Reflections on Thomas Nagel's critique (of Michael Sandel's book “Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics”) “Progressive but Not Liberal," THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, May 25, 2006.
Thomas Nagel entitles his essay on the social philosophy of Michael J. Sandel "Progressive but Not Liberal." Non-liberal progressives are most often to be found in socialist and communist organizations but not Sandel who is a professor of government at Harvard and referred to as a "communitarian" by Nagel. Nagel is happy to be a liberal and takes Sandel to task for having "defective" views about "liberalism." Nagel in fact defends the liberal cause by his critique of Sandel. I intend to analyze Nagel's critique from a Marxist perspective.
Nagel points out that the political system in the US is more volatile and heterogeneous than what one would find in Western Europe. The US is, in fact, "radically divided over issues of war, taxes, race, religion, abortion, and sex." He maintains that these differences are deep rooted and about "ultimate values." Yet these divisions do not threaten the stability of our political system. He says that "the cohesion of American society is stronger than its divisions" can be seen by the fact that people with radically incompatible basic value systems cohabit in a common political system and strive to express those values legally through open political processes. And, he maintains, this can be done "only because of a general commitment to the principles of limited government embodied in the Constitution."
Well times have changed since Nagel penned this. American society is far from the stability outlined above: Après Trump le déluge. The election of Biden and the Republican response shows that the “general commitment” to the Constitution is under extreme duress.
Nagel goes on to divide the US political universe into two broad sections—based on how they respond to the problems listed above-- i.e., war, taxes, race,etc.
The conservatives, we are told, "are more interested in enforcing moral standards [and they think their standards are the only right ones--tr] on the community and protecting private property, and less interested in protecting personal liberty [libertarian conservatives would dispute this--tr] and reducing inequality." It is just the opposite with progressives, he says.
Progressives have to decide how to pursue their principles-- as "first" or "second" order principles. First order principles are those deeply held "fundamental beliefs" or core principles. The second order principles are those "concerning what kind of first order-principles may be used to justify the exercise of political and legal power". For example, should we try and have the state outlaw capital punishment based on the first order principle that all killing by the state is immoral [excluding the military], or should we use a different principle such as the corruption of the legal system or the racism in the sentencing procedures without calling into question the ultimate moral status of capital punishment itself.
Nagel allies himself with liberalism which he identifies more or less with the political philosophy of another Harvard professor, the late John Rawls, author of such books as "Political Liberalism" and "A Theory of Justice." According to Nagel liberalism tends to rely on second order principles and not confront the conservative positions with head on challenges of first order magnitude. Nagel says, for example that gay rights can be defended by liberals on the principle that the government should not be controlling "private sexual conduct" without getting into the issue of the moral status of homosexuality.
The target of Nagel's article, Sandel, represents another school of progressives which Nagel says is "not liberal." These progressives want to argue their positions on first order principles and duke it out with the conservatives on core values. Sandel wants to replace "liberalism" with what he thinks the "communal" republican spirit of the early US was, which he contrasts with the present day liberal concern with "individualism." What Sandel is interested in is (his words) "soul craft." Nagel explains this as "the cultivation of virtue in the citizenry by the design of political, social and economic institutions."
Wait a minute! This sounds familiar. This sounds like a species of the program of social engineering embarked upon in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and subverted and fought with tooth and claw by the big capitalist powers, first with their rebellious cat's paw Hitler, then continued as the Cold War by Hitler's anti-communist successors. Nagel senses this as well, as we shall see.
More immediately, however, Nagel attacks Sandel for having a "defective" understanding of Liberalism and misinterpreting the social philosophy of John Rawls. Nagel tells us that there are many forms of "Liberalism" but he contrasts only two-- European and American. The former is characterized by "the libertarianism of economic laissez-faire" (which sounds to me suspiciously like current neocon thought) while the latter represents "the democratic egalitarianism of the welfare state" (the owl of Minerva really does take flight at dusk, someone should tell Nagel that the welfare state is history).
But, he tells us, "all liberal theories have this in common: they hold that the sovereign power of the state over the individual is bounded by a requirement that individuals remain inviolable in certain respects, and that they must be treated equally." Basically this means equality before the law and equal political status (one person one vote, unless you are Black or Hispanic and your votes are tossed) and in American Liberalism "equality of opportunity and fairness in the social and economic structure of the society." I don't know what planet Nagel is from, maybe a parallel universe where Sweden is the only superpower, but the US definitely does not fit this description. Well, maybe not, but those are the goals to be reached and John Rawls represents this kind of Liberalism which stresses "distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities perpetuated by inheritance and class." Yes, Liberalism wants to combat poverty and inequality based on the observation that "the poor ye shall always have with you" but Marxism, unlike Liberalism which wants to tinker with the bad consequences of Capitalism without ever questioning the system itself, wants to eliminate poverty , not just combat it, by getting rid of the economic system that breeds it, i.e., capitalism.
Sandel rejects Rawls "Liberalism." He has, as Nagel says "spent his career" opposing Rawls and Rawls’ form of "egalitarian liberalism." What he contests is "Rawls’ central claim that individual rights and principles of social justice should take precedence over the broad advancement of human welfare according to some standard of what constitutes the good life." This is wrongly framed from the Marxist perspective. We certainly are in favor of "broad advancement of human welfare" but not based on some bourgeois idealist concept of "the good life" but based on what we claim to be a scientific understanding of the motive force of the capitalist system, its directionality and the real possibility of restructuring of society in such a way that classes are abolished and all people will truly escape from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. This may sound utopian, but it is actually more realistic than the schemes of Rawls, Nagel or Sandel.
