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Merit, justice and liberalism: getting to the heart of Michael Sandel

Merit, justice and liberalism: getting to the heart of Michael Sandel

In his latest long–read, Nick Spencer unpacks the philosophy of Michael Sandel and tries to uncover the human behind the philosophy. 14/09/2020


In early 2020, as COVID19 rolled westwards with ominous inevitability, governments were forced into making momentous decisions about locking down society and eviscerating/protecting the economy. The measures received broad public support but there were, nonetheless, dissenting voices. Some were from the more eccentric end of the spectrum but others were conspicuously sane and thoughtful, such as that of Jonathan Sumption, former Supreme Court judge and BBC Reith lecturer.

Sumption argued that the government’s policy was both “logically incoherent” and illiberal, on the basis that lockdown merely deferred the problem, and did so at enormous social, economic and personal cost. He concluded that there were only two coherent positions for the government to adopt: indefinite and possibly permanent lockdown, or no lockdown at all. For what it’s worth, I disagree with this, but his conclusion was less important than the reasoning that lay behind it, and in particular his forceful conviction that this was not simply a scientific matter.[i]

The point is important because at the time it seemed obvious that the government should simply “follow the science”.[ii] Coronavirus was a new pathogen. Its cause, effects, spread, and cure were medical and scientific issues. Infectious disease specialists would tell us how it was best treated. Epidemiologists would tell us how it was spread. Psychologists and social scientists would tell us how the public would most likely respond to different social control measures. This was a scientific matter. The politicians had simply to listen.

Not so, Sumption argued, and not simply because science had yet to gather adequate data on which to pass judgement. That point had already been made well by scientific luminaries such as Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society. “We must recognise both the potential and the limits of science”, Ramakrishnan wrote in a Royal Society blog post. There was always uncertainty at the frontiers of science. There were too few relevant Randomised Control Trials to give any confidence. “There is often no such thing as following ‘the’ science” in these cases. Reasonable scientists can disagree on important points. And so forth.[iii]

Ramakrishnan’s scientific limitations were practical ones. Sumption, however, went further and argued that the questions about the government’s response were in principle “only partly scientific”. Rather, by his reckoning, the problem was “mainly political”:

“It is a political question how many additional deaths are serious enough to justify the abrogation of liberty. It is a political question whether the alleged cure is worse than the disease. Whether the moral, physical, cultural and economic harm resulting from the lockdown is worse than the loss of life resulting from the virus is a complex value judgment which we are all entitled to make.”

On the surface, our response to coronavirus was a scientific matter. Scratch that surface and it became political.

The term ‘political’ here in effect means open to reasonable disagreement. It is a cipher for legitimate public moral difference. The decisions the government took about lockdown involved implicit and fundamentally contestable judgements concerning, for example, the moral weight one attaches to freedom, harm, economic security – all in themselves contestable terms – and ultimately to human life – indeed to different human lives, as the disease showed a clear preference for the elderly, for people from black and minority ethnic groups, and for those (often poorer) people who worked in public sector jobs and could not quarantine as effectively as middle–class office workers.

In short, just as political questions underlay the scientific ones, so moral ones underlay the political. A new virus necessitated our struggling with the very old question of knowing  “what’s the right thing to do”. That was the subtitle of Michael Sandel’s hugely popular book Justice, and it is the question he has been encouraging the public to ask for a lifetime.


Sandel is the Professor of Government at Harvard University. His on–line course on Justice has been watched by millions of people, including many in China where he was described (by China Newsweek) as the “most influential foreign figure [in 2010]”, and (by China Daily) as comparable to “Hollywood movie stars and NBA players”. He is author of a handful of thoughtful (and readable) books on moral philosophy, which have been translated into 27 languages. He is BBC Radio 4’s very own ‘Public Philosopher’. He was even the Theos Annual Lecturer in 2020. Many people lay claim to the title of the world’s best known or most highly respected living philosopher, although usually only among that limited crowd of people who make it their business to know and respect living philosophers. Michael Sandel may be the exception.

His latest book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good revisits at length some of the arguments he touched on in earlier books, in particular The Case Against Perfection. With it, Sandel has now written critically about merit (in an age of meritocracy), the market (in the age of neo–liberal capitalism) and human enhancement (in an age of genetic modification). A casual observer may have him down as some kind of contrarian. He is anything but. Sandel’s tone is emollient, his style dialogic, and his choice of topics careful. He criticises merit precisely because, in the way it has come to dominate our moral landscape, merit merits criticism.

