on 5 January 2010
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.
on 5 December 2011
I first heard the author, Michael Sandel on a podcast talking about economic and social ethics. His approach is simple: present the different theories and let you decide for yourself.
This book challenges the way you think about everything! From economics and torture of terrorists, to your everyday life issues. It enhances your emotional and ethical intelligences. It's easy to read and it helps you understand why some politicians and political parties believe in what they do, but also equips you with the framework to challenge these perceptions intelligently.
I dont know how to sell this book to you...but all I can say is it has added to my life by giving me the intellectual framework to assess our world and forced me to make an ethical choice which I struggle to maintain every day (in a good self-growth way).
Perhaps look up Michael Sandel, hear one of his Harvard Lectures and then if you like what you hear, then buy the book.
on 9 June 2010
Michael Sandel has dedicated his life to moral philosophy and deciding what is the right thing to do. He is an incredibly talented lecturer, seeming to be able to explain even the most complicated subjects in a way that is easy to comprehend.
He has managed to do the same with this book. He presents moral dilemmas with clear examples and follows them with proposed answers from famous philosophers such as Kant, Rawls and Aristotle (don't worry if you currently don't know much about these people, I didn't when I first started reading either).
This being said, it is incredibly easy to read. I have been reading this alongside books requires for my law course and it compliments them very well and is often a welcome break!
I would strongly recommend it to those with little knowledge in the area but with some interest. It will very quickly have you pausing your reading to try and form your own arguments and opinions on the moral dilemmas he presents you with.
So if you want thought provoking ideas, insight from a life devoted to moral philosophy and perhaps even if it's just you want a 'little bit more' from your holiday book then this is the book for you.
on 9 June 2010
I loved this book. It's been a while since I read any philosophy but wanted to get back into it. After buying the book I was a little concerned that starting with a topic as heavy as justice may have been a bad choice. Thankfully, I could not have been more wrong.
From start to finish the arguments are interesting, thought provoking and easily understood. The author's ability to present complexity in simple everyday terms testfies to a lack of pomposity, all to common among academic writers.
When reading Justice, one gets the sense of a writer confident in his own ideas but one who would also welcome scrutiny. A deep desire to get to "the truth" is palpable throughout. This is evident from the detailed and objective attention that Sandel pays to the key theories of Justice before constructing his own argument. Indeed, the bulk of the book is dedicated to considering the strengths and weaknesses of each of the main schools of thought.
After a brief introduction, the book proceeds to consider utilitariasm. It starts with the rather harsh form first propounded by Jeremy Bentham, and gives due credit to John Stuart Mill's attempt to round off some of the harsher edges of this school of thought. Sandel then proceeds to consider the libertarian attack on utilitarianism and clearly and objectively outlines the arguments on both sides.
One of the best features of the book is the author's determination to put these arguments in context and make them relevant to our everyday modern lives. To this end, at Chapter 4, the author discusses several current social questions from the utilitarian and libertarian perspectives. The topics include: the moral arguments around drafting, volunteer armies and the hiring of private military contractors by the state; and the paying of surrogate mothers.
The book then proceeds to tackle Kant's basis of morality and John Rawl's theory of justice before applying these philosophies, as well as those already disussed, to the debate around affirmative action. This structure helps the reader to understand and absorb the ideas discussed with minimal effort. The familiarity of the issues under consideration give the ideas both clarity and meaning.
The book then proceeds to outline an aspect of Aristotle's philosophy, with which the author obviously sympathises - i.e. that questions of justice cannot, and should not, bypass questions of purpose. Sandel argues that the question of whether the actions of a government are just, for example, are not truly meaningful unless we are willing to discuss what purpose government serves. This is a response to the theories, such as those of Kant and Rawls, which contend that justice is something objective which precede purpose - theories which continue to be very influential. The author contends, again in reference to highly relevant and current debates, that despite very wide acceptance, this contention is flawed.
You can make up your own mind as to whether you think the author's theory is more persuasive than the others outlined in his book. There are certainly aspects of the author's argument that raise questions that remain to be answered and others that appear to be inconsistent with some of his own criticisms of other schools of thought. For instance, he acknowledges early in the book the philosophical "truth", first propounded by Hume, that one cannot get an ought from an is. Yet, some of his own arguments point to certain facts of modern society and conclude from them that they have moral signifincance. For instance, he points to our sense that we have moral oligations to our family, friends or community above and beyond those who sit outside those social structures, as evidence that we do have such moral obligations. He may be right, but it is difficult to see how this does not conflict with the longstanding philosophical "truth" that one cannot get an ought from an is.