Meanwhile, while Rawls subordinates the "broad advancement of human welfare" to "individual rights", Sandel maintains that, in his own words, "Principles of justice depend for their justification on the moral worth or intrinsic good of the ends they serve." Nagel doesn't like this formulation. Sandel would ban Nazis from holding rallies but uphold the rights of people demonstrating for equality and against racism, for example. But, Nagel says, using Sandel's principle, people opposed to homosexuality ought to be opposed to gay people holding rallies. But it is the state that guarantees the rights of citizens and decides which ends are ultimately of "moral worth or intrinsic good." Nazis and KKK folk fail on both counts besides the fact that they would on principle end the rights of others to demonstrate if they could while gay people are not demanding the suppression of heterosexuals they are only asking for civil rights. So, I don't think the analogy a good one to use against Sandel.
What Nagel really objects too is that Sandel thinks "the priority of right as being intelligible only if it serves the good." Liberals would "bracket" the question about if abortion, for example, was "murder" and defend the right to it on the grounds that a woman's right to choose should not be denied because of the "religious convictions of the majority." Sandel thinks that in order to approve of or support abortion we must "first determine that the Catholic position is false." This is a requirement for bracketing the question of its mortal status. 'The more confident we are," Sandel writes, "that fetuses are, in the relevant moral sense, different from babies, the more confident we can be in affirming a political conception of justice that sets aside the controversy about the moral status of fetuses."
Nagel says this is begging the question not bracketing it but this is because of how he has set up the question in the first place. Being a Liberal he is looking for a Liberal answer, based on a second order principle, and Sandel, not being a Liberal, looks for first order principles. I think Marxists are more akin to Sandel than to Nagel. Surely we want to decide if abortion is murder or not before we support it. Do women have a right to commit murder? What are the Catholic reasons for thinking this is murder? When we find out that the reasons are not based on science or an intelligent open minded examination of the evidence but only upon superstition and close minded adherence to dogma this surely must be the basis for our rejection of the anti-abortion viewpoint. This way of thinking does not make Sandel's views of Liberalism "obtuse."
There are many behaviors that can be sanctioned by the state, Nagel says, that the state does not have to have an official position on with respect to their rightness or moral status. The state can be neutral in other words. But Sandel, says Nagel, "thinks justice and rights depend on what is actually good, and what rules and institutions serve those ends; he is not a relativist." This is also good Marxism. Marxists should, to the best standards available, try to determine the actual states of affairs they are dealing with and not bracket truth conditions. This would have prevented many of the catastrophes of the 20th century socialist project.
These different positions lead, as Nagel points out, to a "deep issue." Namely, "Do all moral standards derive from a single principle, or are there different principles for different kinds of entities?" Rawls and Sandel have very different views on this. Rawls does not hold that there is a common moral principle from which both personal rights and public rights derive. Rawls "thought that justice, which is the special virtue of social institutions like the state, depended on the distinctive moral character of the state itself, as an immensely powerful form of collective agency." In a Liberal democracy we are subject to majority rule. Actually, however, this has ceased to be the case in the US. The two elections won by George W. Bush were most likely won as a result of vote fraud consciously carried out in disregard for any moral commitment to democratic values and solely to attain state power for the personal enrichment of corporate class entities at the expense of the majority of the population. This looks like a trend that has further developed. The tactic was also attempted by Trump to stay in power but in his case failed because he had lost the support of the corporate ruling class. Even his legal first victory did not represent “majority rule” because the majority voted for Clinton.
Nevertheless, Rawls thinks in terms of a functioning bourgeois democracy with majority will "coercively enforced." But Rawls also believes in "fairness." This means that in addition to political and civil equalities the state must also "combat racial, sexual, and socioeconomic inequality." With regard to this duty of the state, Nagel says, "This is the fairness that Sandel derides." But I don't think that Sandel is for racial, sexual and socioeconomic inequality, nor do I think his social philosophy (or Marxism) entails any such consequences.
Nagel says that the state has no special moral status for Sandel. Sandel thinks once the people have decided on the ends to be sought (for Marxists this would be the abolition of property, classes and the state as well as the construction of socialism and communism) which for Sandel are ("seems to be" Nagel writes, which shows some confusion on this) "an unmaterialistic culture of closely knit communities and strong family ties" then the state will be used to construct this type of social reality (under socialism being eventually abolished or "withering away)."
But this kind of thinking will also lead, says Nagel, "to theocracy, fascism or communism for those who accept alternative conceptions of the human good." Nagel thinks this is a telling point against Sandel but it isn't. The same thing can happen under the limited constitutional state that Liberals like Rawls and Nagel think can be constructed or maybe is even exemplified by the US today. Constitutions and philosophical models are not what guarantee freedom and rights. Only an informed, educated and alert citizenry can do that, and that is what we currently lack, and lack by governmental and corporate design, in the US today.
Nagel concludes by saying that "A hunger that demands more from the state [than "constitutional patriotism"] will lead us where history has shown we should not want to go." I am afraid we are on that road already and we have got on this road not only by reading direction signs put up by non-Liberal progressives, but by following those posted by Rawls and his followers as well. To halt the current slide towards fascism ("the national security state") we will need the combined forces of the progressive left, the working class, the establishment union movement as well as those in the “center” of the political spectrum(always an unreliable section—i.e., the AFL-CIO leadership) who still believe in democracy and take the Bill of Rights seriously. Rawlsian Liberalism alone will not suffice.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
This article is a modified and republished version of the article that was first published by Political Affairs Magazine.