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The Case for Liberalism: An Exchange

In response to:

Progressive but Not Liberal from the May 25, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

I appreciate Thomas Nagel’s careful exposition of the themes of my book Public Philosophy, a collection of essays on the role of moral argument in politics [“Progressive but Not Liberal,” NYR, May 25]. Although he is an ardent defender of Kantian/Rawlsian liberalism, precisely the view my work challenges, he fairly presents the question at stake: Can the principles of justice that define our basic rights and liberties be neutral with respect to substantive moral and religious controversies (as Rawls and Nagel claim), or does reasoning about justice sometimes require us to engage directly with such controversies (as I claim)?

Oddly, Nagel’s review takes on a nasty edge when he rises to the defense of Rawls. Nagel claims that I “ridicule” and “deride” Rawls’s view, and casts my disagreement with Rawlsian liberalism as a failure to understand it. I leave it to readers of Public Philosophy to judge for themselves whether anything I say about Rawls remotely approaches ridicule or derision. But I would like to show why Nagel is wrong to insist that my critique of liberal neutrality is based on a misunderstanding of the liberal position.

This can be illustrated by a discussion of abortion drawn from the essay in which, according to Nagel, my “obtuseness reaches its peak.” The following passage from Nagel’s review captures the issue between us:

Liberals propose to “bracket,” or set aside, the question whether abortion is morally wrong, and to defend the legal right to abortion on the ground that women’s liberty in a personal matter of this kind may not be overruled simply because of the religious convictions of the majority. Sandel’s reply is that we can “bracket” the moral question only if we first determine that the Catholic position is false: He [Sandel] argues: “The more confident we are 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.”

This is not a counterargument but a mere begging of the question: to use as a premise the falsity of the Catholic position on abortion is not to “bracket” the question but to answer it, so it cannot be a condition for setting it aside. Sandel has again interpreted the priority of right as being intelligible only if it serves the good.

Nagel is right to this extent: to rest the case for abortion rights on the claim that the Catholic position is false is not to “bracket” the underlying moral issue, but to answer it. But this is precisely my point. Notwithstanding their claim to be neutral on the moral status of the fetus, liberals cannot defend the right to abortion without implicitly denying that the fetus is a person. For consider: if the Catholic doctrine were correct—if the fetus were morally equivalent to a child—then even the important principle of the woman’s right to choose would be morally outweighed by the importance of respecting human life. This is why Nagel is wrong to insist that the distinction between public and private morality can, by itself, decide the question. If abortion were tantamount to infanticide, it would not be a merely private choice. Where one draws the public/ private distinction depends on how one resolves the underlying moral question.

Like Nagel, I am against banning abortion. But unlike Nagel, I do not think it is possible to decide this question without taking a stand, implicitly or explicitly, on the moral status of the fetus. How we debate such questions matters politically as well as philosophically: defending abortion rights while claiming to be neutral on the underlying moral question insults rather than respects those who disagree. Liberals would do better to engage their opponents on the moral merits, rather than retreat to an unconvincing neutral ground.

Michael Sandel

Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Thomas Nagel replies:

I am grateful for the courtesy of Michael Sandel’s letter, and for the chance to clarify the difference between us.

Like Sandel, I am not neutral on the moral status of the fetus, and like him, I believe that those who think there is a vast moral gulf between a fetus and a child should defend that claim forcefully and publicly. The issue between Sandel and me is not whether liberals should profess a neutrality on this question that they do not feel, but whether there is an additional legitimate reason against outlawing abortion that comes from political morality alone, a reason that recognizes the deep divisions over the personal question without relying on one of the answers to it. Specifically, could one be a devout Catholic and still, on liberal grounds, be against banning abortion?

There are two questions here: First, is there a liberal argument at all? Second, is it any good?

By saying that “liberals cannot defend the right to abortion without implicitly denying that the fetus is a person,” Sandel answers the first question in the negative. He fails to recognize the distinctively political liberal argument against using the collective power of the state to impose a highly personal or religious value on those who do not accept it; and he concludes that liberals can only be making a first-order moral argument against that value. This is the same mistake he makes throughout his book. But even though he misunderstands the liberal position, what he goes on to say clearly implies that he would reject it if he did understand it. That brings us to the second question, which is the hard one. In this case I am more sympathetic to Sandel’s doubts than he might imagine.

In my review I presented a case for liberalism based on equal respect for our fellow citizens in the exercise of collective control over the individual. But even if one accepts that argument, it remains an open question how much moral weight it will bear, particularly in the face of differences as stark as those about abortion. After all, liberal equality is only one value, however important, and there will inevitably be others too powerful for it to contain. If someone is really convinced on religious grounds that abortion is as bad as killing a child, the requirement of equal respect for his fellow citizens may be incapable of persuading him that he should refrain from imposing that conviction by law on others who do not share it. In that case the liberal argument for abortion rights would have reached its limit with him. Fortunately many opponents of abortion hold more nuanced views, including perhaps those Catholics who defend the legal right to abortion while holding that abortion is morally wrong.

Sandel’s misinterpretation of liberalism, though it creates confusion, is a secondary issue. The main point is that he thinks liberalism is morally untenable, and not only for the case of abortion. As I indicated in my review, his objections to the actual liberal position are serious, and he is right to say that the disagreement matters both politically and philosophically.

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