Sandel, Michael Essay

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Michael Sandel (1953– ) is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he began teaching political philosophy in 1980. His popular undergraduate course “Justice” is the first Harvard course to be made freely available on public television and online ( For Sandel, justice is not the central component of social and political life; it appears in debates when conflicts about  self-governance  emerge.  To  understand his work and the limits of justice requires a brief background of moral and political thought.

Sandel is often  associated  with other  political and social philosophers who de-emphasize Immanuel  Kant’s liberal individualism, such as Amitai Etzioni, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer. Contemporary debates in political philosophy typically argue either the position of liberalism, which focuses on individual needs and rights, or the contrasting communitarian view, which focuses on the debts and obligations of living in a collective. Michael Sandel offers a formative response and alternative vision of political, moral, and social life than that of his former moral philosophy professor, John Rawls. Sandel’s Liberalism  and the Limits  of Justice (1982) is a republican critique of Rawls’s liberal A Theory of Justice (1971).

Most critiques of Sandel rest upon the assumption that, because he is critical of Rawls and liberalism, he automatically emphasizes the primacy of the collective as do communitarians. However, Sandel is not a communitarian. Between these two polarities which prioritize either the individual or the collective lies a third, mediating position: civic republicanism. Furthering the lesser-known civic republican position of J. G. A. Pocock, Philip Pettit, and Quentin Skinner, Sandel argues that the limits of liberalism and communitarianism are that neither can properly ensure and sustain liberty. Rather than ask which has priority, the individual or the collective, civic republicans ask how citizens can better or best govern themselves.

Sandel traces the tradition of deontological liberalism to Kant and finds it most fully elaborated in the work of John Rawls. He finds the liberal vision to be flawed and incomplete, namely because the individual in liberalism is viewed as isolated and disconnected from the intersubjective social world. For Rawls, to better conceptualize what is just requires an a historical (deontological) self that makes decisions about the best form of the structure of human social institutions behind a “veil of ignorance.” Social forms are viewed as constraints upon individual freedom and, therefore, require forces to limit them. Justice as the first premise of social institutions is designed to protect individual choices “unencumbered” by social, historical, and cultural  influences. Sandel counters that in circumstances of high levels of benevolence there is little conflict and few appeals to justice. Hence, benevolence renders justice unnecessary. Demand for individual rights is inversely proportional to benevolence and fraternity.

Foundation of Justice

From the viewpoint of Western intellectual history, the genealogy of the discussion of justice must be traced to ancient Greek philosophy, ancient Hebrew  moral  and religious law, and ancient Roman law. These diverse outlooks were combined in the Middle Ages to form the disciplines of theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, and political science. In the 17th century the latter three disciplines broke from theology, and only in the 19th and 20th centuries did they break away from each other. To this day the concept of justice is a fundamental concern of each and no one discipline has hegemonic control over the others. Inquiry on justice, a topic itself defined by historical context, has meaning not only in the descriptive or logical sense but in the prescriptive or normative sense. The implications  are that the recent “discovery of the individual” in the West developed from a community concerned  with actions  and beliefs about how to treat one another, requires community solidarity for validity, and is not limited to jurisprudence because laws themselves are social constructions that require a metalaw.

Prior to Rawls, the dominant conception of justice  in  the  contemporary  English-speaking world was utilitarianism, the belief that laws and public policies should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. For example, if a large majority despises a minority religion and wants it censored, utilitarian principles support this ban. Rawls in A Theory  of Justice offers justice as the primary virtue and returned to the liberal doctrine of fundamental individual rights to argue that certain rights—namely, the freedom to choose—are so profoundly important that the desires of the majority cannot override them. In this way, Rawls argues for the primacy of the individual right over the social good. Rawls critiques the emphasis upon concerns of the community that ignore the rights of individuals. For example, slavery may be a greater good for the community but is a form of injustice because it ignores the fundamental rights of freedom of those who are enslaved. Terms referring to individuals such as “freedom,” “rights,” “constraints,” and “deontological” are contrasted against moral and social terms such as “liberty,” “the good,” “duties,” and “encumbered.” Communitarians counter that the liberal emphasis on individual rights promotes division of the citizens in the modern state against one another, fostering isolation, selfishness, and apathy rather than civic engagement and concern for others in the life of a community.

The question of whether the foundation of justice is located primarily in the individual or in the community is a question that has exercised the minds of political, moral, and social philosophers for centuries and emerged especially in the United States in the 1980s. Are individual rights or community values the ultimate arbiter in debates? Is justice the primary virtue? In addressing these questions,  Sandel helped to revive and enlarge deeper questions concerning human nature; the interrelationship between liberty, obligation, and social responsibility; and to clarify the debate between  “the  right”  and  “the  good.”  Sandel argues that conceptions of justice and the choice for giving primacy to individuals or to collectives have inescapably moral dimensions and social foundations. In rejecting the deontological and unencumbered self of liberalism as a self that is unable to participate properly in self-governance, Sandel’s civic republicanism defines human beings as inescapably and deeply embedded in sociohistorical contexts; human beings are political; and, finally, political participation is a good that is required to secure individual rights.

