Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaching Justice to the Privileged Youth

Last summer in Theory Camp we read Michael Sandel's Justice, based on his famous Harvard course of the same name.

This month I have been helping teach a Sunday School course on justice, using videos of Sandel teaching that course in a large auditorium.

Both book and course start from very individualistic conceptions of justice and work up to the communitarian argument. In the end, Sandel argues, we should see that we also have obligations of solidarity to groups that we did not simply choose.

Something I saw from the video, that I had not noticed in reading the book, is that this course is designed to bring accomplished and privileged young people, especially young men, from their natural starting point - I am an individual responsible only for myself - to the more mature position that they are responsible to a much larger whole. Indeed, accomplished and privileged young people - Harvard students, for heaven's sake - have greater responsibility to society than other people do.

Though Sandel is teaching an enormous class, he does call upon students in each class. His assistants run around with microphones, so the students can be heard responding to the challenges he has posed for them. Sandel always asks the students' names. And again and again, the students making the individualistic arguments are men, and the students groping toward some sense of communal ethics are women. These are not all white people - this is 2011, and Harvard draws excellence from the whole world. But there is a gender skew in who makes what kind of argument. When you are watching for it, it gets almost comic.

I had a further thought as I noticed the trend of "Justice," the course. I think the whole discipline of teaching ethics is designed to get people with the fewest responsibilities to others - smart, privileged, leisured, single young men - to work their way up to a sense of their connections with the larger social world. This was true when Socrates was walking around talking to leisured bachelors, and is true today.

The practice of ethics begins with community; the teaching of ethics begins with individuals, who need instruction to understand community.


Nate Kratzer said...

Socrates may have taken it a little too far, refusing his friends offers to smuggle him out of prison, arguing that the Laws of Athens had granted him all the benefits of life, and therefore if they declared his death, he should die.

That said, I think that's a healthier attitude than today's Tea Party, with a wholly unrealistic view of the world in which individuals are only responsible to themselves.

I'm curious as to how much of this gender difference is socialized. I am a highly privileged white male, but would certainly be found making arguments towards a more communal understanding of ethics.

Brendan said...

This closely parallels my rather long and embarrassing path to a social conscience. I wish I'd had something like this course in undergrad, but I don't think I was ready for it. I do, though, have Patrick Kagan-Moore and Tony Haigh to thank for starting to nudge me off the path of privilege.

ceemac said...

In Sunday's Dallas Morning News one of the veteran business reporters asked a bunch of Dallas area business folk what business "buzzwords" should be banished. Shared a lot of responses.

Including this one that touches on your topic:

One of my pet peeves is business executives using "give back" for their charitable or civic contributions. It connotes that they have taken something. Successful businesses engage in trade, offering value for value, not taking from customers without giving value, so if executives want to give part of what they or their companies have made, great, but don’t refer to it as giving back.

Dennis McCuistion. TV host, McCuistion

The link for the full article may be behind a paywall but here it is:

Gruntled said...


Do you think you came to college with a sense of social responsibility from your church training?

Gruntled said...

ceemac: I suppose it would make a difference whether it was the business that was doing the "giving back," or the business people as individuals.

The "we give value for value" argument works for the business, though I think it is just and honorable for businesses to feel grateful to their customers and thus give back to the community.

Individual business people, though, especially those in large corporations, are very likely to have benefited from all kinds of privileges that they themselves did not achieve. I do not begrudge them the privileges. I do think it reflects a good grasp on reality to see charity by the privileged as "giving back."

ceemac said...

What a comment like McCuistion's missed is that there is a sense that we all "drink from wells that we didn't dig."

I was privileged to attend a prep school in WNC over 30 yrs ago (one that I think has several students at Centre now). My parents paid full tuition for three of my four years. But full tuition did not cover the full cost of any student's education. Gifts from alums and others reduced the cost of my education.

I am sure Centre is the same way. Even someone paying "full sticker price" is not paying the whole cost of their education.

Gruntled said...


Bubba said...

White liberal guilt on parade. I love it.
"I am a more highly privileged white male than you are...."

Anonymous said...

Nate, misrepresenting the Tea Party weakens your argument.

Whit said...

Gruntled, I think the “give back” argument has more to do with where you come from than whether you have a “communitarian” conscience. That is, do you feel that your own (or other people’s) success was mostly earned, or do you think that it was the result of luck or exploitation of others. Of course for most people, in actuality, it’s a mixture of, at least, luck and earning, and probably a little exploitation. But some people reflexively concentrate on the luck factor while others on earned success (are the former liberals and the latter conservatives?). If you think your own success was earned you will be generous because you believe in the cause and have the means to contribute. If you think you have been mostly lucky, you will give from guilt and a sense of owing society for your success. And, I think, the person who believes, generally, that success is earned, and therefor within one’s own control, is more likely to work hard and follow the rules than one who believes it is mostly luck, or privilege, or exploitation. I am not saying these latter factors may not be present, but the only thing you can control is your own effort and judgment. And a good social philosophy and public policy will promote those things which encourage effort and good judgment and discourage the opposite. Or to put it another way, good social policy punishes knaves and fools but rewards the productive.

Whit said...

Nate, I don't think most individuals identifying themselves as "tea party" believe one is only responsible for oneself. On the contrary, I think they believe in the responsibility of private charity and the voluntary community - not coercive government - to help those in need. I would recommend Arthur Brooks for the proposition that those who believe in less government generally give more to private charity. Think of neighbors on the frontier coming together for a barn raising - nobody was forced to show up.

We can argue, as a matter of public policy and ethics, whether or not a communitarian view of responsibility to others requires coercive government charity, but you cannot conflate the argument into a conclusion that a person who does not believe in the coercive element necessarily does not believe in community responsibility.