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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

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“For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport,” The Nation’s reviewer of Justice remarked. In his acclaimed book—based on his legendary Harvard course—Sandel offers a rare education in thinking through the complicated issues and controversies we face in public life today. It has emerged as a most lucid and engaging guide for those who yearn for a more robust and thoughtful public discourse. “In terms we can all understand,” wrote Jonathan Rauch in The New York Times, Justice “confronts us with the ...

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“For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport,” The Nation’s reviewer of Justice remarked. In his acclaimed book—based on his legendary Harvard course—Sandel offers a rare education in thinking through the complicated issues and controversies we face in public life today. It has emerged as a most lucid and engaging guide for those who yearn for a more robust and thoughtful public discourse. “In terms we can all understand,” wrote Jonathan Rauch in The New York Times, Justice “confronts us with the concepts that lurk . . . beneath our conflicts.”

Affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service, the moral limits of markets—Sandel relates the big questions of political philosophy to the most vexing issues of the day, and shows how a surer grasp of philosophy can help us make sense of politics, morality, and our own convictions as well.

Justice is lively, thought-provoking, and wise—an essential new addition to the small shelf of books that speak convincingly to the hard questions of our civic life.

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  • Michael J. Sandel
    Michael J. Sandel  

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Rauch
What Justice does, and does very well, is teach. Sandel explains theories of justice based on utilitarianism (minimize social harm), libertarianism (maximize personal freedom) and communitarianism (cultivate civic virtue) with clarity and immediacy honed by years of classroom presentation; the ideas of Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Robert Nozick and John Rawls have rarely, if ever, been set out as accessibly. Sandel's virtuosic untangling of Kant's notorious knots, in under 40 pages, is worth the price of admission by itself. If Justice breaks no new philosophical ground, it succeeds at something perhaps no less important: in terms we can all understand, it confronts us with the concepts that lurk, so often unacknowledged, beneath our conflicts.
—The New York Times
Dennis Drabelle
[Sandel]…discusses thorny issues with clarity, insight and a broad range of references
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Harvard government professor Sandel (Public Philosophy) dazzles in this sweeping survey of hot topics—the recent government bailouts, the draft, surrogate pregnancies, same-sex marriage, immigration reform and reparations for slavery—that situates various sides in the debates in the context of timeless philosophical questions and movements. Sandel takes utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative and Rawls's theory of justice out of the classroom, dusts them off and reveals how crucial these theories have been in the construction of Western societies—and how they inform almost every issue at the center of our modern-day polis. The content is dense but elegantly presented, and Sandel has a rare gift for making complex issues comprehensible, even entertaining (see his sections entitled “Shakespeare versus the Simpsons and “What Ethics Can Learn from Jack Benny and Miss Manners”), without compromising their gravity. With exegeses of Winnie the Pooh, transcripts of Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing and the works of almost every major political philosopher, Sandel reveals how even our most knee-jerk responses bespeak our personal conceptions of the rights and obligations of the individual and society at large. Erudite, conversational and deeply humane, this is truly transformative reading. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
A Harvard law professor explores the meaning of justice and invites readers on a journey of moral and political reflection, "to figure out what they think, and why."Does a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder "deserve" the Purple Heart? Should the U.S. government formally apologize and make reparations for slavery? Is it wrong to lie to a murderer? Following the taxpayer bailout of the company, are executives at insurance giant A.I.G. still entitled to their bonuses? Should a professional golfer afflicted with a severe circulatory condition be allowed to use a golf cart during tournaments? Are you obliged to surrender your criminal brother to the FBI? Although Sandel (The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, 2007, etc.) concedes that answering the many questions he poses, bound up "with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition," is never easy and inevitably contentious, it's necessary for a healthy democracy. "Justice," he writes, "is inescapably judgmental." Using three approaches to justice-maximizing welfare, respecting freedom and promoting virtue-the author asks readers to ponder the meaning of the good life, the purpose of politics, how laws should be constructed and how society should be organized. Using a compelling, entertaining mix of hypotheticals, news stories, episodes from history, pop-culture tidbits, literary examples, legal cases and teachings from the great philosophers-principally, Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill and Rawls-Sandel takes on a variety of controversial issues-abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action-and forces us to confront our own assumptions, biases and lazy thought. The author hasa talent for making the difficult-Kant's "categorical imperative" or Rawls's "difference principle"-readily comprehensible, and his relentless, though never oppressive, reason shines throughout the narrative. Sparkling commentary from the professor we all wish we had.
From the Publisher

"Sandel offers a primer on a number of theories of justice and applies them to questions that are (or have been) the subject of political discourse. Emphasizing the accessibility of the material, Sandel presents summaries of these theories that are clear and easy to understand." - AudioFile

“Sandel maintains a consistently engaging tone, and his probing moral questions about the nature of freedom, choice, truth and the individual are brought down to an accessible and stimulating level.” – Winston-Salem Journal

“This work is an appealing invitation for listeners to use more scrutiny regarding their won actions as well as those of politicians and media personalities. The depth and total absence of righteousness in the author’s writing and vocal tone make this an essential lesson for anyone interested in promoting individual virtue and social justice.” – AudioFile

The Barnes & Noble Review
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 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?--George Scialabba

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University. He was the very first recipient of the National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374532505
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/17/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 33,512
  • Lexile: 1270L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 8.52 (w) x 11.04 (h) x 0.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1980. He has taught his undergraduate course “Justice” to more than 15,000 Harvard students over the years, and video footage of the course was adapted into a PBS television series. Sandel graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University and received his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He served on the George W. Bush administration's President's Council on Bioethics. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

1. DOING THE RIGHT THING In the summer of 2004, Hurricane Charley roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and swept across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The storm claimed twenty-two lives and caused $11 billion in damage.1 It also left in its wake a debate about price gouging.

