Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gintis on Sandel: An interesting book review

Michael Sandel has an excellent class on Justice, the lectures of which are available from Harvard for free online at with an accompanying book and reader. I found an excellent review of Sandel’s new book, Justice:What’s the right thing to do? on Amazon at It's by the leftist behavioral economist, Herb Gintis, a founder of the Union for Radical Political Economics in 1968 and collaborator of Sam Bowles.

I share the view of Sandel and Gintis about virtue ethics as distinct from the standard post-Enlightenment strands of consequentialism and deontology. In my view, a virtue ethics approach that embeds people in their communities, cultures and histories is a better path for professional as well as general ethics. It treats the moral agent as a real human being with habits of the heart and mind. It is a break from the universalizing rationalistic hyper-individualism of most recent ethics since the Enlightenment--including the focus on identifying and resolving dilemmas through moral reasoning (quandary ethics). [On this, see my article in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare’s September 2009 issue, vol.36, no.3.] But here a new and more substantive universalism enters that challenges an over-emphasis on the local and culturally particular.

Sandel espouses a kind of virtue-ethics communitarian liberalism, but, Gintis argues, seems half-stuck in the world of dilemmas like eating someone on a lifeboat to keep those remaining from starving to death or cutting up one patient, in for a check-up or yanked off the street, for all his major organs that could save the lives of six other patients, etc. Of course, this could simply reflect the requirements of an introductory course on ethics to cover this material. Contemporary consequentialist and deontological ethics have been preoccupied with moral conflict or dilemmas, "when in fact most major moral choices concern good versus evil, and what is considered good and evil is pretty much the same the world over. Everywhere, people cherish honesty, loyalty, hard-work, bravery, considerateness, trustworthiness, and charity."

This is what the psychologists Peterson & Seligman (2004) found in their survey of the virtues in the world's major cultures and religions. Social workers cherish these things too, but are faced daily in their professional lives with temptations to succumb to their near- or far-enemies (i.e., in Buddhist terms, which look at things just as Aristotle did in this regard, the far enemy of courage is cowardice, but the near-enemy is recklessness). Social workers are not computers, making decisions rationally, episodically, and without character, history, or culture. They face dilemmas, yes, but much more temptations, and each bad (or good) choice they make makes it easier for them to do the same next time, i.e., to build habits that become part of who they are (character, the core of their personality).

Since the language is much richer in terms for negative than positive traits, perhaps we should start by asking what characterizes a bad social worker as a way of getting at the virtues required for and developed by our profession. (Pellegrino, the physician and medical ethicist, offers this list of virtues for the medical profession: prudence, benevolence, compassion and caring, courage, intellectual honesty, humility, effacement of self-interest, justice, and trustworthiness.)

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