Do the right thing?

I have been reading Michael Sandel’s recent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Sandel is currently hot property on the centre left in the UK. He gave the prestigious Reith Lectures in 2009, and his argument for a ‘politics of the common good’ has hit a chord amongst politicians like Ed Miliband.

At the heart of Sandel’s philosophy is the rejection of two foundations for politics – utilitarianism (do the thing that produces the maximum happiness) and liberalism (do the thing that allows people to do what they want). Sandell argues that instead, politics should be  moral in nature (building on the principle of Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’) and that they should be about the ultimate purpose of institutions (building on Aristotle).

Here I am interested particularly in the implications of a Kantian perspective. Kant says that politics should be built on moral arguments. We should do things because they are right, according to rules that are consistent when applied to everyone, and built on a notion of human dignity and rationality. Equally, we should not do things that are morally wrong. Crucially, this means that what matters is not outcomes (i.e. happiness or freedom), but motives.

What does this approach say about the politics of climate change? First of all, a moral foundation may be helpful simply because the alternatives are problematic. The utilitarian case for tackling climate change (for example, the Stern Review’s argument that it will cost us less to do something than to do nothing) is weakened in practice by the fact that the costs of doing something need to be borne today and in the North, whereas the benefits will be largest in the future and in the South.

If the utilitarian argument for climate action is weak in practice, the liberal argument is positively unhelpful, since positive freedoms (I should be allowed to drive my car whenever I like) always tend in practice to drown out negative freedoms (I should be allowed to live free from the threat of flooding, drought etc).

However, the moral basis for action on climate change is not without its complications. This is partly because when we emit carbon, we are not doing something wrong in Kant’s terms. Our motive is not to harm others. Even Jeremy Clarkson is not suggesting you drive a large, fast car for the express purposes of damaging humanity – he is a classic libertarian and just wants to have his idea of fun. So there is a problem with an environmentalism (or humanism) that says our current actions are morally wrong – probably one reason why people tend to react strongly against such suggestions.

On the other hand, wanting to cut your emissions because it is the right thing to do (as opposed to feeling good about yourself, or even because it will benefit others) is a consistent moral position. So why don’t more people do it? Why, for example, don’t more people give up eating meat, which would cut emissions but requires no major action by governments? When Nick Stern suggested this last year he was ridiculed.

This is where Sandel’s political argument comes in. He is saying that politics (especially Democratic politics in the US and by extension New Labour politics here) has in the past relied too much on utilitarian or liberal arguments. The Left needs to learn from the Right, which since the 1970s has grounded politics in morality (it is interesting that there are even some on the Right who urge climate action on moral grounds, usually expressed in terms of religious morality). Politicians who believe in tackling climate change need to start speaking up for doing the right thing.

This is an interesting and appealling argument. However, it faces the major challenge, especially in the US but even to some extent in the UK, of the growth of a libertarian populism – the emergence of what Mark Lilla calls anti-political Jacobins, who distrust not only governments but all public institutions and intellectuals like Stern, while believing firmly in themselves. If Lilla is right, the essential problem for politicians (or environmental leaders) seeking to make a moral argument for cutting emissions is getting a hearing in the first place.

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2 responses to “Do the right thing?

  1. I find this interesting and shall follow the tenor of this article. Let us first be sure that we are sure that we are referring to the UK as the target audience and not the entire world. I have reasons to ask for this clarification.

    Second, Kant’s categorical imperatives and the notion of morality does imagine a few things. Let us put it simply as Kant’s imagination of what or who the “I” is, in Descartes’ contention of ” I think therefore I am.” I suspect that a lot has to do with an imagination of a possible answer to the question “who or what is this ‘I’ in Descartes’ contention of “I think therefore…..”.

    Secondly the notion that liberalism is necessarily devoid of moral grounds/foundational values may be wrong on the part of the liberals.

    Now do we discover Utopia? Utopia in political/social sciences = negative freedom + positive peace (both in a symbiotic relationship and necessarily together). But it also does do away with arguments and the fun of having views – to make life more interesting (in the world of discussions). For example, the recognition that definition by its very nature is always less than the object/subject that it seeks to define also does take the fun away! Does it not, as does imagining that possible imaginations of answers to the question put by me over “who or what is this “I” in Descartes’ contention that “I think therefore…..” may be behind much over writings by Kant and others. Though, it does do a bit of ambitious goal-setting for philosophers/theorists when we imagine Utopia to be thus! My assertion is that it is so as are my other views.

    Can one have Utopia? Well? Or the question: can one better the imagination of Utopia without being guilty of laziness or illiteracy? But it does take much of the fun away of arguments. Tea-times would seem too peaceful and heaven upon earth does away the need for the church! One needs the devil to need the church! Or so it seems. An interesting article and I thank you for it.

  2. Pingback: A tale of two Milibands « Political Climate

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