Michael Gerson

A second definition of justice consists of respecting individual freedom. This approach can take the form of market-oriented libertarianism -- the belief that justice is identical to the free choices of consenting adults. Or it can have a more egalitarian expression, in which society is organized for the benefit of its least advantaged members. But both of these views assume that government's only job is to set fair rules and procedures; it is entirely up to free individuals to choose the best way to live.

Many Americans would find this view not only unobjectionable but also unassailable. Sandel assails it. "I do not think," he says, "that freedom of choice -- even freedom of choice under fair conditions -- is an adequate basis for a just society."

This equation of justice with freedom, he says, is unrealistic about the way human beings actually live. Our views of right and wrong, duty and betrayal, are not merely the result of individual free choice. All of us are born into institutions -- a family that involves our unconditional love, a community that elicits feelings of solidarity, a country that may demand a costly loyalty. Sandel argues that a liberal individualism cannot explain these deep attachments. We are "bound by some moral ties we haven't chosen."

Sandel, in the good company of Aristotle, contends that knowing "the right thing to do" in any of these institutions requires a determination of its purpose. And the purpose of government is not only to defend individual rights, but also to honor and reward civic virtues -- patriotism, self-sacrifice and concern for our neighbor. This third definition of justice, by nature, is a moral enterprise.

Because Sandel is a progressive, he calls this approach "communitarian." The stars of his political firmament are Robert Kennedy, for his call to vigorous citizenship, and Barack Obama, for his recognition that social justice is often based on moral ideals. But Sandel's belief in family and community, his respect for religious motives and his defense of patriotism might also be called conservative, at least in an older sense of the term.

Sandel sets out to confront the most difficult moral issues in politics. He ends up clarifying a basic political divide -- not between left and right, but between those who recognize nothing greater than individual rights and choices, and those who affirm a "politics of the common good," rooted in moral beliefs that can't be ignored.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Michael Gerson's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.