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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do

Posted by Giorgio Tomassetti on 02:01 in , ,
In this post I want to summarize the main ideas described in the book “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?” by Michael J. Sandel.


In this book the author explores the whole concept of justice and how differently it can be perceived by each one of us. He does that in a very effective way by forcing the reader to face real life situations in which he is suppose to decide what the right thing to do is.
In the first chapter he presents us with three case studies. In the first one he talks about laws against price gouging, and in particular he talks about what happened to prices in Florida after Hurricane Charley. As the author points out, the arguments for and against price-gouging law revolve around three ideas: welfare, freedom and virtue. Then the author goes on debating over who should qualify for the Purple Heart. In order to solve this problem we need to first understand which virtues we want to honor with this medal

The last case study is about the recent bailout that followed the financial crises, and in particular the author discusses the way people felt about the bonuses that the top management of firms involved received. Although some thought that bonuses were necessary, most people believed that they were unjust mainly because they rewarded failure instead of success.

Sandel outlines three approaches to justice that help us understand they way people make decisions and he talks about each one of them throughout the book. The first one is the idea of maximizing welfare or, in other words, the concept of utilitarianism. The second approach is related to freedom and individual rights and the third sees justice as a concept related to virtue and good life.

Before describing the different approaches to justice, the author talks about the so called “moral dilemmas”. We can explain them by using the morally reasoning process, which leads each one of us in different directions based on our moral instincts and on the way we reflect and justify our choices. Conflicts in this case might be caused by incomplete reasoning or conflicting moral imperatives.

In chapter two Sandel discusses the concept of utilitarianism by comparing two different approaches. The first one is the one of Jeremy Bentham, which is more focused on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in order to maximize the overall utility, even though the rights of the individual might be ignored, for example in the case of torture. Also, this view is based on the idea that it is possible to measure moral goods on a single scale but in reality this is very hard to do. The second approach is John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism, in which people should be free to do whatever they want, provided they don’t harm to others. Also Mill believes that there are higher and lower pleasures.

Chapter three is about Libertarianism which is based on the idea that government should be minimal and the individual should be free to choose on his own. Libertarians oppose paternalism, moral legislation and redistribution of income. Those who oppose libertarianism argue that, for example, taxation is good because we are part of society and we need to contribute. Also, they believe that rich people should give back because their wealth is partially created by the society. Sandel then discusses the implications related to the buying and selling of organs. Then the book goes on talking about markets and morals and how the free market can be based on either freedom (libertarian case) or welfare (utilitarian).

Chapter five talks about the importance of motive and Kant’s view on this. He believed that morality was about respecting people, no matter who they were, which means doing the right thing just because it feels right.
After that, Sandel discusses the concept of egalitarianism through John Rawls’ view, also explains how it differs from the libertarianism and the utilitarianism view. Rawls believed that people desire equality in terms of basic liberties and in terms of social and economic life.

Chapter either is dedicated to Aristotle view of justice which is about rewarding the right virtues, which are learned through experience, while chapter nine is about loyalty in a social meaning and it goes through different issues: from immigration to family obligations. Finally, in chapter ten Sandel expresses his feelings about what is going to be the new politics of the common good with some practical applications (abortion and stem cells, same sex marriage).

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