At a gas station in Orlando, they were selling two-dollar bags of ice for ten dollars. Lacking power for refrigerators or air-conditioning in the middle of August, many people had little choice but to pay up. Downed trees heightened demand for chain saws and roof repairs. Contractors offered to clear two trees off a homeowner’s roof—for $23,000. Stores that normally sold small household generators for $250 were now asking $2,000. A seventy-seven-year-old woman fleeing the hurricane with her elderly husband and handicapped daughter was charged $160 per night for a motel room that normally goes for $40.2

Many Floridians were angered by the inflated prices. “After Storm Come the Vultures,” read a headline in USA Today. One resident, told it would cost $10,500 to remove a fallen tree from his roof, said it was wrong for people to “try to capitalize on other people’s hardship and misery.” Charlie Crist, the state’s attorney general, agreed: “It is astounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.”3

Florida has a law against price gouging, and in the aftermath of the hurricane, the attorney general’s office received more than two thousand complaints. Some led to successful lawsuits. A Days Inn in West Palm Beach had to pay $70,000 in penalties and restitution for overcharging customers.4

But even as Crist set about enforcing the price-gouging law, some economists argued that the law—and the public outrage—were misconceived. In medieval times, philosophers and theologians believed that the exchange of goods should be governed by a “just price,” determined by tradition or the intrinsic value of things. But in market societies, the economists observed, prices are set by supply and demand. There is no such thing as a “just price.”

Thomas Sowell, a free-market economist, called price gouging an “emotionally powerful but economically meaningless expression that most economists pay no attention to, because it seems too confused to bother with.” Writing in the Tampa Tribune, Sowell sought to explain “how ‘price gouging’ helps Floridians.” Charges of price gouging arise “when prices are significantly higher than what people have been used to,” Sowell wrote. But “the price levels that you happen to be used to” are not morally sacrosanct. They are no more “special or ‘fair’ than other prices” that market conditions—including those prompted by a hurricane—may bring about.5

Higher prices for ice, bottled water, roof repairs, generators, and motel rooms have the advantage, Sowell argued, of limiting the use of such things by consumers and increasing incentives for suppliers in far-off places to provide the goods and ser vices most needed in the hurricane’s aftermath. If ice fetches ten dollars a bag when Floridians are facing power outages in the August heat, ice manufacturers will find it worth their while to produce and ship more of it. There is nothing unjust about these prices, Sowell explained; they simply reflect the value that buyers and sellers choose to place on the things they exchange.6

Jeff Jacoby, a pro-market commentator writing in the Boston Globe, argued against price-gouging laws on similar grounds: “It isn’t gouging to charge what the market will bear. It isn’t greedy or brazen. It’s how goods and ser vices get allocated in a free society.” Jacoby acknowledged that the “price spikes are infuriating, especially to someone whose life has just been thrown into turmoil by a deadly storm.” But public anger is no justification for interfering with the free market. By providing incentives for suppliers to produce more of the needed goods, the seemingly exorbitant prices “do far more good than harm.” His conclusion: “Demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery. Letting them go about their business will.”7

Attorney General Crist (a Republican who would later be elected governor of Florida) published an op-ed piece in the Tampa paper defending the law against price gouging: “In times of emergency, government cannot remain on the sidelines while people are charged unconscionable prices as they flee for their lives or seek the basic commodities for their families after a hurricane.”8 Crist rejected the notion that these “unconscionable” prices reflected a truly free exchange:

This is not the normal free market situation where willing buyers freely elect to enter into the marketplace and meet willing sellers, where a price is agreed upon based on supply and demand. In an emergency, buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodging are forced.9

The debate about price gouging that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley raises hard questions of morality and law: Is it wrong for sellers of goods and ser vices to take advantage of a natural disaster by charging whatever the market will bear? If so, what, if anything, should the law do about it? Should the state prohibit price gouging, even if doing so interferes with the freedom of buyers and sellers to make whatever deals they choose?

Welfare, Freedom, and Virtue These questions are not only about how individuals should treat one another. They are also about what the law should be, and about how society should be organized. They are questions about justice. To answer them, we have to explore the meaning of justice. In fact, we’ve already begun to do so. If you look closely at the price-gouging debate, you’ll notice that the arguments for and against price-gouging laws revolve around three ideas: maximizing welfare, respecting freedom, and promoting virtue. Each of these ideas points to a different way of thinking about justice.

The standard case for unfettered markets rests on two claims—one about welfare, the other about freedom. First, markets promote the welfare of society as a whole by providing incentives for people to work hard supplying the goods that other people want. (In common parlance, we often equate welfare with economic prosperity, though welfare is a broader concept that can include noneconomic aspects of social well-being.) Second, markets respect individual freedom; rather than impose a certain value on goods and ser vices, markets let people choose for themselves what value to place on the things they exchange.

Not surprisingly, the opponents of price-gouging laws invoke these two familiar arguments for free markets. How do defenders of price gouging laws respond? First, they argue that the welfare of society as whole is not really served by the exorbitant prices charged in hard times. Even if high prices call forth a greater supply of goods, this benefit has to be weighed against the burden such prices impose on those least able to afford them. For the affluent, paying inflated prices for a gallon of gas or a motel room in a storm may be an annoyance; but for those of modest means, such prices pose a genuine hardship, one that might lead them to stay in harm’s way rather than flee to safety. Proponents of price-gouging laws argue that any estimate of the general welfare must include the pain and suffering of those who may be priced out of basic necessities during an emergency.

Second, defenders of price-gouging laws maintain that, under certain conditions, the free market is not truly free. As Crist points out, “buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodging are forced.” If you’re fleeing a hurricane with your family, the exorbitant price you pay for gas or shelter is not really a voluntary exchange. It’s something closer to extortion. So to decide whether price-gouging laws are justified, we need to assess these competing accounts of welfare and of freedom.

But we also need to consider one further argument. Much public support for price-gouging laws comes from something more visceral than welfare or freedom. People are outraged at “vultures” who prey on the desperation of others and want them punished—not rewarded with windfall profits. Such sentiments are often dismissed as atavistic emotions that should not interfere with public policy or law. As Jacoby writes, “demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery.”10

But the outrage at price-gougers is more than mindless anger. It gestures at a moral argument worth taking seriously. Outrage is the special kind of anger you feel when you believe that people are getting things they don’t deserve. Outrage of this kind is anger at injustice.

Crist touched on the moral source of the outrage when he described the “greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.” He did not explicitly connect this observation to price-gouging laws. But implicit in his comment is something like the following argument, which might be called the virtue argument:

Greed is a vice, a bad way of being, especially when it makes people oblivious to the suffering of others. More than a personal vice, it is at odds with civic virtue. In times of trouble, a good society pulls together. Rather than press for maximum advantage, people look out for one another. A society in which people exploit their neighbors for financial gain in times of crisis is not a good society. Excessive greed is therefore a vice that a good society should discourage if it can. Pricegouging laws cannot banish greed, but they can at least restrain its most brazen expression, and signal society’s disapproval of it. By punishing greedy behavior rather than rewarding it, society affirms the civic virtue of shared sacrifice for the common good.

