The American Michael Sandel is a familiar face in Britain – or, at least a familiar voice. Although he resides on our shores as philosophy professor at Harvard University, he has been anointed by the BBC as Britain’s ‘public philosopher’.
Beginning in 2012, BBC Radio 4 has run three series of ‘The Public Philosopher’, featuring Sandel discussing with various audiences the philosophical thinking behind current controversies such as immigration, welfare, affirmative action, wages, rape, the legalization of drugs, and so forth.
As an academic trained in philosophy myself, I’m all for bringing philosophy into public discussion. In that sense, I applaud the idea of ‘The Public Philosopher.’ However, Sandel’s discussions often leave me feeling frustrated and flat. He always appears to give many different sides to an argument. And yet, I often feel there is part of the picture that Sandel is not giving us.
In short, he doesn’t give us the conservative part of the picture.
For instance, in his discussion on the legalization of drugs, he lets the audience put forward two ‘pro’ arguments. The first is the libertarian position that ‘I should be able to do what I want with my life’. The second, related argument is that as human beings our defining characteristic is our autonomy, and that therefore being able to make our own choices is the highest expression of human dignity. The ‘con’ argument was that as human beings our autonomy is based on our rationality, and drug use impairs our rationality; therefore, people should be ‘forced’ into preserving their rationality.
Sandel leaves us with a quandary by only highlighting these competing claims of autonomy. Yet, one way to at least begin to find our way out of this quandary is to consider the argument by the conservative – and British – philosopher Roger Scruton.
Scruton argues that for conservatives, ‘the abstract ideal of autonomy, however admirable, is radically incomplete.’ Conservatives are in favour of autonomy, but they also believe that in order for it to mean something, one has to have a value system in place first. So, for Scruton, autonomy cannot be about ‘idly willing this and now that’ with no ‘conception of an objective order that would be affected by [one’s] choice.’ He says that we cannot decide how to act with just the empty idea of ‘choice.’ If we don’t know how to value things, then we have no autonomy.
Scruton gives other arguments about the nature of government that lend perspective here, too. Scruton explains that the nature of our political freedom depends upon the members of society being responsible and accountable. Indeed, we become free by learning to take responsibility for our actions. For a conservative, government rises up spontaneously ‘between individuals who feel accountable to each other.’
However, when people stop taking responsibility for their lives and their actions, it is the government that steps in and takes on these responsibilities. Yet, this is a false role for government. The legitimacy of government depends upon citizens being accountable to one another. When people stop being accountable, the government grows beyond its rightful limits. Rather than remaining an instrument to conserve society, government becomes a ‘top-down’, ‘creator and manager’ of it.
This, too, could have been an illuminating argument in Sandel’s discussion on the legalization of drugs. Not only does drug taking ruin our autonomy, but it ruins society. It does this not only because it ruins our ability to be rational, but also to be responsible and accountable. In that way, it ruins the foundation of a conservative conception, not only of society, but also of government. It’s all of a piece. We cannot have limited government and drug legalization.
Being the good man on the left that he is, Sandel, I suspect, is not really interested in exploring the philosophical complexities of conservativism. This is why he gives us philosophical discussions which will mostly likely lead us to liberal, or libertarian conclusions. Yet, they could be so much richer with a conservative viewpoint like Scruton’s.
While it is the American Sandel, and not the British Scruton, who has been singled out by the BBC as the ‘public philosopher’, Scruton often exports himself to the US, publishing his work regularly and extensively here. He has been an important voice in the US conservative community, working to put forward a philosophy which explains the conservative instinct to promote freedom through limited government, while at the same time eschewing a libertarianism regarding values.
If Socrates is the prime example of a philosopher, questioning the current thinking of the day, then surely Scruton should be installed as the ‘public philosopher’. His insights provide a much-needed contrast to the revered liberal orthodoxy of our day, which urges us all onto ever-bigger delusions regarding the virtues of big government and subjective moralities.