Review of Michael Sandel’s book “Justice”

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Justice: what’s the right thing to do? Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Posted by John Birkimer.

Sandel looks at major approaches to defining or describing justice, looks at challenges to several of them, and suggests what he sees as the best approach to achieving justice. (Justice, as used here, is more “distributive” than punitive justice.)

Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, about 1800) argued for whatever led to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, happiness being whatever produces pleasure and/or avoids pain.   Objections to this approach include (1) this can run roughshod over individuals. Throwing Christians to lions, if leading to great happiness for many Romans, could be justified by utilitarianism, as could torturing the daughter of a terrorist to force him to tell where he hid a bomb that will soon detonate, and keeping an unhappy child prisoner and miserable if that kept a large town quite happy. (2) This approach assumes a common metric can be found, that all values can be captured by a common currency of value, but many argue it cannot. Human lives probably cannot be reduced to a dollar value, for instance.

Libertarians argue the basis of justice is individual freedom. Each person should be free to do whatever they want so long as that does not harm others. Governments should be limited to enforcing contracts, protecting individual property, and preserving peace. No laws should exist to protect people from themselves, to affect morality, or to redistribute income. Laws regarding prostitution or abortion should not exist, nor should minimum wage laws nor social security, all these violate individual liberty. (This view grew as a reaction to the welfare state, but was previewed by John Stuart Mill in his attempt to defend utilitarianism. Mill also previewed later views of the value of individual life and the notion of virtues higher than utility or individual liberty.)  Milton Friedman in the 1960’s propounded libertarianism, as did Robert Nozik with regard to limitations on government involvement in markets and economics.) The core of libertarianism is the notion that we own ourselves, our bodies, and our earnings, and thus the government has no right to take or limit any of these. In the extreme, this view would permit not just the selling of a kidney for money, for whatever purpose the buyer wanted, and even the selling of a person’s second kidney though it would lead to that person’s death. Even voluntarily letting another kill you and eat you would be justifiable to libertarians.

Sandel introduces the notion of civic virtue and the common good by discussing whether it it more moral to draft people into the military or to hire people into it via market principles. He cites others who point out that it is nearly completely those from lower income families who volunteer. He also points out that we “draft” jurors rather than hire them because we believe it is a civic duty for them to serve, among other reasons.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed an alternative approach to justice. He argued that individual human beings are worthy of our respect because they are reasoning beings. Kant rejected the views of utilitarians and of those who want to use the distribution of resources for encouraging “good” virtues as diminishing freedom. But for him freedom was a bit complicated. Simply obeying one’s urges and desires was not freedom; this was little different from what animals do. For Kant one was only free when obeying “a law one has given oneself”. Those laws needed to meet two criteria: (1) if they were universalized, would that produce an effective or ineffective outcome? And (2) they must always treat persons with dignity, that is as ends and not as means.

Example of the first: Can you lie to protect a friend from someone at the door who will murder them if possible? No, because lying creates an outcome when universalized where nobody could trust others to be telling the truth. (But you can say a true thing that misleads: “I saw my friend at the grocery store just an hour ago.”) Example of the second: Is casual sex, if mutually satisfactory, ever moral? No, because it involves using the other as a means to satisfaction, not as an end. In marriage, the long-term commitment to one-another makes this acceptable given all the other ways each affirms the dignity of the other. So Kant’s system has morality following from acting according to the duty to respect the dignity of all humans. Universal human rights follow from this reasoning. Kant argued then that we live under an imagined social contract, one that hold each individual as equally important, with equal dignity. But he did not spell out what that contract would include.

In the latter half of the 20th century John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971) moved in that direction. He asked what principles we would agree to in a condition of initial equality. He suggested we assume a “veil of ignorance”, such that we would not know our own station in life (smart or not, rich or poor, of proud majority or despised minority, etc.) and ask what principles we would then agree to. Most, he believed, would adopt principles which protect the weak and minority groups.  He believed the contract that would emerge would (1) guarantee basic freedoms for all, like freedom of speech and religion, and would also (2) permit only those social and economic inequalities that work for the good of the least well-off members of the society. (The rich, the very intelligent, the athletically gifted and so forth would be permitted to exercise their abilities but would receive for their efforts only enough to keep them motivated and working, with the rest going to the rest of society.)

