Rick Santorum and Michael Sandel should go fishing some time. If they put preconceptions aside, they will quickly realize they have a lot in common. They both feel the “national character” is eroding and that “we” need to have a serious conversation about where our culture is going. They can even trade knowing nods over their shared conviction that, while there’s nothing wrong with certain voluntary relationships (same-sex couples and corporations), why do they have to do it in public?Aside from being provocative, I think the review is helpful in pointing out what I think is the ultimate flaw in these moralizing arguments about markets and/or culture: who is this "we"?
Conservative and communitarian arguments are thus equivalent in form. For both philosophies, “we” are supposed to be engaging in a collective conversation about what values will run “our” lives.I think most of us are inclined to instinctively respond to this pronoun "we." It is a word which invites people to feel like they are part of something. But once definite propositions are put on the table, so to speak, one immediately realizes how polarizing the debate can be, and how infinite in scope questions of detail can become. We should not treat our bodies as commodities. OK, but what about wearing a t-shirt with a brand on it? We should not pay students to study. OK, but what about taking them out to eat when they get straight A's? We shouldn't make a commodity out of free public theater. OK, but what if we don't really like the public theater that we're being forced to pay for?
Burrus points out that communitarians try to argue that the interconnectedness of all people and all behaviors demands that we be able to make public determinations concerning individual behavior, but actually our interconnectedness implies just the opposite. We are so interconnected that if the community has the right to make determinations on some personal choices, then it's very hard to see what limits there will be. As I just explained above, there are too many details to fight over.
Come to think of it, that's exactly what happens: the left and right are locked in a never-ending fight over which areas of our lives to invade. Some want to take away our freedom to watch pornography. OK, sounds reasonable, but what else can't we watch? Some want to take away our freedom to smoke marijuana or perhaps tobacco. OK, but what else can't we consume? (Some are already proposing limits on our sugar intake.) Some believe the government should place certain mandates on health insurance purchases. OK, so what else do we have to buy? There are infinitely many details to be worked out, and the fact is, having a "national debate" about these things is impossible. It invariably becomes a polarizing political death match in which people's opinions are constantly being shaped by the two-sided establishment. We come to accept a list of moral imperatives which have no relation to one another and no coherence with any over-arching moral philosophy. This is an inevitable result of a system which seeks to decide all moral questions democratically.
What is the alternative to this endless tug-of-war between competing cultural factions? Instead of pretending that "we" can solve these moral questions collectively, we ought instead embrace a very simple moral concept: leave individuals with the right and responsibility to their own bodies and their own property. Moral questions concerning the proper use of person and property will have to be left up to the individual. It's not as if they have to figure it all out on their own. I promise, people occasionally listen to their parents, their teachers, their pastors, or whoever they might look up to and respect. The constant sense of urgency that there needs to be some "national debate" is honestly a bit mystifying to me sometimes. It seems we are instinctively trapped in a paranoid fear of the collapse of morality and social order. The facts just don't support that paranoia.
If Michael Sandel wants to guide people toward what he thinks is a better moral life, more power to him. I guess in that way he is functioning as a pastor of sorts. But if he wants to talk about politics, I'd like to know where he is going with this.