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Justice, What is the Right Thing To DoMichael J Sandel has produced a very readable introduction to moral and political philosophy which will challenge the debate about the nature of freedom and justice.

A Readable Exploration of Moral and Political Philosophy

In Justice Professor Sandel explores what justice means and how different models of moral and political thought have altered the basis for justice. It also considers what freedom means and how it influences the nature of justice.

Wide Ranging Introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy

Most of the book is given over to considering the history of how philosophy and how it has defined justice and its bedfellow, freedom, since Aristotle. Michael Sandel does not take the thinking in chronological sequence but considers them as broad groups of related ideas. An initial introduction explores “Doing the right thing” through various real and imagined scenarios which illustrate the complexity of defining justice. Justice expands the philosophical background to current views by exploring:

  • Utilitarianism and the greatest happiness principle
  • Libertartianism and the question: Do We Own Ourselves?
  • Markets and Morals considers whether hiring help to do another’s duty is right
  • Immanuel Kant and the importance of motive and the basis of morality
  • John Rawls and the case for equality
  • Arguing Affirmative Action – is it just?
  • Aristotle, Who Deserves What? The teleological principle of justice
  • Dilemmas of Loyalty. What do we owe one another?
  • Justice and the Common Good

As he works through these ideas Sandel examines the differences and uses the frameworks to challenge and explore how they support and conflict with each other.

Importance of Moral Philosophy in Current Political Theory

Professor Sandel demonstrates the importance of morality in the political definition of justice and what it means to be free. However he does so at a much deeper level than is usual in political argument. He acknowledges religion but the models of morality and ethics he explores to underpin justice are philosophical. He seeks a definition of morality based on reason. Otherwise justice may be based on a particular set of beliefs that conflict with others’ freedom of belief which does not therefore provide justice.

In Justice the author argues that none of the philosophical frameworks provide an entirely satisfactory definition of justice. However it provides and requires the political debate about justice to engage fully in a reasoned way with the complexity of the philosophical framework.

A Challenging But Surprisingly Accessible Book

The complexity of the ideas in this books means that Justice is inevitably a demanding read. However the writing does much to open it up to the reader prepared to give it time and consideration. Many, like the reviewer, will find it a useful introduction to some important philosophical thinking and provide the encouragement to explore the subject further.

After such a thorough analysis the reader may feel that Michael J. Sandel’s own conclusions are somewhat light. However debate on justice is frequently based on often simplistic belief systems, religious or secular, rather than reason. Sandel's purpose is not so much to give answers as to challenge all of us, and especially the political classes, to engage more fully with the complexity of what justice means and what is needed.

The problem is, as Justice shows, is that justice is judgemental and that there is no absolute basis for it so there is a need for a deep and reasoned debate.

About the Author

Michael J Sandel is the Anne T. And Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. He gave the 2009 Reith Lectures for the BBC and is a widely published author. He has a worldwide reputation and lectures across the globe.

Justice, What’s the Right Thing To Do? (2010, ISBN:978-0-141-04133-9) by Michael J. Sandel is published in paperback by Penguin at £9.99.




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