To acknowledge the moral force of the virtue argument is not to insist that it must always prevail over competing considerations. You might conclude, in some instances, that a hurricane-stricken community should make a devil’s bargain—allow price gouging in hopes of attracting an army of roofers and contractors from far and wide, even at the moral cost of sanctioning greed. Repair the roofs now and the social fabric later. What’s important to notice, however, is that the debate about price-gouging laws is not simply about welfare and freedom. It is also about virtue—about cultivating the attitudes and dispositions, the qualities of character, on which a good society depends.

Some people, including many who support price-gouging laws, find the virtue argument discomfiting. The reason: It seems more judgmental than arguments that appeal to welfare and freedom. To ask whether a policy will speed economic recovery or spur economic growth does not involve judging people’s preferences. It assumes that everyone prefers more income rather than less, and it doesn’t pass judgment on how they spend their money. Similarly, to ask whether, under conditions of duress, people are actually free to choose doesn’t require evaluating their choices. The question is whether, or to what extent, people are free rather than coerced.

The virtue argument, by contrast, rests on a judgment that greed is a vice that the state should discourage. But who is to judge what is virtue and what is vice? Don’t citizens of pluralist societies disagree about such things? And isn’t it dangerous to impose judgments about virtue through law? In the face of these worries, many people hold that government should be neutral on matters of virtue and vice; it should not try to cultivate good attitudes or discourage bad ones.

So when we probe our reactions to price gouging, we find ourselves pulled in two directions: We are outraged when people get things they don’t deserve; greed that preys on human misery, we think, should be punished, not rewarded. And yet we worry when judgments about virtue find their way into law.

This dilemma points to one of the great questions of political philosophy: Does a just society seek to promote the virtue of its citizens? Or should law be neutral toward competing conceptions of virtue, so that citizens can be free to choose for themselves the best way to live?

According to the textbook account, this question divides ancient and modern political thought. In one important respect, the textbook is right. Aristotle teaches that justice means giving people what they deserve. And in order to determine who deserves what, we have to determine what virtues are worthy of honor and reward. Aristotle maintains that we can’t figure out what a just constitution is without first reflecting on the most desirable way of life. For him, law can’t be neutral on questions of the good life.

By contrast, modern political philosophers—from Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century to John Rawls in the twentieth century—argue that the principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of virtue, or of the best way to live. Instead, a just society respects each person’s freedom to choose his or her own conception of the good life.

So you might say that ancient theories of justice start with virtue, while modern theories start with freedom. And in the chapters to come, we explore the strengths and weaknesses of each. But it’s worth noticing at the outset that this contrast can mislead.

For if we turn our gaze to the arguments about justice that animate contemporary politics—not among philosophers but among ordinary men and women—we find a more complicated picture. It’s true that most of our arguments are about promoting prosperity and respecting individual freedom, at least on the surface. But underlying these arguments, and sometimes contending with them, we can often glimpse another set of convictions—about what virtues are worthy of honor and reward, and what way of life a good society should promote. Devoted though we are to prosperity and freedom, we can’t quite shake off the judgmental strand of justice. The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep. Thinking about justice seems inescapably to engage us in thinking about the best way to live.

What Wounds Deserve the Purple Heart?

On some issues, questions of virtue and honor are too obvious to deny. Consider the recent debate over who should qualify for the Purple Heart. Since 1932, the U.S. military has awarded the medal to soldiers wounded or killed in battle by enemy action. In addition to the honor, the medal entitles recipients to special privileges in veterans’ hospitals.

Since the beginning of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, growing numbers of veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and treated for the condition. Symptoms include recurring nightmares, severe depression, and suicide. At least three hundred thousand veterans reportedly suffer from traumatic stress or major depression. Advocates for these veterans have proposed that they, too, should qualify for the Purple Heart. Since psychological injuries can be at least as debilitating as physical ones, they argue, soldiers who suffer these wounds should receive the medal.11

After a Pentagon advisory group studied the question, the Pentagon announced, in 2009, that the Purple Heart would be reserved for soldiers with physical injuries. Veterans suffering from mental disorders and psychological trauma would not be eligible, even though they qualify for government-supported medical treatment and disability payments. The Pentagon offered two reasons for its decision: traumatic stress disorders are not intentionally caused by enemy action, and they are difficult to diagnose objectively.12

Did the Pentagon make the right decision? Taken by themselves, its reasons are unconvincing. In the Iraq War, one of the most common injuries recognized with the Purple Heart has been a punctured eardrum, caused by explosions at close range.13 But unlike bullets and bombs, such explosions are not a deliberate enemy tactic intended to injure or kill; they are (like traumatic stress) a damaging side effect of battlefield action. And while traumatic disorders may be more difficult to diagnose than a broken limb, the injury they inflict can be more severe and long-lasting.

As the wider debate about the Purple Heart revealed, the real issue is about the meaning of the medal and the virtues it honors. What, then, are the relevant virtues? Unlike other military medals, the Purple Heart honors sacrifice, not bravery. It requires no heroic act, only an injury inflicted by the enemy. The question is what kind of injury should count.

A veteran’s group called the Military Order of the Purple Heart opposed awarding the medal for psychological injuries, claiming that doing so would “debase” the honor. A spokesman for the group stated that “shedding blood” should be an essential qualification.14 He didn’t explain why bloodless injuries shouldn’t count. But Tyler E. Boudreau, a former Marine captain who favors including psychological injuries, offers a compelling analysis of the dispute. He attributes the opposition to a deep-seated attitude in the military that views post-traumatic stress as a kind of weakness. “The same culture that demands tough-mindedness also encourages skepticism toward the suggestion that the violence of war can hurt the healthiest of minds … Sadly, as long as our military culture bears at least a quiet contempt for the psychological wounds of war, it is unlikely those veterans will ever see a Purple Heart.”15

So the debate over the Purple Heart is more than a medical or clinical dispute about how to determine the veracity of injury. At the heart of the disagreement are rival conceptions of moral character and military valor. Those who insist that only bleeding wounds should count believe that post-traumatic stress reflects a weakness of character unworthy of honor. Those who believe that psychological wounds should qualify argue that veterans suffering long-term trauma and severe depression have sacrificed for their country as surely, and as honorably, as those who’ve lost a limb.