Rawls’ views produce just two categories of moral responsibility: natural duties which require no consent (harm no one, treat all with respect, etc.) and voluntary obligations which do require consent (I’ll work for you for x amount of pay, etc.) But this view would leave no duties for us as members of our family, or citizens of this country.  Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue (1981) argued that we do have such duties or responsibilities, by virtue of what family, what place, and what country we are born in and are part of. He suggested we are story-telling beings, and the contexts we find ourselves in do in fact give us such responsibilities. Sandel describes family obligations (parent to child, child to parent), obligations to the town we are from, the same to others of our religion (Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews), and obligations to help those from our own country over those from other places. Feelings of solidarity explain why some argued the Vietnam war was unworthy of America and the kind of country we strive to be. Robert E. Lee sided with his state Virginia in spite of his great love for our country. Brothers sometimes will not aid in criminal investigations of one or the other.

This latest view is at odds with those that stress our being free individuals with only those responsibilities we freely accept. But if we feel pride or responsibilities to our families or our country, we seem to be exhibiting connection based on who we are and what stories we are part of.

Aristotle had argued we should distribute resources in ways that promote virtue. Later philosophers resisted, feeling (correctly) that such could be stultifying and would involve enforcing someone’s notion of the good life over someone else’s different notion. Sandel endorses Aristotle’s view, but first detours to consider whether those views that argue for liberty and government’s neutrality regarding notions of morality and religious views can be achieved. He looks at the issues of legal abortion and embryonic stem cell research, suggesting that those who favor both must disagree with the Catholic church’s position that human life begins at conception, a view that honestly engages the religious objections to both. (Thus Sandel argues we should in fact let religious or moral considerations be involved in our disagreements. We may come to better agreement or we may not, but we will not know unless we try.) He continues the detour by looking at the issue of homosexual marriage. Here he suggests we must, as Aristotle had argued, look at the purpose of marriage. Those who argue it is to procreate are wrong; no effort to determine if heterosexuals plan to have children or are able to do so is made by the state or others. Sandel argues the purpose of marriage is to honor the long-term commitment a couple is making, and this honor should be available to all. (By now he has endorsed using resources and sanctions to encourage virtues we desire.)

Late in the book he summarizes then rejects the utilitarian and the libertarian views, even those acknowledging human rights. He says:

A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise.

Thus ends my summary of Sandel’s book. But here for continued reading is a link to an interesting blog on relationships between the  biblical prophets and current notions of human rights:  Link is here

4 Responses to “Review of Michael Sandel’s book “Justice””

  1. Chuck Leach Says:

    Thanks for this summary. It would be so much simpler if we could just stick with all or none, rather than taking reality into account. It seems there is so much discipline required to figure out what justice is, and to find ways to make room for exceptional cases, since rarely do we have the luxury of one size fits all.

  2. Phyllis Skonicki Says:

    Thanks John, for this posting. I agree with Chuck, it would be so much easier if there were some absolutes, but I don’t think that is realistic. As Chuck says, we don’t have the luxury of one size fits all, there are just too many variables. I think this is one of the great struggles of Christianity.

  3. Taking Back Our Democracy: Welcome to Leadnow.ca « Alex's Blog Says:

    [...] of humanity that has prevailed ever since.  So republican theorists such as Michael Sandel now wonder, in the face of the hollowing out of civil society, how we might begin to rebuild a sense of the [...]

  4. Taking Back Our Democracy: Welcome to Leadnow.ca | CGC Says:

    […] of humanity that has prevailed ever since.  So republican theorists such as Michael Sandel now wonder, in the face of the hollowing out of civil society, how we might begin to rebuild a sense of the […]

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