Friday, January 28

Michael Sandel on public places

                                                            Source: Harvard Gazette
I was pleased to see Michael Sandel’s name show up as a keynote speaker at this year’s American Planning Association conference. He’s a well-known Harvard political philosopher who has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of how we talk about right and wrong toward the notion of the common good. But what does high-minded ethical reasoning have to do with planning the places we live in? As I would find out, quite a bit.

I turned to Sandel’s most recent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, based on a course he’s taught for the last two decades (which happens to also be a hit on Japanese TV, oddly enough). It’s jam packed with those thorny moral dilemmas that are great fun to subject your friends to. After running through the answers given by the usual suspects throughout history, he finishes out the book with his own position. Here’s one salient point:
An earlier generation made a massive investment in the federal highway program, which gave Americans unprecedented mobility and freedom, but also contributed to a reliance on the private automobile, suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, and living patterns corrosive to community. This generation could commit itself to an equally consequential investment in an infrastructure for civic renewal: public schools for which rich and poor alike would want to send their children, public transportation systems reliable enough to attract upscale commuters; public health clinics, playgrounds, parks, recreation centers, libraries, and museums that would, ideally at least, draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship.”
To see how he lands here, we’ll have to back up a little to grasp the underlying principles. Sandel calls into the question the modern notion of grounding all of ethics in the consent of individuals, instead reaching back to Aristotle and the notion of a civic order that encourages a strong character that looks outward from itself. Asking anyone today to honor the public good seems even a little quaint, and cynics are ever looking for the angle, but Sandel is serious about reviving the calling of citizenship.

He notes that our public discourse has come to revolve almost entirely around personal rights and personal demands. On the right, this means defending the economic decisions to buy and sell as you wish. On the left, it means breaking away from the shackles of traditional social mores and leveling inequalities. Your choices are: either let everyone keep the resources they earn in the marketplace or redistribute resources to the individuals who have more of a need. But both sides seem to agree that we are essentially individuals. We may engage in relationships or associate ourselves with certain groups, but only as long as our personal goals are achieved in the process.

How does this philosophy translate into our physical places? It means big private homes and small public spaces, many yards and few parks, lots of driving alone and little public transportation, gated communities with or without the literal gates – basically a whole place arranged so that we will never have to see a neighbor or a stranger unless we specifically choose to. We could say all sorts of things about the fairness or sustainability of this arrangement, but Sandel raises another point. This kind of place makes it harder for us to build the character traits we look up to: courage, solidarity to a community, mutual respect, sacrifice for the good of others. You can’t just read about being a good person. It takes some training and a practice field.

To pluck a story from the Christian tradition, when an injured Jewish traveler was lying along the side of a road, it was the Samaritan, his sworn ethnic enemy, who decided to lend a hand. This scene was Jesus’ response to the question “who is your neighbor?” We may like to think of ourselves as similarly generous, but we forget that the Samaritan had to actually walk past the injured man in the first place just to be presented with the dilemma.

This might be what Sandel means by an “infrastructure of civic renewal,” a full-bodied public realm that may be more challenging – alas, we don’t all agree about what the good life should be – but one that will strengthen us through the give and take of a wider community. And this can’t happen if we don’t build places to facilitate these interactions.


muhammadrazzaq said...

He notes that our public discourse has come to revolve almost entirely around personal rights and personal demands

LH said...

Thanks for sharing this, and I appreciate the point about the Good Samaritan actually having the chance to come upon the man in need. I recall being asked to speak to some college students about urban Christianity. They were expecting me to urge them to volunteer at soup kitchens and after-school programs. Instead, I told them that they should ride the bus. Living out the faith in cities means having a continuous loop of interactions with real people, not choosing into and out of contact based on your preferences.

Anonymous said...

excellent post. thanks!