US Presidential rhetoric, perhaps the most sensitive barometer of American political climate, has harped endlessly on, especially over recent decades, about giving people the opportunity “to go as far as their talents and their work ethic and their dreams can take them”, as Barack Obama, meritocracy’s rhetorical monarch put it. (67) European leaders were no different. I have a “vision for a truly meritocratic Britain”, Theresa May said shortly after becoming Prime Minister, a sentiment that could have been lifted straight from Blair, Brown, Cameron, or indeed Johnson. Only Trump, with his blunt talk of winners and losers, is an exception to this rhetorical rule, and even then only partially. In a similar vein and over the same period, phrases like “you deserve” spread through public and commercial language like a pandemic. Accordingly to Sandel, that phrase appeared four times more often in The New York Times in 2018 than it did in 1981. Merit rules, OK?

And who could object to this? After all, why shouldn’t my talent, and my hard work, and my ambition be given occasion to flourish?

Well, there are reasons. The rise in meritocracy has run parallel with a staggering rise in inequality over the last 40 years. It has catalysed a culture of extreme and damaging pressure to succeed, as Sandel’s grim tales of college admissions illustrate. It has generated hubris (and insecurity) among those who have succeeded and humiliation among those who failed. “Deaths of despair” – mortality from suicide, drugs, alcohol among (mainly) white, working age, non–college–educated men who have lost hope and purpose – have steadily risen through the 21st century in America. If you find yourself at the top of the pile in a meritocracy, you are told you deserve to be there. Ditto, by implication, at the bottom.

Some of these criticisms are – or at least can be interpreted as being – about the flawed practice of meritocracy. It is not too much meritocracy that has caused the run–away inequality of recent years, so the argument goes, but too little. Poorer people haven’t been given enough opportunity to realise their potential, while the undeserving rich have been allowed to cling on to privilege too easily. It’s a tempting explanation, not least as it has more than a germ of truth in it.

Sandel’s argument, however, is more profound and further reaching. It is that meritocracy is in principle problematic.

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that meritocracy is wrong because it doesn’t do what it claims to do. Defenders of meritocracy, at least the more honest ones, might say, ‘Well, it’s very sad that some people end up losing out but meritocracy is justified not by the level of equality it achieves but by the level of mobility it facilitates.’ Indeed, you would expect a meritocracy to be economically unequal; some people will always possess greater talents, or have bigger dreams, or simply work harder than others. What’s important is that these lifetime outcomes don’t ossify into intergenerational ones, that the sins of the fathers are not visited upon their children for a single generation, let alone three or four.

The problem is that they are. “Of those born on the bottom rung [i.e. lowest quintile, in the US], only around 4 to 7 percent rise to the top, and only about a third reach the middle rung or higher.” (75) This might just be susceptible to the ‘Well, that proves that we need more rather than less meritocracy’ response were it not for the facts that (a) intergenerational mobility has appeared to have declined in this age of merit, and that (b) the more obsessively meritocratic a culture is, the less socially mobile it appears to be. “Economic advantages and disadvantages carry over from one generation to the next more frequently [in the US] than in Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.” (76) Indeed, even China has greater intergenerational mobility than the US does today. Meritocracy is in principle wrong because it doesn’t deliver on its promises, merely replacing one aristocracy, of inherited privilege, with another, that (thinks it) earned and deserves its privilege.

The second reason why meritocracy is in principle problematic lies not in what it does (or fails to do) to society, but what it does to us. Meritocracy strips success of its contingency. “There but for the grace of God”, or nature, or sheer raw luck means nothing in a true meritocracy, where I am where I am on account of my talents and my work and dreams, and no–one else’s. The winners in a meritocratic need never say ‘thank you’. In this way, it also erodes our sense of solidarity, breeding hubris and fostering indifference if not outright contempt for the failed other. My social and economic position can be explained by my merits. I may well choose to share that with you but I owe you nothing.


Sandel’s criticisms of meritocracy are closely related to his earlier critiques of the market and of genetic enhancement.

