend our way of life. Is this a fatal or a decisive objection to the idea of the narrative conception of the self? That’s the question we were left with.
What I would like to do today is to advance an argument and see what you make of it and let me tell you what that argument is, I would like to defend the narrative conception of the person as against the val interest conception. I would like to defend the idea that there are obligations of solidarity or membership, then I want to suggest that there being such obligations lends force to the idea, when we turn to justice, that arguments about justice can’t be detached, cannot be detached after all from questions of the good. But I want to distinguish two different ways in which justice might be tied to the good and argue for one of them. Now the val interest conception of the person of Kant and Rawls we saw was powerful and liberating a further appeal is its universal aspiration, the idea of treating persons as persons without prejudice, without discrimination. And I think that’s what led some among us to argue that OK maybe there are obligations of membership but they are always subordinate, they must always be subordinate to the duties that we have to human beings as such, the universal duties. But is that right? If our encompassing loyalties should always take precedence over more particular ones then the distinction between friends and strangers should ideally be overcome. Our special concern for the welfare of friends would be a kind of prejudice, a measure of our distance from universal human concern. But if you look closely at that idea, what kind of a moral universe, what kind of moral imagination would that lead you to? The enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu gives perhaps the most powerful and I think the ultimately the most honest account of where this relentless, universalizing tendency leads the moral imagination. Here’s how Montesquieu put it, he said “a truly virtuous man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend” and then he adds, listen to this, “if men were perfectly virtuous they wouldn’t have friends” but it’s difficult to imagine a world where persons were so virtuous that they had no friends, only a universal disposition to friendliness. The problem isn’t simply that such a world would be difficult to bring about, that it’s unrealistic, the deeper problem is that such a world would be difficult to recognize as a human world. The love of humanity is a noble sentiment but most of the time we live our lives by smaller solidarities, this may reflect certain limits to the bounds of moral sympathy but more important it reflects the fact that we learn to love humanity not in general but through its particular expressions. So these are some considerations, they’re not knock down arguments, but moral philosophy can’t offer knock down arguments but considerations of the kinds we’ve been discussing and arguing about all along. Well suppose that’s right? One way of assessing whether this picture of the person and of obligation is right is to see what are its consequences for justice. And here’s where it confronts a serious problem and here we go back to our southern segregationists. They felt the weight of history, do we admire their character? These segregationists who wanted to preserve their way of life? Are we committed to saying, if we accept the idea of solidarity and membership, are we committed to saying that justice is tied to the good in the sense that justice means whatever a particular community or tradition says it needs, including those southern segregationists? Here it’s important to distinguish two different ways in which justice can be tied to the good. One is a relativist way, that’s the way that says to think about rights, to think about justice, look to the values that happen to prevail in any given community at any given time. Don’t judge them by some outside standard but instead conceive justice as a matter of being faithful to a shared understanding of a particular tradition. But there is a problem with this way of tying justice to the good; the problem is that is makes justice wholly conventional, a product of circumstance and this deprives justice of its critical character. But there is a second way in which justice can be tied up with or bound up with the good. On the second, non-relativist way of linking justice with conceptions of the good, principles of justice depend for their justification not on the values that prevail at any given moment in a certain place but instead on the moral worth or the intrinsic good of the ends rights serve. On this non-relativist view the case for recognizing a right depends on showing that it honors or advances some important human good. The second way of tying justice to the good is not strictly speaking communitarian, if by communitarian you mean just giving over to a particular community the definition of justice. Now what I would like to suggest that of these two different ways of linking justice to the good, the first is insufficient, because the first leaves justice the creature of convention. It doesn’t give us enough moral resources to respond to those southern segregationists who invoke their way of life, their traditions, their way of doing things. But, if justice is bound up with the good in a non-relativist way, there’s a big challenge, a big question to answer. How can we reason about the good? What about the fact that people hold different conceptions of the good, different ideas about the purposes of key social institutions? Different ideas about what social goods and human goods are worthy of honor and recognition. We live in a pluralist society. People disagree about the good. That’s one of the incentives to try to find principles of justice and rights that don’t depend on any particular ends, or purposes, or goods. So is there a way to reason about the good? Before addressing that question, I want to address a slightly easier question. Is it necessary, is it unavoidable when arguing about justice, to argue about the good? And my answer to that question is yes, it’s unavoidable, it’s necessary. So for the remainder for today, I want to take up, I want to try to advance that claim, that reasoning about the good, about purposes, and ends, is an unavoidable feature of arguing about justice. It’s necessary. Let me see if I can establish that. And for that, I’d like for us to begin a discussion of same sex marriage. Now, same sex marriage draws on, implicates deeply contested and controversial ideas, morally and religiously. And so there’s a powerful incentive to embrace a conception of justice, or of rights, that doesn’t require the society as a whole to pass judgment, one way or another, on those hotly contested moral and religious questions. About the moral permissibility of homosexuality, about the proper ends of marriage as a social institution. So clearly, if there’s an incentive to resolve this question, to define people’s rights in a way that doesn’t require the society as a whole to sort out the moral and religious disputes, that would be very attractive. So what I would like to do now is to see, using the same sex marriage case, whether it’s possible to detach one’s views about the moral permissibility of homosexuality and about the purpose, the end or marriage, to detach those questions from the question of whether the state should recognize same sex marriage or not. So, let’s begin, I would like to begin by hearing the arguments of those who believe that there should be no same sex marriage, but that the state should only recognize marriage between a man and a woman. Do I have volunteers? There were two that were, two people I asked, people who had voiced their views already on the justice blog, Mark Loff and Ryan McCaffrey, where are you? OK, ah, Mark. And where’s Ryan? Alright, let’s go first to Mark.

