A Vision of the Good

by Aug 21, 2013Books, Culture, Theology

One of the reasons Harvard prof Michael Sandel’s book Justice was the most memorable book I read last year—and the biggest reason I highly recommend it—is that it makes one excessively important point: you can’t not have a vision of the good. You read that right. It’s impossible to live without some vision of the good, and that vision of the good will and must drive your decisions.

The example Sandel gave that most stuck with me is affirmative action. I myself have puzzled over that issue. I don’t want to overreact to the conservatives (who often annoy me with their glib dismissal of affirmative action) or the liberals (who don’t seem to realize that their relief efforts can actually make economics problems worse by creating dependence). I want to do right. I think I have an open mind on this issue.

Sandel helped cut through the layers of shout that have collected on affirmative action. He asked a fairly simple question: what vision of the good drives each side in this debate?

On the conservative side, the answer would be this: “We value a meritocratic society in which hard work is rewarded and sloth is allowed to bring able-bodied people low, therefore motivating them to contribute valuable work again.” That sounds reasonable to me.

On the liberal side, the answer would be this: “We value a society that rights past wrongs and includes members of all ethnic groups and subcultures at all levels, not just the lowest rungs.” That sounds reasonable to me, too. It’s not just India that has Dalits; I don’t want my nation to be stratified into classes that fall along ethnic lines—if there’s something I, as part of the dominant group (redheads, of course), can do to stop it.

Sandel also picks up on a major theme in Alasdair MacIntyre’s effort to recover Aristotelian ethics for the modern age (see After Virtue). Whether he has MacIntyre in mind or not, he clearly falls along the same lines when he asks what the nature of the “practice” we call “college” really is:

The just way of allocating access to a good may have something to do with the nature of that good, with its purpose. The affirmative action debate reflects competing notions of what colleges are for: To what extent should they pursue scholarly excellence, to what extent civic goods, and how should these purposes be balanced? [No page numbers; I read a Kindle version.]

For Sandel, MacIntyre, and Aristotle before them, one of the key ways to define virtue is to figure out what something’s purpose is.

Sorting out the telos of a university seems essential to determining the proper criteria of admission. This brings out the teleological aspect of justice in university admissions. Closely connected to the debate about a university’s purpose is a question about honor: What virtues or excellences do universities properly honor and reward? Those who believe that universities exist to celebrate and reward scholarly excellence alone are likely to reject affirmative action, whereas those who believe universities also exist to promote certain civic ideals may well embrace it. That arguments about universities—and cheerleaders and flutes—naturally proceed in this way bears out Aristotle’s point: Arguments about justice and rights are often arguments about the purpose, or telos, of a social institution, which in turn reflect competing notions of the virtues the institution should honor and reward.

I find that extremely helpful. And it all drives toward a conclusion that every Christian should cheer:

Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts or Purple Hearts, surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or military service, CEO pay or the right [of a disabled golfer] to use a golf cart, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.

It’s not an accident, then, that “the right way to value things” stands at the very heart of the Christian religion. What am I supposed to value—what am I supposed to love—most? God, then God’s image-bearers, Jesus said (Matt 22:34–40). What, in fact, is the very foundation of all true knowledge, let alone wisdom? A proper valuing of the Lord we call “fear” (Prov. 1:7). Without God standing at the appropriate place on my value scale, I won’t get other major questions right. Justice is inescapably judgmental.

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