Just as there are those who valiantly defend meritocracy on the basis that the alternative, aristocracy, is worse, so there are those who vigorously defend the market on the basis that the socialist alternative has been repeatedly shown to be an economic catastrophe. Similarly, just as a meritocracy theoretically removes the need for moral agonising – because people get what they deserve – so the market allegedly does away with the need for moral evaluation, because it comprises no more than fair, informed, freely–chosen contracts, within which any notion of the good is irrelevant. “Most economists prefer not to deal with moral questions,” Sandel wrote in What Money Can’t Buy. “The price system allocates goods according to people’s preferences; it doesn’t assess those preferences as worthy or admirable or appropriate to the circumstance… Markets don’t wag fingers” (47, 14)

Which is just as well given the eye–popping examples of allegedly free, fair and informed market interactions with which Sandel littered that book. There was the tale of the jewellery company that sponsored a novel from a leading author on condition she mentioned their brand at least a dozen times (she over–delivered, with 34 mentions in total). (181) And the tale of the couple who auctioned the right to name their unborn son on eBay (no company paid the $500,000 demanded, so the couple gave up and named him Zane). (187) And the tale of the single mother who sold the right to have a permanent tattoo on her forehead advertising a sponsor so as to raise money for her son’s education. (An on–line casino paid the requisite $10,000). (184) Grim as they are, these examples are not as appalling as some of the ideas proposed by politicians, economists, and judges that have thankfully never become law… such as the idea to charge admission to refugees fleeing persecution (63), or to allow people to exceed the speed limit for a small fee (67), or to establish a system of marketable procreation licences, (76) or the use of markets to allocate babies put up for adoption (95).

There are stock defences against some of these charges. The exchange was not truly free, or it was insufficiently well–informed, or the pricing mechanism was badly wrong. However, these practical defences are no more successful here than they are for a meritocracy (rather less in fact). There is clearly an in principle problem here, one that is similar if not identical to The Tyranny of Meritocracy. It’s not that market exchange is simply wrong, any more than recognising merit is wrong. Rather, it is that it’s not sufficient. Or more precisely, if you build an entire system on market exchange, you distort or crowd out all other sources of value.

You can’t truly buy friendship, or honour, or justice, or an apology, or a Nobel Prize, or an Olympic medal – or, rather, when you do you radically change and corrupt the very thing you are purchasing. Markets, as they say, leave their mark and not only on what is bought. Just as an undiluted meritocracy threatens to degrade our solidarity, so a market society leaves its mark on us, eroding not only our solidarity but also our intrinsic motivations. It’s not just that we come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s that in a society where everything has a price, it makes little sense to talk about the mere value of anything.

It’s a similar story – only more so – when it comes to genetic enhancement, where the twin themes of merit and market meet. The arguments against forced genetic modification are obvious but why should we stop people paying to improve their children by means of the genetic selection of embryos? No one would consider refusing to treat a foetus with a curable condition, so why not enable the unborn child to improve her health, memory, or even intelligence if such options present themselves?

Once again, Sandel’s critique here is not primarily of the practical dangers of genetic enhancement, though there are practical dangers aplenty. Yes, it might lead to unauthorised human cloning. Yes, it might be captured by and for commercial purposes. Yes, it might simply exacerbate the already widening social inequalities into hard–and–fast classes of alphas and epsilons. But there is something more profoundly wrong here, similar to what the philosopher Mary Midgley once called ‘the yuk factor’, something that makes us uneasy even if we were confident that such gene–dystopian futures could be averted through water–tight regulation. There is a principled problem with genetic enhancement.

Sandel articulates this in The Case Against Perfection with particular reference to the idea of gift. Quoting the theologian William May, he argues that children teach us an “openness to the unbidden”. (45) They are fundamentally ‘other’ to us, beings to whom we are unreservedly attached and yet whose nature, character, skills, interests, perceptions – whose very existence – transcend our will and intention. Genetic enhancement – rather than genetic medicine (and the line is, of course, a blurred one, depending heavily on what we classify as ‘normal’) – treats children as if they are an extension of our intention and agency, rather than fundamentally ‘other’. I want a girl (or, more usually, a boy). I want a tall child. I want a clever child. I want a sporty child. I want a kind child. It’s not necessarily the object of desire that matters so much as the fact of desire in the first place. Such wanting risks inflating our hubris (we can master life itself) and undermining our solidarity (we prefer that which is like us) – arguments than can clearly be traced from The Case Against Perfection to The Tyranny of Merit. It also threatens to undermine the value we place on anything, or rather anyone, that lies beyond our own will or preference.