Mark: I have sort of a teleological understanding of, umm, the purpose of sex and the purpose of marriage. And, I think that for people like myself, who are a Christian and also a Catholic, the purpose of sex is one, towards procreative, umm, uses, and two, for a unifying purpose between a man and a woman within the, within the institution of marriage.

Michael Sandel: You have a certain conception of the purpose, or the telos, of human sexuality, which is bound up with procreation.

Mark: Right.

Michael Sandel: As well as union.

Mark: Yeah.

Michael Sandel: And the essence of marriage, the purpose of marriage as a social institution, is to give expression to that telos, and to honor that purpose, namely the procreative purpose of marriage. Is that a fair summary of your view?

Mark: Yeah.

Michael Sandel: Where is Ryan? Go ahead. Do you agree more or less with Mark’s reasons?

Ryan: Yes I agree. Umm, ah, I think that, ah, the ideal of a marriage is involved with procreation, and it’s fine that, you know, homosexuals would go off and, umm, and co-habitate with each other, but that, but the government doesn’t have to have a responsibility to encourage that.

Michael Sandel: Alright, so the government should not encourage homosexual behavior by conferring the recognition of marriage.

Mark: Yeah. It would be wrong to outlaw it, but encouraging it is not necessary.

Michael Sandel: Who has a reply? Yes. Hannah.

Hannah: I’d just like to ask a question to Mark, ah, let’s say you got married to a woman, you did not have sex with her before marriage, and then when you became married, it became evident that you were an infertile couple. Do you think it should be illegal for you to engage in sex if you, if children will not result from that act?

Mark: Yeah, I, I think that it is moral, that’s why I gave the, the two fold purpose. So like, a woman, say, I think older couples can get married, someone, a woman who is beyond, umm, she’s already had menopause and who can’t have a child, because I think that sex has these, it has purposes beyond procreation.

Hannah: I hate to be uncouth, but have you ever engaged in masturbation?

Michael Sandel: Alright, you don’t have to answer that. You can. Just a minute. Why? No. Make your, make your argument.

Mark: I’d like to respond to that.

Michael Sandel: Wait, we’ve done pretty well over a whole semester and we’re doing pretty well now dealing with questions that most people think can’t even be discussed in a university setting and Hannah you got you have a powerful point, make that point as a general argument rather than, rather than an interrogative, but make the point. What’s the what’s the principle that you’re appealing? What’s the argument that you have in mind?

Hannah: All right, well biblically

Michael Sandel: Put it in the third person

Hannah: OK

Michael Sandel: Rather than, rather than, rather than in the second person. Make the argument. Go ahead.