However, it is not the overwhelming persuasiveness of the argument that is impressive here. It is the author's ability to be lucid, and dare I say, just, in his account of the strengths and weaknesses of all of the main schools of thought, while still reaching conclusions of his own. As such, you may not come away agreeing with the author's particular stance, but you will almost certainly have a better understanding of your own stance on these questions, and of its strengths and limitations.
This is philosophy at its best: engaging, accessible and highly relevant. It's logical stucture and unpretentious prose make this book a highly enjoyable read. But it is the author's fearless exploration of all of the arguments that is most worthy of praise. If you like thinking, you will love this book.
on 18 December 2009
I loved this book! I have always been interested in moral and political philosophy, but it had been many, many years since I'd read Bentham, Kant, Rawls, et al. And their books are, let's face it, pretty dry. This one starts straight off with a contemporary example (price gouging in the wake of a hurricane) and examines the arguments for and against. (Yes, actually, in America there are people who think it's fine. If you don't, how precisely do you argue your case, beyond calling it disgraceful and avaricious ...) - Sandel reviews various philosophical stances, revealing, as he does so, how muddled one's own thinking often is, even if your positions are strongly held. It is enlightening to bring these points of view to bear on contemporary issues, such as gay marriage, affirmative action, etc., and it's a joy to read. For me, it is unusual to find myself itching to sit down and read a work of non-fiction, looking forward to it the way you look forward to a good novel. An excellent choice for any thinking person, even if they didn't realise they were interested in philosophy.
on 5 August 2012
Michael Sandel is a distinguished philosopher with an unusual capacity for presenting complex philosophical ideas in an accessible way. If you have never really thought about concepts of justice before, then the book may well be something of a revelation. If you have, then you will probably never have come across such a clear exposition of the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers to tackle ethical questions. The chapter on Kant is especially good, and almost made me warm to someone who could argue, with great conviction, that it was wrong to tell a lie, even to save someone's life. By the end of the first two thirds of the book, you will have been through a short but very useful course in ethics, presenting a number of different ways of looking at important questions, all of them interesting, none of them perfect.
Which is where the problem begins. Because the book is written for an American audience, who can be assumed to be largely ignorant about the rest of the world, the practical examples are mostly taken from recent newsworthy recent events in the United States. Unfortunately, most of these examples are not actually very profound, and not very interesting to non-Americans. It's possible to think of much more interesting and useful examples from history, but that would clearly require knowledge of, and interest in, issues which the original audience for the book (Harvard undergraduates) was assumed not to possess. Pity really.
on 21 January 2014
I am glad that I have persevered with this book, and done it justice by finishing it and thereby hearing the author's conclusion on the subject. Reading the first 60 or so pages, I found myself sick to the stomach; I found the notion of utilitarianism revolting. The concept of thinking about justice and moral by calculation and treating human beings like "arguments" in the utility or happiness maximisation function, governed only by human's primeval makeup of pain and pleasures, is, to me, hugely degrading. Forcing my mind to comprehend such alien notion turned out to be very disagreeable to my mind that it rebelled! I soldiered on and was glad to find the critiques of utilitarianism, which came afterwards, and where humans were described like humans, moral agents.
It is no denying that this book is thought provoking, because it challenges our assumptions and beliefs so ingrained in our thinking and debate about social issues of the day. In our inclination, we are not even aware of our biases. This book helps take apart all those assumptions, which have been taken for granted, and presents alternative or competing approaches to think about the same issues. In so doing, it broadens our view and considerations. Along the wider spectrum, we work out where our inclination is situated. Once we know the positioning of our inclination, we may start to review if we would like to adjust its placement and why.
For example, after reading this book, I realise how much our politics and public discourse are influenced by liberalism and individualism. Interestingly, no political parties are actually consistent in advocating the same principles in all area of policies. This is a reckoning. In the past I believe that economic justice is defined clearly by the market discipline and mechanism, although success is not always in direct proportion to talents and effort, not to say that we did not choose our initial endowments. Rawls has expounded on this randomness from "an original position of equality" (while a similar concept has been coined by Warren Buffett as "the ovarian lottery"). However what is most interesting is the notion of moral desert. We think justice is done when we get what we deserve. But what we deserve cannot be defined without referring to the purpose of the social institution under concern or the virtues to be honoured and rewarded, and in turn the rules of the game. Purposes and virtues are moral values.