There are, then, recognisable themes and arguments that can be traced through Sandel’s work. But he remains, nonetheless, a difficult thinker to pin down. Supremely articulate about the problem with markets, or merit, or genetic enhancement, it is less clear what he is advocating. His one loud and oft–repeated clarion call is that we desperately need to make space for moral reflection in our public life. Thus, he would enthusiastically endorse Jonathan Sumption’s assessment of the COVID debate and then highlight how moral questions underpinned the political ones. “The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little,” he wrote in What Money Can’t Buy (13). “Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content.” (As it happens, I don’t think this is quite right and will return to why later on.) Calling for moral reflection, however, is not the same as adopting a position in the ensuing debate. What is Sandel’s big idea?

We can pose this another way. Moral and political philosophers are usually associated with holding and advocating a particular idea. For some, the ideas become inseparable from the philosopher, as with Kant‘s deontological ethics, Bentham‘s utilitarianism, or Mill‘s liberalism. But this isn’t simply a function of history doing its work of digestion. More recent philosophical grandees, such as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer or Roger Scruton are recognised, respected and disputed for setting forth a clear case for egalitarian liberalism, libertarianism, utilitarianism and conservativism respectively. Sandel is as respected as any of these but has no comparable ‘ism’ to call his own.

This is partly down to his style, both philosophical and personal. Philosophically, his approach is that of forensic examination rather than passionate advocacy. In this regard, he resembles the brilliant technician who patiently guides you round an extremely complex machine, drawing your attention to the myriad nooks and corners where screws are missing or loose, or there are signs of stress fatigue or bad workmanship. By the end you see why the machine doesn’t really work, but you’re not really sure what should replace it.

It is compounded by his personal style, which is studied, formal and somewhat impersonal. I once interviewed Sandel for an excellent but now sadly defunct magazine, where I was charged with the task of getting to know what made him tick. It was a fascinating interview, in which we ranged from Aristotle to Darwin, but it ended up spiked as he – very politely – refused be drawn into shedding his philosophical veils.

This does not mean that Sandel is entirely without philosophical home. He is frequently labelled, alongside Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Waltzer, as a communitarian but it is a label he (and the others) have sometimes consciously peeled off themselves. “The ‘liberal–communitarian’ debate that has raged among political philosophers in recent years describes a range of issues, and I do not always find myself on the communitarian side,” he wrote in the preface to the second edition of his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. (ix) In particular, insofar as communitarianism implies a kind majoritarianism in which “rights should rest on the values or preferences that prevail in any given community” (186) it is positively misleading for Sandel.

Inadequate and potentially misleading as it is however, the ‘communitarian’ label does move us a bit closer to the heart of Sandel’s philosophy in as far as it highlights his philosophy of the person, which is best understood through his first, densest, least read but most profound book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.


Liberalism and the Limits of Justice was published in 1982, and with Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, published the previous year, and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, in 1989, became a key text in the ‘communitarian’ response to John Rawls’ liberalism. The book critiques Rawls’ attempts to prioritise the ‘right’ over the ‘good’, in the process revealing hints of Sandel’s own core philosophy.

Faced by the fact of irreducible plurality, a liberal society, so the argument goes, should establish principles of justice that are independent of people’s different and contestable conceptions of the good. Failure to do so results in a society that is ordered towards the good of some citizens over and against that of others; one that is, therefore, fundamentally unjust. “Society, being composed of a plurality of persons, each with his own aims, interests, and conceptions of the good, is best arranged when it is governed by principles that do not themselves presuppose any particular conception of the good.” (1)

Rawls attempted to do just this through a thought experiment in which people were required to imagine what would constitute a just society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, i.e. without knowing the kind of people they would be or the position they would hold in that society. “The purpose of this restriction is to prevent the choice of principles from being prejudiced by the contingency of natural and social circumstances.” (24) The principles of justice would thus be independent of any conception of the good, as well, of course, as any prejudice based on knowledge of our sex, race, talents, social status, wealth, etc. It would therefore be fair. It was, in effect, an elaborate version of the famous cake–slicing conundrum. How do you ensure the fairness of portions when we sit down to eat? Answer: you cut, but I choose.