Hannah: OK. Biblically masturbation or Onanism is not permissible because it’s umm spilling your seed on the earth when it’s not going to result in the birth of a child but what I’m saying is, you know you’re saying that sex, you know there is something wrong with sex if it doesn’t produce children or reinforce the marriage bond.

Mark: Right.

Hannah: But then how can you say that there’s something wrong, that you know that masturbation is permissible if masturbation is obviously not going to you know create a child.

Mark: Yeah, I think marriage is societies’ way to create this separate institution where they say this is what we hold as a virtue, yes every day we fall short and people fall short in so many different other ways, but I think if you personally fall short on some moral sphere, as we all do, that doesn’t take the right of you to argue.

Michael Sandel: All right, I want you, you to stay there. I want to bring in some other voices and we’ll continue. Stay there if you would. Go ahead.

Steve: I think that the response to the masturbation

Michael Sandel: Tell us your name.

Steve: My name’s Steve.

Michael Sandel: Steve, go ahead.

Steve: Umm, all right, the response to the masturbation issue is ahh it’s not something that is permissible, I don’t think anyone will argue that that homosexual sex is impermissible, it’s just that society has no place in letting you marry yourself if masturbation is something that you do.

Michael Sandel: Well all right. Hannah.

Michael Sandel: All right Steve has drawn out, alright that’s a good argument. Steve has drawn our attention to the fact that there are two issues here. One of them is the moral permissibility of various practices, the other is the fit between certain practices, whatever their moral permissibility, with the honor or recognition that the state should accord in allowing marriage, so Steve has a pretty good counter, counter argument. What do you say to Steve?

Hannah: Umm, well I think that it’s clear that human sexuality is something that is you know inherent in, I believe, most people and it’s not something that you can avoid, and masturbation, I mean, you can’t marry yourself, but I don’t think that takes away from the fact that, you know, homosexuals are people too. And I just, I can’t, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t be able to marry each other. If you want to marry yourself, I mean, I, I don’t know if you can legally do that. That’s fine, but I don’t think…

Michael Sandel: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Now here we’re deciding, here we’re deliberating as if legislatures what the law should be. So you said, Steve, that’s fine. Does that mean as a legislature you would vote for a law of marriage that would be so broad that it would let people marry themselves?

Hannah: Well, I mean, that’s really beyond the pale of like anything that would really happen, but I don’t think that…

Michael Sandel: But in principle…

Hannah: In principle? Yeah, sure, I mean, if Steve wants to marry himself I’m not going to stop him.

Steve: I, I think I…

Michael Sandel: And you would confer a state recognition on that solo marriage?

Hannah: Sure.

Michael Sandel: And while we’re at it, what about consensual polygamous marriages?

Hannah: I, I actually think that if the male and the female, or that is the wives and the man and the husband, or the husbands and the wife are consenting, it should be permissible.

Michael Sandel: Who else there, I know there are a lot of people who, yes, OK, down here. Stand up and tell us your name.

Victoria: Ah, Victoria.

Michael Sandel: Victoria.

Victoria: So, we’re talking about the theological reasoning here for marriage, but I think the problem is that we’re talking about it within the Catholic viewpoint, whereas the theological and the point to marriage for another religion or someone who is an atheist could be completely different and the government doesn’t have the right to impose the theological reasoning for Cathol, Catholicism on everyone in the state, which is what my problem is with not allowing same sex marriage because I mean your beliefs are your beliefs and that’s fine but civil union is not marriage within the Catholic church and the state has a right to recognize a civil union between whoever it wants but it does not have a right to impose the beliefs of a certain minority or majority or whoever it is based on a religion within our state.

Michael Sandel: All right. Victoria good, a question. Do you think the state should recognize same sex marriage or just same sex civil unions as something short of marriage?

Victoria: Well I think that the state doesn’t have a right to recognize it as marriage within a church because that is not their place, bur as where civil unions, I see civil union as essentially the same thing except not under a religion and the state has a right to recognize a civil union.

Michael Sandel: All right so Victoria’s argument is that the state should not try to decide the question of what the telos of marriage is, that’s only something that religious communities can decide. Umm, who else?

