Matt's Reviews > Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Justice by Michael J. Sandel
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Feb 24, 12

bookshelves: philosophy
Read from February 16 to 24, 2012

I picked this up on a recommendation from Massimo Pigliucci's blog, and what an excellent choice. Sandel covers the three main avenues of determining what's right: consequentialism, starting from Bentham and Mill's utilitarianism; freedom-based theories including libertarianism and Kant's categorical imperative; and the virtue ethics of Aristotle. Sandel introduces each in turn, discussing what they are and what they imply about justice.

In this context, "justice" refers not simply to courts and criminal proceedings, but more general moral questions of "what's the right thing to do?"

Being something of a lefty myself, I was on board with Sandel through the discussion of Kant and John Rawls (whose difference principle and hypothetical equality I found intriguing) but I felt like he (almost) lost me in the final chapter, when he pulled the rug out from under the liberalism of previous chapters to argue in favor of a virtue or "good life" system.

My shock was brief, however, as Sandel made a good case for his position, rightfully noting that Rawls's idea of a morality free of our cultural context and historical baggage, while sound in principle, is not likely to be a political reality in any discussion. It's impossible to discuss justice solely on the notion of rationally-derived rights; any meaningful discourse cannot remain neutral but must tackle questions of virtue (Aristotle's telos or purpose) head-on.

I'd like more time to digest his conclusions but I think he made a good argument, keeping questions of justice centered on modern liberal principles while still acknowledging that these matters carry a moral weight beyond mere freedom of choice (an argument that is thankfully immune to the poisons of religious fundamentalism and other barbarities).
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