December 2009
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Justice: What's the right thing to Do?

A Book Review by Thomas G. Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

By Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Hardcover, 2009, 308 Pages, $25.00

Have you ever felt you or someone you know were the victim of an injustice? Have you ever struggled with a moral or ethical quandary, not sure what to do to treat another person fairly? Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to survive a course at Harvard? If your answer to any on the above questions is yes, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of “Justice” by Michael J. Sandel.

A longtime professor of politics and government, Sandel has taken his perennially popular Harvard course: “Justice,” reduced it to its bare essence and written it down in a gem of a book. Combining the precision of a surgeon, the artistry of a master chef, and the patient pedagogy of a Mr. Rogers, the author takes some complex philosophical theories of justice, spreads them apart like fish fillets, and lays them out next to one another for us to examine . From Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, Sandel gives each thinker his turn. He then takes all the theories and applies them to both hypothetical and real world situations to show how: “...wrestling with their dilemmas sheds light on the way moral argument can proceed, in our lives and in the public square.”

The hypothetical examples are interesting. But it is the actual modern day moral dilemmas that prove most compelling and make the book so accessible and relevant to today. Tackling concepts like teleological reasoning and utilitarianism might sound deadly dull. But apply them to modern day quandaries such as affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage and even CEO bonuses and you have a book that shows how the teachings of ancient philosophers like Aristotle can still be used to inform how we structure our laws and even shape how we interact with others on a daily basis.

Like most good courses on philosophy, Sandel’s book begins and ends with questions. Some are simple: “Should we atone for the sins of our predecessors?” or “Do we own ourselves?” Some are more complex: “Does a just society seek to promote the virtue of its citizens? Or should law be neutral toward competing conceptions of virtue, so that citizens can be free to choose for themselves the best way to live?” Through example after example, the author shows that wrestling with philosophical questions is not just an academic exercise. “This book is not a history of ideas, but a journey in moral reflection. Its goal is not to show who influenced whom in the history of political thought, but to invite readers to subject their own views about justice to critical examination – to figure out what they think and why.” For Sandel, dealing with morality and ethics should not be a question of faith but an exercise in reason.

Despite a carefully neutral and nonjudgmental stance on morality, Sandel’s own political views are nonetheless evident throughout the book. For example, when commenting on juries he writes: “Jury duty is not only a way of resolving cases. It is also a form of civic education, and an expression of democratic citizenship. Although jury duty is not always edifying, the idea that all citizens are obligated to perform it preserves a connection between the courts and the people.”

Presenting civic duty as a virtue that should be nurtured is a theme that crops up again and again in the book. However, rather than argue in favor of it as something that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number, (utilitarianism) or rationalize it as a way to preserve and protect individual freedom, (libertarianism) Sandel presents civic duty as something that is valuable in its own right and something that is essential to maintaining a healthy society. “If a just society requires a strong sense of community, it must find a way to cultivate in citizens a concern for the whole, a dedication to the common good... It must find a way to lean against purely privatized notions of the good life, and cultivate civic virture.”

“Justice” is an amazing book. Even reading one chapter can provide fodder for a month’s worth of dinner conversation and personal moral pondering. Through his modern day examples, Sandel shows how philosophy is relevant in our everyday lives. In posing philosophical questions, Sandel practices what he preaches. He doesn’t tell us what to think, or even how to think, he simply challenges us to think. If you are interested in history, philosophy, civics, justice, religion, morality, the law, or even just using your brain for something other than controlling the hand that brings the Cheetos to your mouth, I heartily recommend picking up a copy of this book. If time or money do not permit, or if reading is not your bag, you can even hear Michael Sandel’s complete lecture class itself. (accessible for free at "Justice Harvard")

As a thinker, a writer, and an educator, Michael Sandel is in a class by himself. He may not be the civics teacher or philosophy professor you wish you’d had in school, but he is definitely the professor that you should have had.