Seizan: Umm, my point is I don’t see why ahh you feel like states should recognize marriages at all. Ahh, so I ‘m like one of these 70 people who voted states should not recognize any marriages because I believe it is like a union between a male and a female or two males or two females but there is no reason to like ask state to give permission to me to unite myself and some might say that like if states recognizes these marriages it will help children, it will have a binding binding effect but in reality I don’t think it actually has a binding effect.

Michael Sandel: All right, tell us your name.

Seizan: Seizan

Michael Sandel: So, Victoria’s and Seizan’s comments differ from earlier parts of the conversation, they say the state shouldn’t be in the business of honoring or recognizing or affirming any particular telos or purpose of marriage or of human sexuality and Seizan is among those who says therefore maybe the state should get out of the business of recognizing marriage at all. Here’s the question, unless you adopt Seizan’s position, no state recognition of any kind of marriage, is it possible to choose between, to decide the question of same sex marriage without taking a stand on the moral and religious controversy over the proper telos of marriage. Thank you very much to all of you who have participated, we’ll pick this up next time. You did a great job.

When we first came together some 13 weeks ago I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance it’s never quite the same again. I hope you have by now experienced at least a little of this unease, because this is the tension that animates critical reflection and political improvement and maybe even the moral life as well.

We have two remaining questions to answer; first is it necessary, is it unavoidable to take up questions of the good life in thinking about justice? Yes? And is it possible to reason about justice? Yes, I think so. Let me try to develop those answers to those two questions. Now as a way of addressing those questions we began last time to discuss the question of same sex marriage and we heard from those who argued against same sex marriage on the grounds that the purpose or telos of marriage is at least in part procreation, the bearing and raising of children. And then there were those who defended same sex marriage and they contested that account of the purpose or telos of marriage, arguing we don’t require as a condition of heterosexual marriage that couples be able or willing to procreate, we allow infertile couples to marry, this was Hannah’s point in the exchange with Mark. Then there was another position expressed at the end of our discussion by Victoria, who argued we shouldn’t try to decide this question, we shouldn’t at least at the level of the state, at the level of the law try to come to any agreement on those questions about the good because we live in a pluralist society where people have different moral and religious convictions and so we should try to make law in the framework of rights neutral with respect to these competing moral and religious views. Now it’s interesting that others, some others who favor the idea of neutrality argued not in favor of restricting marriage to a man and a woman nor in favor of permitting same sex marriage, they argued in the name of neutrality for a third possibility, which is that government get out of the business of recognizing any kind of marriage. That was the third possibility. Now Andrea Merose had an interesting contribution to this debate, she had a rejoinder to people who argue for neutrality. Where’s Andrea? All right, Andrea would you be willing to share with us the view, if we can get you a microphone, share, share with us your view. Why do you think that it’s a mistake for the state to try to be neutral on moral, and even religious questions like same sex marriage?

Andrea: I don’t know if it is possible because people’s lives are completely imbedded in how they how they view the world and umm maybe I just agree with Aristotle that the role of the government is helping people live in a sort of, like having a collective understanding of what, what is wrong and what is right.

Michael Sandel: Is it possible and one could ask the same question about abortion that we’ve been asking of same sex marriage, do you think it’s possible to decide whether abortion could be permitted or prohibited without taking a stand or making a judgment about the moral permissibility of abortion.

Andrea: No, I don’t think it is and I think that’s why it’s such a controversy because people are so deeply committed to like their fundamental beliefs about whether a fetus is a life or it isn’t. It’s if I believe that like a fetus is a living being and has rights and, and has like fundamentally the right to live then it’s very hard for me to say but I can put that aside and let you do what you want, because that’s like me saying well despite my beliefs I’m going to let you commit what to me is murder. So, I mean that’s just, that’s just one

Michael Sandel: All right and the analogy the analogy in the same sex marriage case is you said you’re a defender of same sex marriage

Andrea: Yeah

Michael Sandel: But you only came to that view once you were persuaded on the underlying moral question.