But what is most powerful in swaying me away from minimal state is not Rawls' liberalism egalitarianism but our sense of belonging to a community, which is part of our identity. I don't think it is realistic to think that we can abstract ourselves from all our ties and links in making moral decisions behind "a veil of ignorance", as required by Rawls' theory. It is to me more natural to think that we are indeed "storytelling beings" living in narratives, as "situated selves" rather than "individuals" living in isolation. How big is and who are in this community that we align our loyalty with, and what our membership to this community entails are yet to be thought through on a case-by-case basis, I guess. But at the very least, this sense of belonging and membership will give rise to a sense of collective responsibility within this community, past and present.
There are other highlights from the book. For example, Aristotle's concept that moral virtues have to be practised and exercised through choice. This reminds me of Hayek's point about socialism as amoral because people no longer exercised choice. As the author eloquently argues, deliberation reflects the quality of character, and "to have character is to live in recognition of one's (sometime conflicting) encumbrances." (p. 237)
Also Kant's critique to utilitarianism is brilliant to the point. We are not free agents as we think, if our actions are governed by our desires which we haven't chosen in the first place. "Trying to derive moral principles from the desires we happen to have is the wrong way to think about morality." (p.106) Morality based on interests, wants, desires and preferences people have at any time cannot give rise to universal principles, because these factors are variable and contingent, and can hardly be a consistent basis for a set of coherent moral principles! Even the pursuit of happiness, which has been taken by many as a legitimate pursuit in life, cannot be the basis for the same reasons. If our desires and wants can't serve as the basis of morality, what's left? One possibility is God, but Kant appeals to our "pure practical reason". Furthermore, our capacity for reason underlies our capacity for freedom.
I think the author's reflection of today's politics is accurate: "Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is a recipe for backlash and resentment. A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread." (p.243)
Today the pressure to have everything permissible in our society under the name of liberalism, which seeks to provide scope for everyone to choose his good life (as long as it does not infringe on others' rights), without defining for anyone what a good life is. It is believed that liberalism is the way to accommodate a pluralistic society. But after decades of following this ideology we see our sense of community weakened and replaced by apathy and divisive politics, and we see increasingly our society moves to value the wrong things. Is it time that we challenge a politics that is void of substance? The author thinks so, as he concludes, "A politics of moral engagement is not only a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. It is also a more promising basis for a just society." (p.269) Do you agree it is time to rethink?
on 5 October 2014
Some friends and I are studying this as one of our U3A activities. It makes quite a change to read a philosopher who is still alive! The problems that he poses have provoked some interesting discussions between us. I am not going to give detailed comments as I feel that I would end up giving an explanation of my own views which are hardly relevant. Suffice it to say that I recommend this book if you are interested in moral philosopshy and want to gain some insight into the issues that can arise when alternative choices of action arise. You may not agree with some of his arguments but that is not the point. The aim is to raise issues and provoke thought and discussion and that he does very well.
on 1 April 2015
I cannot recommend 'Justice' highly enough. A Harvard professor, so presumably more at home in the rarefied world of academia, Michael Sandel has nevertheless the rare talent of turning lofty ideas into accessible and engaging discussions. Furthermore, while reading his book we can't help but start wondering about other concepts too, such as ethics, freedom, the distribution of wealth, or the role played by both personal responsibility and culture/society in our individual lives (which is the dominant one?) All in all, I'd say this is one of the best and most useful texts I've ever read.
As another reviewer said, 'Justice' makes us think, and there is no higher praise for any book, of any genre. It is true that its most examples and debates are USA-centred and highly specific to the Americans, but don't let that put you off, the questions this exceptional book poses are universal and so, to the intelligent reader, pretty much everything in here will be highly relevant no matter where we live. And if you're looking to form a well-rounded, informed view of the world we live in, you could do worse than reading also Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and the not at all insignificant Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Steger.
on 17 August 2011
"The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be." So writes Harvard government and political philosophy professor Michael J. Sandel in this all-encompassing tour through the social, economic and political issues that preoccupy modern society. Seeking to define justice in a just society, Sandel forays into affirmative action, paid militaries, infant surrogacy, free markets and even cannibalism. His reviews of classical and modern philosophies, rightly intended to guide the reader through his exposition, slow down what is otherwise an informative, illuminating and entertaining book. Sandel argues for a "politics of moral engagement" that brings all citizens together in a quest for a just society. getAbstract highly recommends this book to free marketers, libertarians, utilitarians and people of all philosophical and political stripes.