Sandel critiques this experiment in a number of ways but at the heart of his book lies the issue of what we understand by the term ‘person’. The problem is not that the kind of persons envisaged behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance – unencumbered by attachment, character or circumstance – do not exist in reality. No–one, and certainly not Rawls, claimed they did. Rather it is that we cannot, even in a thought experiment, coherently regard ourselves as the sort of beings that Rawls’ theory requires, and we certainly cannot derive the principles of justice Rawls thinks we can from them.

According to Sandel’s reading of Rawls, the self is “prior to the ends which are affirmed by it”; it is a subject whose identity is always independent of its relations with anyone or anything. (55) This is the self as “a pure, unadulterated, ‘essentially unencumbered’ subject of possession.” (92) By this reckoning, “the characteristics I possess do not attach to the self but are only related to the self… they are mine rather than me, things I have rather than am.” (85 emphases original) Such a self cannot be fundamentally changed by it context and connections. The result is a self that is almost not only unrecognisable, but incomprehensible.

Ultimately, Rawls’ self is grounded not in the ends we choose but in our capacity to choose them. The person is the choosing self, “always, irreducibly, an active willing agent”. In the words of one perceptive criticism, “Rawls sometimes seems to claim that a human being’s capacity autonomously to choose its ends is not just one amongst many equally valuable options or features but rather forms the essence of her identity.” In other words, nothing that is not first chosen can be fundamentally good. “It follows that respect for human autonomy is not just one value amongst many but an absolutely fundamental one which must always trump any other; for to fail to respect that capacity is to fail to respect a metaphysically fundamental feature of personhood.” (Liberals and Communitarians, 47)

This is hardly a neutral concept of the person, independent of any particular idea of the good. On the contrary, it demonstrates a very particular and highly contestable concept of the good as a person’s ability autonomously to choose her ends without thereby altering her core identity.

And it is ultimately this concept of the person that underlies the problems that Sandel draws our attention to in the worlds of merit, markets and genetic enhancement. Because a meritocracy might well work if we were able to understand ourselves as ‘unencumbered agents’, because in that scenario there is only our will and our free choice available to explain and justify all that we achieve (or fail to).

And a comprehensive market society would be fair because it facilitates the choice that is “metaphysically fundamental” to our concept of the self – and because, as such selves only ever possess characteristics (rather than ever being them), they are not corruptible by the expansion of the market into heretofore uncharted territories. The market can leave no marks of these selves.

And genetic enhancement is unproblematic because such selves must be free to revise and rewrite themselves, even endlessly, without ever compromising any pre–existing or malleable identity.

But a meritocracy doesn’t work, and a market society isn’t fair, and genetic enhancement is a threat precisely because we cannot coherently understand ourselves as these kind of creatures. To be clear, Sandel nowhere claims that Rawls simply endorses any of these three ‘systems’. But he does, at least by my reading, trace the problem with meritocracies, markets, and genetic enhancement to confusions over the nature the person, the kind of which he finds in Rawls’ work. Ultimately, the principled problems with money, market and genetic enhancement that Sandel carefully points out can be traced back to his ideas of the person.


If this is so, it still leaves us with half a question. If Sandel is, at heart, a philosopher of the person, it is only fair to ask what is his concept of personhood. Granted, Rawls’ ‘unencumbered self’ is inadequate and even incomprehensible, but what does Sandel have to put in its place?

The first point to make here is that Sandel does not seek to put any idea in place of Rawls’ unencumbered self. He is not seeking to revise Rawls’ thought experiment by refining the ‘self’ that lies at its heart, so much as to show that Rawls’ attempt to remove questions of the good from political reasoning altogether eventually fails. Ultimately, attempts to construct a just society without reference to contestable conceptions of the good, don’t deliver the goods (so to speak). This is what lies behind Sandel’s repeated call for more moral reflection in public life. He started his academic career showing, with great care and at considerable length, that the alternative just doesn’t work.

That recognised, it is by coming at Sandel as a philosopher of the person that we can go beyond his clarion calls for serious moral reflection in our public life and see how this project is to be grounded on a truer and more accurate conception of the person. Or put another way, just as Sumption argued for the politics beneath the science, and Sandel for the morality beneath the politics, I’m suggesting that, for Sandel at least, there is another layer here, namely the anthropological beneath the moral.

