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58 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking introduction, 5 Jan 2010
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This review is from: Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Paperback)
The first thing to say about this book is just how readable it is. Although 'justice' is a subject that interests us all from the point when, as children, we first said 'but it's not fair', too often it can be a dry and academic subject with no immediate apparent relevance to 'real life'. Not so this book.

Sandel takes us on a tour of theories of justice in roughly chronological order. Starting with Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism, Sandel clearly explains the principles involved and then provides a critique. Moving on, he outlines John Stuart Mill's attempts at refining and expanding Bentham's 'simple' Utilitarianism with more emphasis on the individual. Next, Sandel gives a concise description and critique of Libertarians, mentioning Robert Nozick as a contemporary example.

From there, Sandel moves to a philosopher who rejected Bentham, Mills and Libertarianism - namely Immanuel Kant. Sandel's explanation of Kant's 'categorical imperative' and the autonomous individual is the clearest and most understandable that I have ever come across - explaining the difference between, for example, the Golden Rule (treat others as you would be treated) and Kant's non-contingent principles. Sandel then moves on to John Rawls and illustrates the continuities between Kant and Rawls. Rawls' idea of a 'hypothetical agreement in an original position of equality' clearly has Kantian echoes. But again Sandel provides stimulating criticisms of these positions.

Finally, Sandel moves on to Aristotle. After admitting that Aristotle's ideas of justice have been largely rejected for a couple of millennia, Sandel takes the crucial Aristotelian concept of 'telos' and suggests that justice, far from being 'a priori' or autonomous (in a Kantian or Rawlsian sense), has a purpose or goal. Rawls' critics (of which Sandel admits to being one):

"...rejected the claim for the priority of the right over the good, and argued that we can't reason about justice by abstracting from our aims and attachments". (P220).

Such critics became known as 'Communitarians' - a name and a group of ideas much taken up by politicians not so long ago. However, Sandel then goes on to point to the 'relativistic' problems of Communitarianism (sounding rather post-modernist perhaps!):

'Most of the critics were uneasy with this label [Communitarian], for it seemed to suggest the relativist view that justice is simply whatever a particular community defines it to be. But this worry raises an important point: Communal embraces can be oppressive. Liberal freedom developed as an antidote to political theories that consigned persons to destinies fixed by caste or class...So how is it possible to acknowledge the moral weight of community while still giving scope to human freedom?' (P221).

Sandel's answer is to look to After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre reconstitutes the human actor as a 'storytelling being'; as Sandel says 'We live our lives as narrative quests'. And, of course, this fits in with Aristotles' idea of 'telos':

'All lived narratives, MacIntyre observes, have a certain teleological character'. (P221).

Sandel goes on to expand these ideas in a series of 'real-life' examples ('Family Obligations', 'French Resistance', 'Rescuing Ethiopian Jews'). To me, that is one of the major strengths of this book - however academic the language seems to get, Sandel always and continually grounds the philosophical musings in real, actual, historical examples.

The examples are brought fully up-to-date in the final chapter 'Justice and the Common Good'. Contrasting John F Kennedy's position on the 'religious issue' (pretty much the same as Alistair Campbell's 'We don't do god') with Barack Obama's overt engagement in religiously based moral arguments (Obama is quoted here as saying 'The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms' (P245)), Sandel goes on to recast 'The Abortion and Stem Cell Debates' (P251) and the 'Same Sex Marriages' argument (P253) in refreshingly forthright and imaginative ways.

I really enjoyed this book. It got me thinking. And in a world as fast-changing and dangerous as ours, it is a subject that needs thinking about.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 10 Jan 2010 18:41:53 GMT
Wynne Kelly says:
I liked your comment on the Vine Forum and your review of this book - have added it to my Wish List....

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jan 2010 19:00:51 GMT
Diziet says:
Thanks Wynne - I hope you get a chance to read it!

:-)

Posted on 2 Feb 2010 00:43:35 GMT
Mr. Jbk Ryan says:
I've just finished this book and was going to write a review but you nailed it.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Feb 2010 18:47:59 GMT
Last edited by the author on 2 Feb 2010 20:13:48 GMT
Diziet says:
Er, sorry. Would still like to hear your opinion of it.

And thanks :-)

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Feb 2010 07:55:35 GMT
Tuppy says:
JBK Ryan was right. A great review . . . informative and very readable - hardly worth anyone adding another! I'm just about to click on Add to Basket on the strength of your review. : )

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Feb 2010 08:16:18 GMT
Diziet says:
Thank-you. Hope you get as much out of it as I did. :-)

Posted on 29 Mar 2010 12:07:47 BDT
Drambuster says:
An excellent review - informative, detailed and well written. If only there were more like this.

I've bought the book!

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Mar 2010 13:59:24 BDT
Diziet says:
Thank-you :-) (Should be on commission!)
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