Andrea: Right. Well I think particularly in the US so many people’s beliefs are driven by their religious beliefs and umm like Mark the other day, I’m Christian, I’m Catholic and I had to decide for myself like on a lot of thought, a lot of prayer, a lot of conversations with other people that I disagreed with, the Catholic stand point that homosexuality itself isn’t a sin and once I came to that sort of conclusion with my personal relationship with God, like I mean that sounds hokey right, that’s like oh religious but a lot of people are religious and that’s where they draw their beliefs and views from umm that’s when I could say yeah I’m I’m down with the state saying go same sex marriage because I’m OK with that and I think that’s morally OK.

Michael Sandel: OK, good. Thank you. Now who would like to, who would like to reply? If you can perhaps hang on there for a moment. Who would like to reply to Andrea’s idea that in order to decide the question of same sex marriage it’s necessary to sort out the question about the moral status of homosexuality and figuring out the purpose, the telos, the proper end of marriage? Who disagrees with Andrea on that point? Yes.

Daniel: Well I think you absolutely can separate your moral opinion and what you think the law should be. For example, I think abortion is unequivocally morally wrong but I do not believe that illegalizing abortion makes it go away, I don’t believe illegalizing abortion stops it and therefore I am pro-choice and I do believe that the woman should have the choice as is gives more safety, just as maybe morally I don’t want to get married to a man but I’m not going to try to umm you know umm impede someone else’s freedom to do what they wish to do in terms of the law.

Andrea: Whether the law makes something legal or illegal is it’s implicitly umm approving or disapproving something, so if you say like by making abortion legal you’re saying it’s OK as a society, collectively we’re saying it’s OK with us in our society to abort a fetus. If we make it legal umm if we make it illegal then we’re saying that collectively as a society it’s not OK. And that’s why society should

Michael Sandel: Tell us, tell us your name.

Daniel: My name’s Daniel.

Michael Sandel: Daniel, what do you say?

Daniel: Are are we saying collectively that’s it OK or are we saying collectively that we don’t want women who are going to have an abortion anyway to go to clinics in side alleys and have you know un unsafe conditions.

Michael Sandel: All right, bring it to the same sex marriage case. Why don’t you have to decide that, which position you are in favor of same sex marriage Daniel, being legally permitted?

Daniel: I I think it should be absolutely legally permitted because it’s not something telling me I need to have to, I need to marry a man. I I absolutely don’t see if two men are consenting adults and want to get married, I don’t see how I could even object to that.

Michael Sandel: All right, there’s no harm.

Daniel: No harm done either way, even if, even, even if it’s morally wrong according to me.