The Liberal-Communitarian Divide

Sandel’s civic republicanism offers to bridge the liberal-communitarian divide by underscoring that both the claims of the individuals and the claims of collectives can be taken too far or too lightly. The solution is to bring the claims of communities and individuals into balance, not to choose between them. The fundamental point is that communities cannot exist without individuals and individuals cannot exist, much less thrive, without communities. The challenge is to find forms of community and individuality that mutually recognize and support each other, which requires critical judgment, ethical intuition, and human sympathy rather than a system of philosophical abstraction.

To better grasp the civic republican understanding of justice—participation in self-governing— which entails ruling and being ruled, the citizen here is defined in terms of a personality adequately mature to participate in self-rule. This demands a certain amount of responsibility toward others along with equality among citizens. The tendency of liberal jurisprudence is to lower the level of participation and deny the premise that man is by nature a political animal.

Another way to approach the difference between the liberal and the civic republican perspective of Sandel is to cast the debate in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s contrast between negative and positive liberty. The ideal of liberty advanced in the liberal tradition is that of negative liberty—“freedom from” the interference of others to obstruct or coerce the voluntary choice of a given individual. In contrast, the ideal of liberty advanced in the civic republican tradition is a positive achievement and requires more than noninterference and freedom of choice. Liberty is positive, according to Quentin Skinner, in the sense that civic engagement is a requisite in securing liberty both to stand against tyranny and to promote the characters and virtues for better and future civic participation.

In  a  later  work,  Democracy’s  Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (1996), Sandel begins by describing two fears at the heart of modern democracy: (1) the loss of self-governance, and (2) the erosion of the positive aspects of communal life. The heart of the problem, for Sandel, is that individuals cannot adequately address these concerns because the implicit liberalism in current public philosophy lacks necessary conceptual resources to nurture self-governing individuals and to sustain liberty. Sandel asks, how are citizens best able to govern themselves? This is a qualitatively different question than asking how individuals can best be left alone to make choices according to their preferences.

Individual agency, according to Sandel, is constituted of two elements: (1) the capacity for choosing, and (2) the capacity for reflection. Capacity for choice is the possibility of engaging in behaviors that intervene in the affairs of the social and natural world; capacity for reflection refers to the cognitive dimensions of critical appraisal required for self-governance  and evaluating  the connections between means and ends. Self-governance is embedded in behaviors and critical reflections take into consideration both the concerns of the self and the concerns of others.

John Rawls, arguing the liberal position, based his moral theory of justice on the primacy of individual rights, which are derived ultimately from the individual’s freedom to choose. Rawls defined justice as a product of the rational choice of individuals as giving up to society no more freedom than is required to prevent arbitrary interference in the affairs of others. While correctly identifying the importance of individual agency, liberalism, according to Sandel, fails to acknowledge both the grounds and the consequences of decision making. Simply put, the deontological self of Rawls is not adequate to support just social institutions. For Sandel, justice involves self-governance that requires, at times, citizens to relinquish their pursuit of selfish interests and cooperate for the service of the greater good of other citizens. This is the only way to sustain liberty.

For Sandel, while liberalism and communitarianism offer insights and useful critiques of each other, they are nonetheless incomplete. Overemphasizing the importance of the individual— liberalism—misses key components of social responsibility necessary for self-governance. Overemphasizing social obligations—communitarianism—misses key components of the possibility of emancipation from domination for self-governance if individuals are expected to follow unjust laws. Civic republicanism offers a corrective balance to ensure liberty and justice.


  1. Baker, C. Edwin. “Sandel on Rawls.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, v.133 (1985).
  2. Berman, Harold. “Individualistic and Communitarian Theories of Justice: An Historical Approach.” UC Davis Law Review, v.21 (1987).
  3. Braithwaite, John and Philip Pettit. Not Just Deserts: A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
  4. Brighthouse, Harry. Justice. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2004.
  5. Kukathas, Chandran and Philip Pettit. Rawls: A Theory of Justice and Its Critics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  6. Maynor, John W. Republicanism in the Modern World. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.
  7. Mouffe, Chantal. “American Liberalism and Its Critics: Rawls, Taylor, Sandel and Walzer.” Praxis International, v.2 (1988).
  8. Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  9. Pocock, John Greville Agard. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  10. Skinner, Quentin. Liberty Before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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