Sandel’s Flawed Philosophy
Religion & Liberty Online

Sandel’s Flawed Philosophy

Rev. Sirico’s new book is not the only recent entry on the topic of markets and morality (though from comparing reviews, it may be the best). Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel also examines the subject in What Money Can’t Buy. Unlike his wildly overpraised Justice, though, Sandel’s latest work is getting mixed reviews—even from those who you’d expect to sing his praises.

For instance, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to believe that Sandel missed an opportunity to provide a stronger critique of the “rapidly growing commercialisation of social transactions.” Other reviewers appear to agree, though the real underlying problem, as Greg Forster explains, is that Sandel’s view of markets is inherently flawed:

The deepest problem with Sandel’s approach is his philosophical framework for relating the economy to other forms of social action. Sandel treats the economy as amoral by its very nature. If it’s moral, it’s not the market; if it’s a market, it’s not moral. Thus “markets” and “morality” always exist side by side but in silos, hermetically sealed from one another—or perhaps a better image would be oil and water in a jar, flowing around each other but never mixing.

As a result, the book only considers the moral negatives of the economy and the moral positives of other social forms. Sandel does not examine the other side of the ledger, where economic forces can bring morally good influence to counteract the ways in which other social forms can become dysfunctional and dehumanizing. For example, Sandel complains that selling things arbitrarily privileges those with more money and reinforces economic inequality, but he never considers how the alternative methods of distribution he champions (mostly queues or government planning) also arbitrarily privilege some over others and reinforce other forms of inequality—often in ways that are worse than the market. Government planning arbitrarily privileges the powerful and politically favored. As for queues, Sandel’s assumption that if something is random it must be fair reminds me of Two Face’s final speech in The Dark Knight.

I’m not saying there’s no case to be made for Sandel’s position on these questions. I’m actually on Sandel’s side on many issues. But Sandel has failed to make his case effectively because his presentation is almost always one-sided.

Read more . . .

Note: I originally wrote that Williams was the “former Archbishop of Canterbury. Thanks to Paul Brandford for pointing out that Williams remains the Archbishop until the end of the year.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).