Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

By MICHAEL J. SANDEL

From time immemorial — or at least since Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing – men and women have asked, like the subtitle of Michael Sandel’s new book, “What’s the right thing to do?” Every year a thousand or so Harvard undergraduates seeking an answer to this question sign up for Moral Reasoning 22: Justice, Professor Sandel’s renowned introductory course and the most popular offering in that university’s history. What they learn there is of some consequence for the rest of us. After all, the next most popular course at Harvard is Social Analysis 10: Principles of Economics, from which legions of students annually emerge, like former Harvard president (and economics professor) Lawrence Summers, utterly sure of themselves, contemptuous of moral reasoning, and primed to lead their country into the financial abyss. Unless “Justice” manages to infiltrate “Principles of Economics” — and not only at Harvard — America is likely to languish in moral and financial bankruptcy for a long time.

The three most common ways of philosophizing about justice emphasize, respectively, happiness, freedom, and morality. Utilitarians think politics should maximize the population’s overall welfare, however that is measured. Libertarians counter that the best way to do that is for politics to leave markets alone; that justice is whatever state of affairs results from the sum of all voluntary transactions among free individuals. Communitarians believe that “free individuals” is an incomplete description of human beings; rather, every person, group, institution, and activity has a distinctive purpose (what the Greeks called a telos), which politics exists to help them fulfill. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were the founding fathers of utilitarianism. Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick are the best-known exponents of libertarianism. Aristotle was the first important communitarian theorist of justice, while Sandel himself is the most recent.

Straddling these categories are the forbidding grey eminences of moral philosophy, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Kant claimed that justice has nothing to do with happiness; that freedom consists solely in doing one’s duty; and that to discover our duty we must resolutely disregard consequences, circumstances, sentiments, and attachments — everything contingent, in fact — and instead consider only ideal reason and logical consistency. Rawls, attempting a grand synthesis, allows that we may consider happiness and freedom, but only after we have forgotten, so to speak, who we are. We must choose our society’s ground rules as though we were no one in particular, mindful that everything particular about us — our talents and virtues no less than our trust funds — is a lucky (or unlucky) accident. For Rawls justice is, above all, fairness.

Sandel pilots readers skillfully through these philosophical rapids, giving each perspective its due with admirable judiciousness and perspicacity. He is quite right to highlight the moral limits of reliance on the market, since the superior wisdom of minimally regulated markets has been our main civic shibboleth for several decades now. Also illuminating is his argument, following Aristotle, that moral judgments about one or another policy should take into account the way of life and the type of character that the community in question aspires to produce.

Nevertheless, to one who subscribes, as I do, to the James/Dewey/Quine/Rorty tradition of philosophical pragmatism, it is a little difficult to take Aristotle or Kant seriously. (It is, I should think, impossible for anyone at all to take Friedman and Nozick seriously.) Aristotle’s impersonal telos-es and Kant’s transcendental idealism are simply dead in the water, like St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God. They are philosophical relics, as phlogiston and the ether are scientific relics.

And besides, justice isn’t solely, or even primarily, a philosophical affair. Correct reasoning can help us define and discriminate among our obligations. But without humane feeling on our part, no obligation will have much force. Solidarity and generosity are the root of the matter, not Socratic dialectics, however stimulating. On this the greatest moral teachers agree, including the poet Shelley (“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensively and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own”) and the Jewish reformer Jesus of Nazareth (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.… Whatever you do or don’t do for the least of your fellow creatures, you are doing or not doing to God Himself”).

Perhaps Sandel or a colleague should offer a parallel course: Moral Imagination 22: Injustice. Rather than nimble reasoning from first principles about intriguing but sometimes far-fetched dilemmas, the new course would emphasize imaginative apprehension of actual, intolerable moral horrors. For example: rather than ask (as Sandel and numerous other moral philosophers do) whether one should push a stout person in front of a runaway train in order to save five children playing a little farther down the track, one might ask why the top executives of tobacco companies that bribe congressmen (legally, of course) in order to avoid restrictions, invest in pseudo-scientific research in order to cast doubt on smoking’s lethal effects, and aggressively market their product in Asian and African countries where public-health regulation is weak should not be disemboweled on television by terminal lung-cancer patients. Or why the Forbes 400 should not be politely but firmly relieved of the few percent of their colossal net worth required to drastically reduce river blindness, mosquito-borne malaria, fatal diarrhea, cleft palate, vaginal fistulas, severe chronic malnutrition, and quite a few other principal causes of human suffering.

Undoubtedly the world would be a better place if everyone took Michael Sandel’s course or read his book. Still, it is not our theoretical confusion that renders us passive and condemns billions of our fellow humans to needless agony; it is our indifference. Where there’s a moral will, there’s a political way. But we’d have to give up several hours a week of television, perhaps permanently. Deciding collectively where our taxes and charitable donations should go, and making sure they get there, would be pretty time-consuming. Is justice — or democracy, for that matter — really worth it?