Reason, faith and emotion, in search for belonging

July 12, 2018

In a controversial move, Michael Sandel argues against the alleged neutrality of justice — and public discourse, in general. Despite its appeal, he says, the notion that justice should be neutral towards conceptions of good life is flawed. “I do not think that freedom of choice (…) is an adequate basis for a just society. What’s more, the attempt to find neutral principles of justice seems to me misguided. It is not always possible to define our rights and duties without taking up substantive moral questions; and even when it’s possible it may not be desirable” (Michael Sandel (2009), Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do, London: Penguin, p. 220).

That is because, more often than once, we are in situations where we must act (morally) out of allegiance to our community or country, solidarity with comrades, fraternal loyalties etc., or share in collective responsibilities for historic injustices. Therefore, it is unrealistic to think of justice as something devoid of any moral commitments and allegiances. We are situated selves; and in such cases of solidarity or membership, we act for reasons unrelated to a neutral choice – we act out of feelings and meanings that are important in our lives; and in doing so, we are inevitably bound by moral ties we haven’t chosen.

The alternative view, which Sandel advocates, is that public debate should be informed by the meaning we ascribe to the food life, and it should aim to form good citizens and cultivate good character; so it should be infused with our personal values and beliefs — or else remain meaningless. Controversial as this may be (as it poses a threat to personal freedom), and possibly unrealistic in our pluralist societies, this position can help us achieve a more genuine engagement in public debates, if people are not expected to leave their moral and religious convictions behind, for the sake of ‘neutrality’. We cannot claim to stay objective in our search for the good, or the just.

The same combination of faith, reason, and emotion can be detected in our efforts to forge a career, or find a genuine spiritual path. And it is certainly there, in our need for belonging to a community — be that local, family-based, ethnic, or based on any other kind of allegiance.

Our friend, Dr. Paul Collins, talks about this, in a reflection on Christ (represented as the tree of life) and his own family tree, with roots and branches spreading across different faiths. To read Paul’s essay, please click here