The dispute over the Purple Heart illustrates the moral logic of Aristotle’s theory of justice. We can’t determine who deserves a military medal without asking what virtues the medal properly honors. And to answer that question, we have to assess competing conceptions of character and sacrifice.

It might be argued that military medals are a special case, a throwback to an ancient ethic of honor and virtue. These days, most of our arguments about justice are about how to distribute the fruits of prosperity, or the burdens of hard times, and how to define the basic rights of citizens. In these domains, considerations of welfare and freedom predominate. But arguments about the rights and wrongs of economic arrangements often lead us back to Aristotle’s question of what people morally deserve, and why.

Bailout Outrage The public furor over the financial crisis of 2008–09 is a case in point. For years, stock prices and real estate values had climbed. The reckoning came when the housing bubble burst. Wall Street banks and financial institutions had made billions of dollars on complex investments backed by mortgages whose value now plunged. Once proud Wall Street firms teetered on the edge of collapse. The stock market tanked, devastating not only big investors but also ordinary Americans, whose retirement accounts lost much of their value. The total wealth of American families fell by $11 trillion in 2008, an amount equal to the combined annual output of Germany, Japan, and the UK.16

In October 2008, President George W. Bush asked Congress for $700 billion to bail out the nation’s big banks and financial firms. It didn’t seem fair that Wall Street had enjoyed huge profits during the good times and was now asking taxpayers to foot the bill when things had gone bad. But there seemed no alternative. The banks and financial firms had grown so vast and so entwined with every aspect of the economy that their collapse might bring down the entire financial system. They were “too big to fail.”

Excerpted from Justice: What’s the right thing to do? by Michael J. Sandel.

Copyright © 2009 by Michael J. Sandel.

Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Table of Contents


1. DOING THE RIGHT THING....................3
3. DO WE OWN OURSELVES? / LIBERTARIANISM....................58
4. HIRED HELP / MARKETS AND MORALS....................75
5. WHAT MATTERS IS THE MOTIVE / IMMANUEL KANT....................103
6. THE CASE FOR EQUALITY / JOHN RAWLS....................140
7. ARGUING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION....................167
8. WHO DESERVES WHAT? / ARISTOTLE....................184
10. JUSTICE AND THE COMMON GOOD....................244
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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion
Let's start with utilitarianism. According to the principle of utility, we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness and whatever is necessary to prevent the greatest amount of unhappiness. But is that right? Should you always try to maximize happiness? Should you always do whatever is necessary to minimize unhappiness?1. There are times when the only way to prevent harm to a large number of people is to harm a smaller number of people. Is it always permissible to harm a smaller number in order to prevent harm to a large number? 2. Suppose you are driving through a narrow tunnel and a worker falls onto the road in front of you. There is not enough time for you to stop. If you keep going straight, you will hit the worker and kill him, but if you swerve left into oncoming traffic, you will collide with a school bus and kill at least five children. What's the right thing to do? Does utilitarianism have the right answer?3. Suppose ten thousand innocent civilians live next to a munitions factory in a country at war. If you bomb the factory, all of them will die. If you don't bomb the factory, it will be used to produce bombs that will be dropped on fifty thousand innocent civilians in another country. What's the right thing to do?4. Suppose a man has planted a bomb in New York City, and it will explode in twenty-four hours unless the police are able to find it. Should it be legal for the police to use torture to extract information from the suspected bomber? Should it be legal to torture his innocent friends and family if that is the only way to make the man reveal where the bomb ishidden?5. Now suppose the man who has planted the bomb will reveal the location only under the threat that an innocent member of his family will be tortured. Should it be legal for the police to torture innocent people if that is truly the only way to discover the location of a large bomb?Let's continue the discussion of utilitarianism. According to Jeremy Bentham's principle of utility, we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness. Is that right? Consider the following questions, and ask yourself whether they point to a defect in the doctrine of utilitarianism.6. Suppose we have to choose between building a new sports stadium and building a new hospital. Should we build the stadium if there are many more sports fans than sick people? What about the sick people? Aren't we sacrificing their interests?7. Suppose we have $1 million of government money. We can use it to either build a new school for one thousand children or buy one million ice cream cones for one million children. Should we buy the ice cream cones if that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure? Are all pleasures created equal?8. What if the majority of the members of a community derive pleasure from being racist? Should we let them be racist if that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure? Are some pleasures objectionable?9. Suppose you have to move to Boston or to Las Vegas. If you move to Boston, you'll fall in love and get married. If you move to Vegas, you'll get rich but stay single.Should you move to Vegas if being rich gives you more pleasure? Are all pleasures commensurable?10. John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian, says that we should protect individual rights because, in the long run, that is the best way to increase the sum of happiness. Is that true? Is that really why you shouldn't imprison and torture innocent people?
Utilitarians think that the right thing to do is whatever produces the greatest amount of happiness. Libertarians disagree. They think that we must never violate anyone's rights-even if doing so would increase overall happiness.According to libertarians, the greatest threat to individual rights comes from the government. You should be able to drive without a seat belt if you want. The governmenthas no business giving you a ticket. That's unacceptably paternalist. And if you want to use drugs or engage in deviant sexual practices, you should be free to do so, provided you don't violate anyone else's rights in the process. The government has no business passing moralistic legislation. It shouldn't tell you how to live your life. Most important, the government should never tax for redistributive purposes. Redistributive taxation is theft. Taking your earnings and giving it to other people is like forcing you to work for those people. Libertarians say it's almost like slavery.Libertarians make strong claims. But are they right about rights?11. Is it unjust for the government to require people to wear seat belts and to prohibit them from engaging in other self-endangering activities? What if we know that many more people will die without such legislation? Should people be free to hurt or kill themselves, provided their actions do not violate anyone's else rights? 12. Should the government legalize narcotics? After all, some adults want to use drugs privately.13. Should the government legalize prostitution? After all, some adults want to buy and sell sex.14. Should there be a minimum wage? What if employers want to pay people $1.25 per hour and some desperately poor people would work for that wage? Is the government being unjust by requiring employers to pay them at least $7.25 per hour?15. Should the government impose occupational safety standards? What if employers refuse to spend money on safety measures and some desperately poor people would agree to work in dangerous conditions? Should the government prohibit certain contracts that some workers and employers would be willing to make, and insist on safe working conditions?16. Is it just to tax the rich to pay for public services? Should the government tax Bill Gates and other wealthy people and use the money to pay for public schools, hospitals, roads, parks, fire departments, and police departments, or would doing so be unjust?17. Is it just to tax the rich to give to the poor? Should the government tax Bill Gates and other wealthy people and use the money to supplement the income of unemployed people, single mothers with low incomes, or other poor people? Should the government tax rich people and loan the money, interest-free, to poor kids so that they can go to college? Would all of that be unjust? Why or why not?Freedom, equality, property rights, and government by consent-each of these ideas figures prominently in contemporary political thought. And each idea was central to the political thought of John Locke.Locke thought that people have certain unalienable rights, which can never be taken away. He thought that people were by nature free and equal, that private property was the extension of a man's labor, and that government must be limited and founded on consent. Did Locke get it right? Did he come to the right answer for the right reasons?18. Locke thought that people had come to have rights to private property even before the institution of government. Is this possible? What is a right to private property anyway? Isn't property a legal convention? 19. According to Locke, an unowned thing becomes your property if you "mix your labor" with it. Is that right? If you pick some flowers in an open field, do you have a claim to them? What if you build a fence around the open ocean? Does the ocean become your property? If not, what is the connection between property and labor?20. Is labor necessary for someone to have a claim to private property? What if a disabled person needs a wheelchair but can't buy or build one herself? Does she have a right to the wheelchair anyway? If so, what is the basis of this right? If not, what should happen to her?21. Money allows people to accumulate great wealth and thereby creates inequality. Is Locke right to think that people "consent" to the use of money when they accept it as payment?22. Locke thinks that, to be legitimate, government must be by consent. But what counts as consent? Must every single person agree to be governed? What if some people hold out unreasonably? 23. Locke also suggests that a government is legitimate if everyone could agree to it without making his own condition worse. Is that right? Is a government legitimate if everyone could agree to it? What if you never in fact agreed to it, but just happened to find yourself living there? Does merely living somewhere count as (tacit) consent? What if you have nowhere else to go? 24. For Locke, to be legitimate, government must protect your rights. Is that enough? What if you never get to have a say in what government does?25. According to Locke, your natural right to life is "unalienable": you must never give it up, and therefore you must never commit suicide. Is he right? Is it morally wrong to commit suicide, even if one is terminally ill and in endless pain?26. According to Locke, we are born with an "unalienable right" to life, which no government may take away arbitrarily. However, for Locke, the existence of this right does not mean that the death penalty is always impermissible. Is Locke correct to think that the unalienable right to life is compatible with some types of capital punishment?27. According to Locke, we are born with an "unalienable right" to liberty, which no government may take away arbitrarily. However, for Locke, the existence of this right does not mean that military conscription is always impermissible. Is Locke correct to think that the unalienable right to liberty is compatible with some kinds of conscription?28. You are free by nature, thinks Locke, but there is a difference between freedom and "license." Is Locke right to argue that it is possible to abuse a freedom that one has a right to?29. Locke thinks that government should be guided by majority rule. He also thinks that government exists to protect the unalienable right to property. Are these ideas in conflict? What if a poor majority wants to tax a rich minority? These days, it seems that cash is king. But are there things that money shouldn't be able to buy? Are there things that should not be treated as market goods or services? Consider the following cases.30. In the American Civil War, men who were drafted for the army had the option of hiring a substitute to take their place, or paying a commutation fee to avoid military service. Are these practices tantamount to selling off one's duty as a citizen, or are they perfectly acceptable market transactions? Does it make a difference whether the transaction takes place during a war or in peacetime?31. A commercial surrogacy contract is an agreement to carry to term someone else's baby in one's own body in exchange for money. Should people be allowed to act as surrogate mothers? Should prospective parents be allowed to pay for their services? Should surrogacy contracts be enforced by the courts, even if the surrogate mother changes her mind later and wants to keep the baby? 32. What do you think about the morality of prostitution? Is it morally wrong to sell (or rent) the use of one's sexual organs? Is it morally wrong to buy sex? Should it be legal to buy or sell sex?33. There are websites on the Internet that advertise grooms and brides. Is it morally wrong to buy a marriage partner from