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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Review: Justice - What's the Right Thing to Do?

 After reading The Tyranny of Merit and discovering that it gave me so much to think about, I decided to see what else Sandel (a Harvard Professor) had written. It turned out that Justice is a spin-off from a class he taught at Harvard (by all accounts a very popular one), so I checked out the book.

I wasn't disappointed. Justice isn't actually a book about law or the legal system, but is actually a book about the philosophy of morals. He covers utilitarianism, libertarianism, Kantian philosophy, John Rawls, and then goes beyond them to discuss Aristotle and teleology, as well as a an exploration of why many people feel the way they do when it comes to issues such as gay marriage.

What I enjoyed about the book is that Sandel bends over backwards to treat each philosophy with respect, and works hard to represent that philosophy as well as he can. At no point does he set up any strawman arguments (I myself would find it hard to avoid being snarky about libertarianism, for instance), and when he points out the strengths and weaknesses of each moral philosophy. He then applies it to the real world with a discussion (for instance) about affirmative action, patriotism, conscription, etc drawing in lessons from court cases as well as how laws evolved and what the consequences are of adopting one approach vs another.

Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts or Purple Hearts, surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or military service, CEO pay or the right to use a golf cart, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things. (pg. 261)

Sandel does a particularly good job with Immanuel Kant's philosophy of ethics and freedom, and explains why freedom and morality have to be tied together in a deep and fundamental way. I've read a ton of philosophy in the past but no one has explained it as insightfully as he did in this book. I'd also read about John Rawls and have a lot of sympathy with Rawl's approach to justice, but then Sandel does a turnaround and explain why both Rawls and Kant have a blind spot, which is that their philosophies are basically time-free, where each individual is an island with no connection to his past. You might think that's a feature and not a bug, but he points out, for instance as far as patriotism is concerned:

With belonging comes responsibility. You can’t really take pride in your country and its past if you’re unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for carrying its story into the present, and discharging the moral burdens that may come with it. (pg. 235)

He points out the inherent contradiction when someone claims pride in being American but then turns around and says that reparations for slavery are pointless because no one owns a slave. Either you own your heritage (which means that you also have the responsibility to correct the wrongs of your ancestors) or you shouldn't pretend to value the past at all.

 All in all the book is great. Heck, I'd label it essential. Go get a copy and read it.

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