Michael Sandel: All right let me ahh let me turn to the way the Massachusetts’ court, who made this landmark ruling in the same sex marriage case, grappled with, the very issue the Andrea and Dan have been ahh discussing in here. Thanks to both of you very much.
What did the court say? This was in the Goodwrich case, which required the state of Massachusetts to extend marriage to same sex couples. The court started out, well the court was conflicted, if you read that opinion carefully, the court was conflicted as between the two positions we’ve just been hearing, defended by Andrea and by Dan. The court begins, and this is Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s opinion, it begins with an attempt at liberal neutrality. "Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman and that homosexual conduct is immoral. Many hold equally strong religious, moral and ethical convictions that same sex couples are entitled to be married, that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors", this is the court, "neither view answers the question before us. What is at stake is quote respect for individual autonomy and equality under law. At stake is an individual freely choosing the person with whom to share an exclusive commitment". In other words at issue is not the moral worth of the choice but the right of the individual to make it. So this is the liberal neutral strand in the court opinion, val interest strand the one that emphasizes autonomy, choice, consent. But the court seemed to realize that the liberal case, the neutral case for recognizing same sex marriage doesn’t succeed, doesn’t get you all the way to that position, because if it were only a matter of respect for individual autonomy, if government were truly neutral on the moral worth of voluntary intimate relationships then it should adopt a different policy which is to remove government and the state all together from according recognition to certain associations, certain kinds of unions rather than others. If government really must be neutral then the consistent position is what we here have been describing as the third position, the one defended in the article by Michael Kinsley, who argues for the abolition of marriage at least as a state function. Perhaps a better term for this is the disestablishment of religion. This is Kinsley’s proposal, he points that the reason for the opposition to same sex marriage is that it would go beyond neutral toleration and give same sex marriage the government stamp of approval, that’s at the heart of the dispute. In Aristotle’s terms, at issue here is the proper distribution of offices and honors, a matter of social recognition. Same sex marriage can’t be justified on the basis of liberal neutrality or non-discrimination or autonomy rights alone, because the question at stake in the public debate is whether same sex unions have moral worth, whether they are worthy of honor and recognition and whether they fit the purpose of the social institution of marriage. So Kinsley says if you want to be neutral then "let churches and other religious institutions offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want to". this is Kinsley. "Let couples celebrate their union in any way they chose and consider themselves married whenever they want. And if three people want to get married, or if one person wants to marry himself or herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony for them and declare them married, let them. If you and your government aren’t implicated, what do you care?". This is Kinsley but this is not the position that the supreme court of Massachusetts wanted. They didn’t call for the abolition or disestablishment of marriage, the court did not question governments’ role on conferring social recognition on some intimate associations rather than others, to the contrary, the court waxes eloquent about marriage as quote one our communities most rewarding and cherished institutions and then it goes on to expand the definition if marriage to include partners of the same sex. And in doing so it acknowledges that marriage is more than a matter of tolerating choices individuals make, it’s also a matter of social recognition and honor. As justice Marshall wrote, "In a real sense there are three partners to every civil marriage; two willing spouses and an approving state. Marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment but also a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity and family". This is the court, now this is reaching well beyond liberal neutrality; this is celebrating and affirming marriage as an honorific, as a form of public recognition and therefore the court found that it couldn’t avoid the debate about the telos of marriage. Justice Marshall’s opinion considers and rejects the notion that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, she points out that there is no requirement that applicants for a marriage license who are heterosexuals to test to their ability to or their intention to conceive children. Fertility is not a condition of marriage, people who cannot stir from their death bed may marry, so she advances all kinds of arguments along the lines that we began last time about what the proper end, essential nature, the telos, of marriage is. And she concludes "not procreation, but the exclusive and permanent commitment of the partners to one another is the essential point and purpose of marriage". Now nothing I’ve said about this court opinion is an argument for or against same sex marriage but it is an argument against the claim that you can favor or oppose same sex marriage while remaining neutral on underlying moral and religious questions. So all of this is to suggest that at least in some of the hotly contested debates about justice and rights that we have in our society, the attempt to be neutral, the attempt to say it’s just a matter of consent and choice and autonomy, we take no stand, that doesn’t succeed. Even the court which wants to be neutral on these moral religious disputes finds that it can’t. What then about out second question? If reasoning about the good is unavoidable in debates about justice and rights, is it possible if reasoning about the good means that you must have a single principle or rule or maxim or criterion for the good life that you simply plug in every time you have a disagreement about morality then the answer is no but having a single principle or rule is not the only the way, not the best way of reasoning either about the good life or about justice. Think back, think back to the arguments that we’ve been having here about justice and about rights and sometimes about the good life. How have those arguments proceeded? They’ve proceeded very much in the way that Aristotle suggests, moving back and forth between our judgments about particulars, particular cases, events, stories, questions. Back and forth between our judgments about particular cases and more general principles that make sense of our reasons for the positions we take on the particular cases. This dialectical way of doing moral reasoning goes back to the ancients, to Plato and Aristotle, but it doesn’t stop with them because there is a version of Socratic or dialectical moral reasoning that