them, assuming that the transaction is voluntary and the bride or groom agrees to marry you? Should such transactions be illegal?34. Many people want to adopt a child, but there is always a shortage of infants. Should prospective parents be allowed to give money to young, single mothers who are considering giving up their children for adoption? Should the children who are now waiting to be adopted go to the highest bidder?35. Many people need organ transplants, but there is always a shortage of organs from deceased donors. Should the organs that are available go to the highest bidder? If not, how should they be assigned?36. In many developing countries, it is possible to buy a kidney for a few thousand dollars. The seller is often very poor and needs the money to support himself or his family. Is it morally permissible to buy his kidney? Should the sale of organs from living adults be illegal?According to utilitarians, the right thing to do is always to maximize happiness. Libertarians think that the right thing to do is most often to let people do whatever they want. John Locke's theory says that there are unalienable rights afforded to every human being by the "law of nature."The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that each of these views was mistaken. Against the utilitarians, Kant held that freedom-and not happiness-is the goal of morality; against the libertarians, Kant denied that freedom consists in doing whatever one wants; and against Locke, he held that morality, duty, and rights have their basis in human reason, not in a law of nature.Who got it right?37. According to Kant, morality is doing the right thing just because you know it's the right thing. Is that true? Kant imagines a shopkeeper who does not overcharge his customers only because he fears that word of his dishonesty will spread and he'll lose money. Kant thinks there's nothing morally worthy about his action; his honesty is mere prudence, mere selfishness. Do you agree?38. Kant imagines a second person, one who is naturally sweet and kind and loving. She always does the right thing-but only because being good brings her pleasure. Kant thinks that her actions are not really moral because, like the actions of the prudent shopkeeper, they aim at personal pleasure. Sure, it's a good thing that she wants to help people, but Kant thinks there is no deep reason to admire her. Do you agree?39. Kant also thinks the naturally kind person is not really moral because she acts out of habit. According to Kant, habits can be useful but not moral. Is that right? Is your childhood education really just a kind of conditioning and not really moral? What is moral character, anyway? Is it what you tend to do, or is it your attitude?40. Suppose that Charlie is always up to mischief, but Frank is always there to stop it. As a result, Charlie tends to do the right thing. But he always wants to do the wrong thing. Is Charlie moral?41. Kant thinks that morality is a kind of law; everyone has to obey it. Therefore, he thinks it must be the case that everyone could obey it. This is his test for morality. According to Kant, your action is moral only if it's done from a motive that everyone else could act on at the same time that you're acting on it.But is that right? On the one hand, the test shows that you shouldn't lie to people to get what you want. If everyone lied to get what they want, and then you were to try, nobody would believe you. On the other hand, what if you want to visit a nature preserve? If everyone were to visit at the same time, they would destroy it. But you know they won't visit, so isn't it all right for you to go? Is there something problematic about an action that can never be open to everyone? Does Kant have a point?42. Is Kant right that you must always have humanity or human reason as your end? Is there something immoral about a person-like a couch potato-who seeks only pleasure at the expense of developing his mind?43. Kant thinks that every rational human being has dignity, and that everyone's worth is infinite. Is that true? Do murderers have dignity? (Kant thinks they do, because they have the capacity to choose to do the right thing.)44. If all people have dignity and infinite worth, then how do we make choices about life and death? Suppose we have to choose between repairing a road in Boston and vaccinating children in Toledo. If we repair the road, ten fewer children will die in car accidents in Boston. If we vaccinate, twenty children will be saved in Toledo. If everyone has infinite worth, how do we choose? What would a utilitarian say? 45. According to Kant, the goal of morality is freedom. But for Kant, freedom is not just doing whatever you want. It's living by your own reason. Brainwashing, advertising, cravings, and desires-all of these make you unfree.Is Kant right about freedom? Isn't freedom just the ability to do what you want, when you want? What difference does it make that some of your desires are implanted in you through advertising?Or does Kant have a point? Is it possible to be unfree even if no one holds you back? Is it possible to be a slave to your impulses, cravings, or desires? Isn't it liberating to learn how to control your impulses and desires?What is justice? According to John Rawls, principles of justice are whatever principles would be agreed to behind a "veil of ignorance," where no one knows his or her age, sex, race, intelligence, strength, social position, family wealth, religion, or even life goals. If we were unaware of these particular facts about ourselves, we would not propose social rules designed to give ourselves an unfair advantage over other people. Therefore, according to Rawls, the principles we would agree to behind a veil of ignorance would be fair and just.Was Rawls right? 46. If an agreement is entered into voluntarily, is it necessarily fair?47. Suppose you have a leaky toilet and a plumber tells you it will cost two thousand dollars to repair. You agree to this price, not knowing that the usual price for the same type of repair is two hundred dollars. Is the contract between you and the plumber voluntary? Is the contract fair?48. Suppose a man comes to your door and asks you to buy a newspaper subscription at a discounted price. You do not particularly enjoy the newspaper he's selling, but you have heard from your neighbors that the man will make a habit of stealing your mail out of spite if you refuse to buy a subscription. Reluctantly, you agree to buy a subscription at a discounted price. Is the contract voluntary? Is it fair?49. According to Rawls, principles of justice are whatever principles we would all agree upon to govern our society if we were ignorant of our personal qualities and therefore unable to take advantage of one another. Is this the right way to think about principles of justice? Should we abstract from our personal qualities, strengths, and aspirations in choosing principles of justice to govern our society?50. Do you agree that a white man should not be able to propose a rule that benefits white men-or that an aristocrat should not propose a rule that benefits aristocrats?51. Do you think you should be able to make reference to your religious beliefs or your life goals when proposing rules for society? Is it possible to make such important decisions without knowing who you are and what goals and beliefs you have?52. "A just person is blind to the differences between people, and treats everyone equally." Do you agree? Why or why not?53. "A just law is blind to the differences between people, and treats everyone equally." Do you agree? Why or why not?According to the philosopher John Rawls, principles of justice are the outcome of a special kind of hypothetical agreement. They are the principles we would agree to if we were choosing rules for our society behind a "veil of ignorance," where no one knows his or her age, sex, race, intelligence, strength, social position, family wealth, religion, or even life goals. Behind this veil of ignorance, it is impossible for anyone to propose social rules designed to benefit himself or herself more than other people. Therefore, Rawls argues, the principles we would agree to behind the veil of ignorance would be fair and just.Rawls thinks that two principles would be agreed to behind the veil of ignorance, and these are his principles of justice. Let's see if you agree with them.54. Rawls's first principle says that everyone should have the same set of basic liberties, including the freedoms of speech and conscience, the right to hold office and to vote for elected officials, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to hold personal property, and so on. Do you agree?55. Rawls's first principle says that everyone should have an equal chance to run for public office. By law, however, U.S. citizens who were born outside the United States are not eligible to run for president. Is this law inconsistent with Rawls's first principle? Do you consider this law unjust?56. Rawls's first principle says that everyone should have an equal chance to influence legislation and political affairs. However, today wealthy individuals and corporations exercise much more influence on the government and the laws than the average citizen might. Is this unjust?57. Before the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, only white people were legally permitted to compete for the best jobs in many places in the United States. African Americans were often denied the same opportunities as whites, even if they were equally talented. Why, according to Rawls's theory of justice, was this unjust?58. Often poor children who are very talented have unequal opportunities because their parents lack the money to send them to good schools, to pay for private lessons, and so on. Compared to equally talented children of rich parents, poor kids have fewer opportunities to develop their talents. Why, according to Rawls's theory of justice, is this unjust?59. Why, according to Rawls, should talented and hard-working poor children have the same chances of success as rich children? Do you agree with him? Suppose that providing equal educational opportunity for all children would require substantial taxes on the rich. After all, it would cost a lot of money to provide schools of the same quality to everyone. Do you believe that such taxes are required as a matter of justice?60. Rawls's second principle says that people who are equally talented and equally motivated should have equal chances of success. This principle would likely require steep inheritance taxes. After all, children who inherit lots of money have a huge advantage in the competition for jobs, money, and success. Do you think that children should be able to inherit great wealth from their parents? Should they be allowed to get very expensive private math lessons, or singing lessons, or basketball lessons? What if such lessons give them a huge, unearned advantage in the race for jobs, careers, and wealth? Is it just for poor children to have much lower prospects as a result?61. Rawls's second principle also holds that social and economic inequality can be justified only if it works to the advantage of the least advantaged members of society. Not even superior effort makes a person deserving of special rewards. After all, argues Rawls, your ability to make a good effort is partly dependent on how good your childhood was, whether your parents loved you and provided encouragement, or whether you were neglected and abandoned. These are all factors over which you had no control. Therefore, if you are now able to make a good effort, you can't really claim credit for it.Do you agree? Is it true that you can't really claim credit for your upbringing? Surely, your habits and temperament today are partly the result of your upbringing. Does this mean that you don't really deserve what you get from making an effort?62. Think of some of the advantages you have in your life. Do you deserve them more than other people who lack them? Why?63. Do you think it's unjust if some people do not get to vote in elections merely because they are a woman or a member of a racial or ethnic minority?64. Do you think it's unjust if some people get paid less money for the same job merely because they are a woman or a member of a racial or ethnic minority?65. If you answered "yes" to the last two questions, do you think it's also unjust if some people are much worse off than others merely because they were born with fewer talents or with a debilitating disease and the need for expensive medicines? Why should people be worse off merely because of the circumstances into which they were born?In 1974, Allan Bakke, a white male, applied to medical school at the University of California, Davis. He was rejected, even though his grades and test scores were higher than some of the minority candidates who were admitted that year.Bakke sued the medical school. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that he should be let in. Schools can consider race as one factor among others in deciding which candidates to admit, but they cannot use race as a quota by reserving some seats for minority candidates only.Was the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court just? Consider the following questions as you think about the morality of affirmative action.66. Do you think Bakke was treated unfairly? Does he have a right to be considered solely on the basis of his academic and personal merit?67. Bakke couldn't help that he was born a member of the white majority. This is a factor over which he had no control, so why should he be rejected from medical school just because he's white?68. Bakke did nothing to be born with the capacity for high achievement. His natural talents are a factor over which he had no control, so why is he entitled to be judged only on his personal and academic merit?69. Often, naturally gifted athletes go to college on scholarship. However, their natural talents are a factor over which they had no control. Is it just that scholarships should go to gifted athletes but not to other people?70. What is merit? Often, minority groups receive better care from minority doctors and better representation from minority lawyers. Does the ability to serve the needs of minority communities constitute a form of merit? Shouldn't schools train doctors and lawyers who will provide the best care and the best representation?71. Barbara Grutter, a white woman, applied to law school at the University of Michigan. She was rejected, even though her grades were higher than some of the minority candidates who were admitted. This time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the University of Michigan had acted lawfully, because racial diversity at law school was an important goal. Do you agree? Was the decision just or unjust?72. In the United States, African Americans have historically been disadvantaged because of slavery and racial segregation. Is affirmative action in college admissions an acceptable form of compensation for historical disadvantage?One of the most important philosophers ever to write about justice lived at the heyday of philosophy, some 2,400 years ago. His name was Aristotle, and he thought that justice was giving each person his due, or what he deserved. But how do we know what people deserve? What goods and opportunities should go to which persons? Aristotle's answer is that we have to consider the telos-the end or the purpose-of the good in question. Let's see if you think he was right.73. Say we have some nice flutes. Who should get them? According to Aristotle, it's not the rich person, since playing flutes has nothing to do with money, nor is it the person who will be made most happy, since making good music is different than being happy. The purpose of a flute is to be played and to be played well. Therefore, Aristotle thinks, the flutes should go to the best flute players. Do you agree? How else should we assign the flutes?74. Suppose there are some very good public tennis courts in your town. Who should get priority to use the courts? Should priority be given to the tennis players who are willing to pay the most? Should court time be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis? Should priority be given to the worst tennis players, who most need the practice? Should it be given to the best tennis players, who will play the best tennis? Which of these arrangements would be fair or just? What is the purpose of tennis, and does it help you to answer this question?75. Who should be admitted to colleges and universities? Should admission decisions be made strictly on the basis of academic merit, or should colleges and universities admit students with a variety of academic and other backgrounds and strive for diversity? What would be fair? What is the purpose of higher education, and does it help you to answer this question?76. For much of its history, the U.S. military did not permit women to serve in its ranks. Was this unjust? What is the purpose of the military, and does it help you to answer this question?77. The restaurant chain Hooters hires only female waitresses who are willing to wear revealing clothing. However, many men want to work there as waiters, too. Is it unfair that Hooters hires only women? Consider the purpose of the restaurant. Is it merely to serve food, or is it to entertain men? Who should get to decide the purpose?78. Aristotle thought that human beings were, by nature, meant to use their reason to deliberate about important moral questions and to share in the political life of the community. He also thought that government should promote this purpose by helping people to become better informed and more virtuous. Do you agree? 79. Think of a law designed to promote civic virtue. Does this law run the risk of unfairly imposing the majority's values on everyone? Can you think of a law that promotes civic virtue but escapes this objection? 80. "People should be free to choose for themselves what kind of life to live, even if they go on to make bad choices." Do you agree? Is there a tension between Aristotle's method of reasoning about justice and the modern emphasis on individual freedom, or can Aristotle's approach make adequate room for the value of individual freedom?According to many modern liberals, there are only two types of moral obligations. First, there are universal duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily. Second, there are voluntary obligations that we acquire by consent, such as when we agree to help someone or promise to be faithful to our partners and friends. According to many modern liberals, there are no other types of moral obligation.Critics of liberalism disagree. They say there is a third type of moral obligation that is neither universal nor voluntary. We can be morally obligated to a particular community even though we haven't assumed the obligation voluntarily. Obligations of membership and loyalty can arise simply because of who we are-because we're someone's son or daughter, someone's friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.Who's right-modern liberals or their critics?81. If you caught your brother cheating on an exam, should you turn him in for the sake of fairness? Or should you keep quiet out of loyalty? Are you under two competing obligations, or is your sense of loyalty a prejudice you should overcome? 82. Suppose your child and the child of a stranger are both drowning. Do you have a greater moral obligation to save your own child than to save the stranger's child? Why?83. Say there is a shipwreck and the captain has to make a choice. He can either escape with his own son, or he can let his son drown but save several hundred of the ship's passengers. What should he do? If he chooses to save the passengers, his wife will never forgive him. Is she being unreasonable? 84. In the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army even though he thought that slavery as a practice should come to an end. Lee said he could not bring himself to raise arms against his slave-holding countrymen in the South. Was Lee's attitude admirable, or was it mere prejudice? 85. Do Americans who live in El Paso, Texas, have greater moral obligations to people who live in Alaska than to people who live right across the river in Mexico? Why?86. Is patriotism a virtue, or is it merely prejudice for one's own? Most people do not get to choose what country they live in, and no one chooses where they're born. Why are we obligated to the people of our own country more than to the people of any other?Modern liberalism aspires to neutrality. In public debate, modern liberals often want to avoid discussing controversial questions about the morality of lifestyles, or the purpose of a human life, or the authority of the Bible, or the value of individuality. These and other questions are deemed to be too controversial. Instead, we should settle on what rights people have and what justice requires.But is it possible to settle questions of justice without addressing other controversial questions about morality and the common good?87. In 1977, the American Nazi Party tried to stage a demonstration in Skokie, Illinois, home to many Holocaust survivors. When the city refused permission, the Nazi party sued in court. Should the city of Skokie have been allowed to forbid public hate speech? Is it possible to answer this question without passing judgment on the value of the speech in question?88. Some people believe that life begins at conception and, therefore, that abortion is murder. Other people argue that abortion should be legal because a woman should have the right to make medical decisions concerning her own body. What is your view? Should abortion be legal? Under what circumstances? Can we settle whether abortion should be legal without settling whether abortion is murder?89. Some people believe that homosexuality is immoral and, therefore, that same-sex marriages should not be permitted. Other people argue that same-sex marriage should be permitted because everyone has the right to be treated equally. What is your view? Should same-sex marriage be legal? Is it possible to answer this question without making a judgment about the value of homosexual relationships?90. Some people believe that the purpose of marriage is procreation and, therefore, that there should be no same-sex marriages. Other people believe that same-sex marriage should be permitted because the purpose of marriage is to honor and promote loving relationships between committed adults, regardless of their sex or their ability to procreate. Is it possible to defend a position on same-sex marriage without making a judgment about the purpose and value of marriage?91. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln went head to head with Stephen Douglas in a series of debates about slavery. Douglas argued that the federal government should not take a stand on the controversial question of slavery. Instead, the federal government should bracket the question for the sake of civil peace and leave it up to the states and territories to decide. For his part, Lincoln thought that the moral question raised by slavery could not be avoided. The federal government would be taking a stand, one way or the other.Do you agree with Lincoln? Whenever there is a law that either permits or forbids a controversial practice, is the government thereby taking a stand on the morality of the practice? Does this mean that, in its law-making, the government should pay close attention to morality and the common good?
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 69 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 11, 2009