Sandel is hardly systematic in his articulation of his ideas here, but there are enough hints dropped to sketch at least an outline. His idea of the person is, in some ways, the mirror image of (his reading of) Rawls. Thus, because the person is fundamentally social and relational or, in the term Sandel prefers in Liberal and the Limits of Justice, “intersubjective”, s/he is open to be fundamentally changed by those relationships. “The self, being unbounded in advance, [is] awash with possible purposes and ends.” (LLJ, 152) Other people are “constitutive” of our own self or personhood in the deepest sense. (LLJ, 62) Relationships with other selves end up composing my self. “The more or less enduring attachments and commitments… taken together partly define the person I am.” (LLJ, 179)

From this point, a number of others proceed. We come into the world encumbered by commitments and relationships that we don’t choose. Rather than ever being ‘unencumbered selves’ able to deal with one another adequately and fairly through informed contracts (which by definition cannot fundamentally change those selves), we bring our full relational selves into encounters where we are constantly shaping others and shaping ourselves in the most profound way. It follows that we cannot avoid (contestable) moral questions in those encounters. We are making and are being made by each other as we live together. We are formed and reformed by “community embodied in an ongoing practice of mutual obligation and shared sacrifice”. Community, obligation, sacrifice: it is not possible to understand, still less live by, these ideas without reference to the good. We are moral, at least in one sense of the word, all the way down.

All this marks us with a degree of fragility. Because we are always open to the wider world, we are also therefore vulnerable to it. Rather than possessing a closed inviolable selfhood, our openness gives us a certain contingency and weakness. Or, in the vernacular, there’s an awful lot of luck mixed up in our lives.

This is particularly clear in The Tyranny of Merit in which Sandel emphasises how, for example, the successful college applicant who pats herself on the back for her intelligence and hard work too often fails to realise that there is usually an overwhelming element of luck in her success, usually the luck of being born to parents who value education and do much to cultivate the skills that got her there. (Sandel poses a solution to this in the book which is rather wonderful and which, one suspects, will make students, parents and admission panels sweat with anxiety).

Luck plays a bigger role too. The prize sportsman, who for all that he merits respect for cultivating his talents, deserves no congratulation for possessing those raw talents in the first place, nor for living in a society that values them. This recognition of chance and fragility does not obliterate the value of merit, but it does undermine the logic of the pure meritocracy, and seed a good deal of humility alongside our hubris.

Finally, if only because of space, and again linked to the points above, Sandel’s persons are creatures of gift, in two senses. Firstly, rather than being self–made, through will power and merit, there is a certain ‘giveness’ to our existence. This point comes across particularly strongly in The Case against Perfection, in which “the gifted character of human powers and achievements” (27) is the very basis of his argument against – or at least his hesitancy about – human enhancement. We appreciate children, and indeed ideally all others and even ourselves, “not as objects of our desire, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition” (45) but simply for who they are. That doesn’t mean never doing anything to change them, as if all gifts had immediately to be placed in a museum rather than cherished and developed. But it does help generate an ethic of “grace” (his word) to counteract an ultimately dehumanising one of “mastery and dominion”. (62)

Second, just as we are in some sense made by gift, we are also made for gift, finding fulfilment in our ability to be creative, constructive and generous. Because will and choice are ultimately inadequate as definitions of the person – necessary, certainly, but not sufficient – we are not satisfied by their exercise alone. This is one reason why, deep down, most people feel that consumerism doesn’t sate us. We want to give, to contribute, as well as to choose and consume.

Beyond the commitment to distributive justice for which Sandel applauds liberals in The Tyranny of Merit, we also need a commitment to what he calls “contributive justice” (206). Humans need the chance to be creative, productive and generous. “We are most fully human when we contribute to the common good,” as Sandel says. (212) Or as St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Christians in Ephesus, “anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” ‘Not stealing’ is not, in itself, enough. Nor even is being productive and creative. It is being generous, in contributing, ultimately in giving ourselves away, that we find our true ‘selves’.

