‘I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.’ – Chidi Anagonye, ‘The Good Place’ 2×13
Folks, you must have noticed by now that the book I’m reading at any given time tells you a lot about what’s on my mind. Books, after all, are a good place to find answers.
This week’s book choice was born entirely out of the fact that I discovered The Good Place on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it yet, please consider doing it. I’d strongly recommend it – it’s funny, it’s kind, and most of all, it raises moral-ethical questions without lecturing about it. The entire series is centered around a very basic question: “What does it mean to be good?”, which, coincidentally, is also the sub-title of this week’s book.
I’m kidding – I chose the book precisely because it seemed like a nice add-on to the series. A bit of background reading, if you will.
(If you don’t feel like reading – this book is based on a series of lectures that can be found on youtube.)
I can understand why the prospect of reading a philosophical book – one that not only mentions but talks at length about Kant and Aristotle and a whole other bunch of dead white men – seems daunting.
Philosophy, after all, is basically a whole bunch of easy questions – ‘can life be fair?’ ‘Is it okay to lie if it saves a life?’ ‘Does the goal justify the means?’ to which there are no easy answers.
And this is where Michael Sandel shines. He talks you through a bunch of thought experiments and then discusses how different philosophers would answer it. Nothing of it is high-brow, and he does not take one side over the other. He gives you time to ponder the problem yourself and then helps you work your way through the thorny moral implications.
He does bring up the trolley car problem, of course – but most of his questions are far more practical. One of his best examples is the draft. After experimenting with the draft, most notably for the Civil War and the Vietnam War, the US military is now relying on ‘volunteers’ to fight their wars. However, Sandel points out, ‘volunteer’ here just means that the military has become a profession like any other, and ‘volunteering’ simply means people have a free choice to join up or not.
Libertarians like to say that installing a draft equals slavery – that you cannot force people to fight if they don’t want to because the thirteenth amendment abolishes all slavery. (I’m not entirely convinced of this argument, and neither seems Sandel.)
So you would think that abolishing the draft and letting people join up freely would be much better. However, as Sandel points out, in reality, this means a legal compulsion (the draft) was replaced by an economic one. Simply put, putting yourself in harm’s way for your country is not a very appealing choice – if you do have a choice, that is. Most of the US military is coming from low-income families. The burden of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fell disproportionately on poor people. So is this fair, then?
Some people would say that nothing forces them to join up – but that presumes you have a choice. Does that mean a draft is a fairer choice?
As Sandel says (and he says that a lot), it all depends on what value you prize. Do you put civil duty first? Then it would make sense to introduce a draft that would force all able-bodied people to serve their country in uniform.
Or do you emphasize freedom and individual liberties instead? Then a draft would indeed equal slavery.
There is not one right answer, Sandel says, but you have to be aware of your underlying values because they influence the outcome of the question.
And next week – right in time for the Midterm elections, we’re having a look at how we got to this point. How did the American society disintegrate right in front of our eyes without us even noticing? And looking back, what would we have seen?