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.