A few weeks ago, Michael Sandel, one of my old college professors, published an op-ed in the Times asking the provocative question: “are we all in this together?”
Sandel is a philosopher who has dedicated his life and career to asking deep questions about assumptions in society that we take for granted. When I took his class in college, “Justice” – one of the most popular classes at Harvard at the time – he would use real world examples to introduce major modes of moral reasoning to us. Then, just when it seemed like John Stuart Mills, Immanuel Kant, or John Locke had it all figured out, he’d introduce a wrinkle. If that which maximizes good for the greatest many is morally good (Mills), then why do we object to the story of a town where everyone’s prosperity depends on the suffering of one or a few? If we believe that the good is advanced by maximizing life, liberty and property (Locke), then how do we square that with our belief in some type of social safety net?
Sandel’s point was to challenge us to analyze moral questions from multiple angles, to not shy away from nuance and complexity, and to not take status quo assumptions for granted. And that’s part of what I loved about his recent essay.
Sandel for years has been associated with an idea in moral philosophy called the “communitarian critique.” If you think about how much of our political and cultural thinking in the West springs from philosophical liberalism – that is, the idea that individuals have fundamental, unalienable rights, and that like atoms, individuals are the units that combine to form society – the communitarian critique of this is that it overlooks the moral significance of human relationships. It overlooks the fact that we find meaning, purpose and identity in our lives through our connections with those around us, and as a result, it makes it easy to turn a blind eye to questions of what we owe each other.
Like many, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. One of the ironies of this current pandemic is the way it’s turned our notions of “essential” work in society totally upside down. While members of the professional and managerial classes can largely stay home and work remotely, those who pack our groceries, staff our pharmacies, deliver our packages, don’t have this luxury. Nor do the incredible nurses, medical assistants, janitors, EMT workers and of course physicians who are treating those most stricken with this disease. Given this – and this is part of Sandel’s point – how can this present crisis not force us to ask what we owe each other?
- Is it right that an employee at the local Walmart, who works full time to support a family, has to rely on food stamps to put food on the table?
- Is it right that prior to the current crisis, if an Uber driver was sick and unable to work, they’d have no paid sick leave or health insurance?
- Is it right that while McDonald’s encourages frontline staff to sign up for Medicaid, its CEO makes 2,124x its median worker’s pay?
How can it be when, as the world shuts down around us, it’s these kind of workers we’re counting on the most?
The issue here isn’t just about minimum wages and healthcare equity. It’s about whether and how we respect the dignity of work and the contributions we make to one another. As we emerge from this present crisis and take stock of the human and economic toll it wrought, will we continue to assume that the pre-crisis status quo is ok? Or will we think differently about how to value the contributions of everyone around us?
Will we decide, we’re all in this together?