is defended with great clarity and force by John Rawls in giving an account of his method of justifying a theory of justice. You remember it’s not only the veil of ignorance and the principles that Rawls argues for, it’s also a method of moral reasoning, reasoning about justice that he calls reflective equilibrium. What is the method of reflective equilibrium? It’s moving back and forth between our considered judgments about particular cases and the general principles we would articulate to make sense of those judgments and not just stopping there, because we might be wrong in our initial intuitions, not stopping there but then sometimes revising our particular judgments in the light of the principles once we work them out. So sometimes we revise the principles, sometimes we revise our judgments, and intuitions in the particular cases. The general point is this, and here I quote Rawls, “a conception of justice can’t be deduced from self-evident premises. Its justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view.” And later in a theory of justice he writes “moral philosophy is Socratic. We may want to change our present considered judgments once their regulative principles are brought to light.” Well, if Rawls accepts that idea and advances that notion of reflective equilibrium, the question we are left with is he applies to that to questions of justice not to questions of morality and the good life but and that’s why he remains committed to the priority of the right over the good. He thinks the method of reflective equilibrium can generate shared judgments about justice and the right but he doesn’t think they can generate shared judgments about the good life, about what he calls comprehensive moral and religious questions. And the reason he thinks that is that he says that in modern societies there is a fact of reasonable pluralism about the good. Even conscientious people who reason well will find that they disagree about questions of the good life, about morality and religion. And Rawls is likely right about that, he’s not talking about the fact of disagreement in pluralist societies, he’s also suggesting that there may be persisting disagreements about the good life and about moral and religious questions. But if that’s true then is he warranted in his further claim that the same can’t be said about justice? Isn’t it also true not only that we as a matter of fact disagree about justice in pluralist societies but that at least some these disagreements are reasonable disagreements in the same way? Some people favor a libertarian theory of justice, others a more egalitarian theory of justice and they argue and there is pluralism in our society as between free market laissez faire libertarian theories of justice and more egalitarian ones. Is there any difference in principle between the kind of moral reasoning and the kind of disagreements that arise when we debate about justice? In the meaning of free speech, in the nature of religious liberty, look at the debates we have over appointees to the supreme court, these are all disagreements about justice and rights. Is there any difference between the fact of reasonable pluralism in the case of justice and rights and in the case of morality and religion? In principle I don’t think that there is. In both cases what we do when we disagree is we engage in with our interlocutor, as we have been doing here for an entire semester, we consider the arguments that are provoked by particular cases, we try to develop the reasons that lead us to go one way rather than another. And then we listen to the reasons of other people and sometimes we’re persuaded to revise our view, other times we are challenged at least to shore up and strengthen our view. But this is how moral argument proceeds with justice and so it seems to me also with questions of the good life. Now there remains a further worry and it’s a liberal worry. What about, if we’re going to think of our disagreements about morality and religion as bound up with our disagreements about justice, how are we ever going to find our way to a society that accords respect to fellow citizens with whom we disagree? It depends I think on which conception of respect one accepts. On the liberal conception, to respect our fellow citizens’ moral and religious convictions is, so to speak, to ignore them for political purposes, to rise above or abstract from or to set aside those moral and religious convictions, to leave them undisturbed, to carry on our political debate without reference to them. But that isn’t the only way or perhaps even the most plausible way of understanding the mutual respect upon which democratic life depends. There is a different conception of respect, according to which we respect our fellow citizens’ moral and religious convictions not by ignoring but by engaging them, by attending to them. Sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening and learning from them. Now there is no guarantee that a politics of moral and religious attention and engagement will lead in any given case to agreement, there is no guarantee that it will lead even to appreciation for the moral and religious convictions of others, it’s always possible that after all, that learning more about a religious or a moral doctrine will lead us to like it less but the respect of deliberation and engagement seems to me a more adequate, more suitable ideal for a pluralist society and to the extent that our moral and religious disagreements reflect some ultimate plurality of human goods. A politics of moral engagement will better enable us, so it seems to me, to appreciate the distinctive goods our different lives express.
When we first came together some 13 weeks ago I spoke of the exhilaration of political philosophy and also of its dangers, about how philosophy works and has always worked by estranging us from the familiar, by unsettling our settled assumptions and I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance it’s never quite the same again. I hope you have by now experienced at least a little of this unease, because this is the tension that animates critical reflection and political improvement and maybe even the moral life as well and so our argument comes to an end in a sense but in another sense goes on. Why, we asked at the outset, why do these arguments keep going? Even if they raise questions that are impossible ever finally to resolve, the reason is that we live some answer to these questions all the time. In our public life and in our personal lives philosophy is inescapable, even if it sometimes seems impossible. We began with a thought of Kant that skepticism is a resting place for human reason where it can reflect upon its dogmatic wanderings but it is no dwelling place for permanent settlement, to allow ourselves simply to acquiesce in skepticism or in complacence, Kant wrote, can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason. The aim of this course has been to awaken the restlessness of reason and to see where it might lead and if we have done at least that and if the restlessness continues to afflict you in the days and years to come then we together have achieved no small thing. Thank you.

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