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  • Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics
  • Jay M. Hudkins
Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics. By Michael J. Sandel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005; pp. 292. $25.95 cloth; $16.95 paper.

In 1996, the Harvard University Press published Sandel's Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, which explores the demise of America's sense of community and morality in politics and examines the interplay of each within contemporary debates over issues such as abortion, gay rights, hate speech, religion, and the welfare state. The author, a political theorist from Harvard, concluded then that America's project of self-government, and the chasms created by the labels "conservatism" or "liberalism" that frequently define freedom in sharply contrasting ways, had cultivated a citizenry far removed from the ideals of civic responsibility and community. [End Page 134]

In the same press's second offering from Sandel, the author revisits many of the same themes he addressed in Democracy's Discontent. In that sense, Public Philosophy serves as a companion piece to his first book. A compilation of 30 essays, each penned by the author and previously appearing in journals, periodicals, or law reviews between 1983 and 2004, Public Philosophy reinvestigates the author's primary criticism of America's project in self-government: "American politics lacks an animating vision of the good society, and of the shared obligations of citizenship" (3). The essays provide individual warrants for the author's extended argument by charting the "moral and civic dilemmas that animate American life" (3). Sandel explicates how a political system that retrenches from moral discourse and that contributes to its citizenry's feelings of disempowerment must instead promote a sense of civic responsibility and a renewed spirit of community.

In part 1, "American Civic Life," Sandel examines "how liberalism lost its moral and civic voice" and considers "whether the project of self-government can be rejuvenated in our time" (4). The essays, according to the author, "seek in the American political tradition sources of civic renewal for our time" (7). The first two chapters provide a historical account of the endeavors to enact substantive economic and social policies. Drawing from Jeffersonian economic arguments, the economic debates of the Progressive and New Deal eras, and the economic rhetoric of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan, Sandel recounts how policies that support the aims of either conservatism or liberalism, rather than advancing the notions of liberty and freedom, reflect a decline in the true purpose of America's project in self-government: to encourage civic virtue and a sense of community among all citizens, regardless of where they situate themselves on the political spectrum. Today, the absence of "substantive moral discourse" characterizes the project, and consequently, a system of "impersonal structures of power" (28) exists that "fails to address democracy's discontent" (29). Ultimately, the project must "cultivate" among its citizens a sense of community "to repair the civic life on which democracy depends" (34).

The subsequent essays in part 1 address the theme laid out by the two introductory chapters. The third and fourth chapters, written during the 1996 presidential campaign, explore the loss of virtue in politics and conclude that neither a second term from incumbent President Bill Clinton, nor an electoral victory by his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, offers a resolution to "the sense of disempowerment that hovers over our politics" (53). The fifth and sixth chapters comment on President Clinton's reelection and his impeachment, respectively. The final essay provides insight into the "project of civic renewal" upon which "the health of American democracy" depends (58). The essay examines the ways in which Senator Robert F. Kennedy's liberalism [End Page 135] advanced civility and community. Different from the "liberal orthodoxy" of the Democratic Party of the sixties (63), Kennedy's liberalism effectively championed the ways in which participatory democracy and civic responsibility could tackle the difficult issues of crime, poverty, unemployment, and welfare. This essay provides both insight into the measures a "project of civic renewal" might encompass and hope for those readers who also lament the decline of an engaged citizenry and who yearn for a more responsive government.

In part...


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