Sandel’s talk of “contributive justice” profoundly echoes the argument of Pope John Paul II in his first great social encyclical, Laborem exercens, ‘On human work’, in which he draws a key distinction between the objective and subjective value of work, and stresses how work’s ultimate value lies primarily not in the former, with the objects it produces, but in the latter, with the subject who produces them. Sandel references Laborem exercens in his discussion of work in The Tyranny of Merit, which is more than a mere curiosity because – and I have no idea whether Sandel knows this, or indeed would even care to know it – the philosophical anthropology that underlies his work is uncannily similar to the theological anthropology in Catholic Social Thought. To take briefly just two, albeit very important, examples: the early–mid twentieth century Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain, was hugely influential in developing the idea of the person and the ‘ideology’ or personalism within Catholic thought. Through a series of books, from Integral Humanism in 1936 through The Person and the Common Good in 1947 to Man and the State in 1951, he developed a concept of the person that is characterised by individuality, freedom and autonomy (so far, so liberal) but also community, communication and gift.

More influentially still, Pope John Paul II was first a philosopher and then a theologian of the person. The “evil of our times”, he wrote to his friend Henri de Lubac from communist Poland of 1968, “consists in… a kind of degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” John Paul II’s theological anthropology saw persons as created, transcendent, rational, effective moral agents, relationally constituted, and made for gift. (For more on this, see my forthcoming work on Christianity and Welfare.)

I’m not sure Sandel would thank me for pointing to this comparison because, for all that he is sympathetic to religious presence in public debate, he (probably rightly, given the climate of the times) would want to avoid the accusation of what my friend and colleague Jonathan Chapin has called religious public reasoning. This is primarily because he is a philosopher not a theologian but I suspect it is also because he knows the risks. “Questions about the moral status of nature, and about the proper stance of human beings towards the given world… verge on theology,” he wrote in The Case Against Perfection. And because they “verge” – an interesting word – on theology, political theorists naturally “tend to shrink from them.” (10)

But this is what makes Sandel so attractive and engaging as a philosopher: not simply the clarity of his thinking and this prose, or the concreteness and relevance of his philosophising, but the fact that he is prepared to walk (not rush) in onto the sacred ground where other political theorists so often fear to tread.


This series of essays on the great thinkers of our day – see Francis Fukuyama, Yuval Noah Harari, Thomas Piketty – has sought to engage appreciatively and critically with both them and their big books. It will be clear from the preceding 6,000 or so words, that I am more appreciative than critical of Sandel, not only sympathetic to his idea of the person as the bedrock of the moral and political debate, but also to his particular conception of the person as social, moral, contingent and vulnerable, constructive, contributive, and oriented to gift. It would be bad form, however, not to disagree with him in some way, so I will end on one such note.

Sandel’s clarion call, as I stressed above, is that we need more moral reflection in our public life. And who would disagree with that? But his reason, I think, is suspect, indeed straightforwardly wrong. “The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little,” we saw him write in What Money Can’t Buy (13). “Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content.”

Western politics is certainly overheated but surely not because it is empty of moral content. On the contrary, it is overheated because it has too many moral cauldrons vigorously bubbling away. Anyone who listens to our political debate, with the potential exception of the rhetoric around COVID with which we started, can’t think that the protagonists are indifferent to all visions of the good. On the contrary, whether it’s climate change, racial discrimination, the gig economy, euthanasia, or overseas military engagement, politicians obsess about, what Blair used repeatedly to call “the right thing to do.”

The world of leaders – Blair, and Gordon Brown, and Theresa May (though perhaps not so much Boris Johnson) and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama (though not Trump as it’s unclear what, if anything, he thinks) – let alone that of would–be leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, or the army of commentators and bloggers who tell them what they are doing wrong – this political world is steeped in morality.

It is not, however, steeped in subtlety, generosity or humility. In one sense, the problem is not really too little morality but too much – or, more accurately, too confident, too absolute, too weaponised a morality. We have, if you like, too much moralising, too much Morality, and not enough moral reflection, not enough recognition of the inherently contestable and agonistic nature of morality and public life, and its deep anthropological roots. For that, we need more public philosophers like Michael Sandel.

 You can listen to Nick Spencer in conversation with Michael Sandel in the first episode of Reading Our Times here.

You can watch Theos Annual Lecture 2020 with Michael Sandel here

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Image: Fronteiras do Pensamento under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 14 September 2020

Meritocracy, Philosophy, Politics


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