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    Very interesting book, and very well written, easy to understand and really does pull the reader in and holds their attention (it did for me). My favorite part about the book are the arguments he gave to different issues, he really does challenge your way of thinking. If you agreed about a certain issue in one way he has a nag of presenting a different way which can be very opposite to your way of thinking, but still is very valid, which forces you to rethink the issue and your own way of understanding it and ultimately your opinion. Loved it and would totally recommend it to others.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Sandel's Justice is well written but substantively flawed.

    I enjoyed reading Michael Sandel's Justice. It is a thoughtful account of political thought on justice. Regretably, he ommitted any discussion of cosmopolitanism which has emerged in the past 25 years or so as a major response to Rawls and the nationalistic, nation-state focus of liberalism.

    5 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Illuminating look at how to judge what's right and fair in modern society

    "The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be." So writes Harvard government and political philosophy professor Michael J. Sandel in this all-encompassing tour through the social, economic and political issues that preoccupy modern society. Seeking to define justice in a just society, Sandel forays into affirmative action, paid militaries, infant surrogacy, free markets and even cannibalism. His reviews of classical and modern philosophies, rightly intended to guide the reader through his exposition, slow down what is otherwise an informative, illuminating and entertaining book. Sandel argues for a "politics of moral engagement" that brings all citizens together in a quest for a just society. getAbstract highly recommends this book to free marketers, libertarians, utilitarians and people of all philosophical and political stripes.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2011

    I didn't buy it on the nook

    Although i did not purchase it on the nook, it was still a very eye opening read. Very good.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2010


    Thought provoking, excellent read....a book worth recommending!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Justice is a must read

    I wish everyone would read this book. It is written by one of the most popular philosophy professors at Harvard. He uses examples very effectively to make his points. You do not have to be a philosophy major or prelaw to gain from reading this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2012

    Really makes you think!

    I really liked the setup of each chapter. The author introduces a scenario (or a real story) and gets you to think about what the right thing to do is. He presents several different theories on what "justice" means and evaluates them. He leaves you with a little bit of a conclusion but enough room for you to disagree or draw your own personal conclusions as well. This book really challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions and where they come from. It was a little hard to get through at times--not a beach book-- but definitely a stimulating book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2012

    A little repetative

    Overall the book brings up some interesting points but, some of the chapters are repetative and too much of it is quotes from other pieces of literature

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2012


    Very interesting compilations of lectures that will challenge our deeply grounded moral codes, and require the reader to view things from a different perspective.

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  • Posted October 12, 2011

    It's an alright book

    I had to buy this book for one of my classes. It can be interesting, but I don't think I would ever read it for fun. This coming from a girl who likes teen fiction...

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2010

    Great experience

    I would recommend this book to any college student, professor, or employer

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    So far an excellent read

    I've only read the first chapter and am thoroughly enjoying it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2010

    A Great Starting tool to Understand Insights to Morality

    This book, although confusing if you have little background information on the subject, is an excellent way to spark a person's interest and to help shape one's own opinion on every moral question you can imagine. In some ways it gives you building blocks to learn what kind of a person you are. These are just a few of the simple things that this book helps you to understand. My only complaint is that it can sometimes be a little tedious to read, especially if you have little knowledge about the subject.

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  • Posted December 13, 2009


    Sandel has written an engaging dialog for any of us who may think most problems and dilemmas are solvable with a quick fix. A great reminder that there's always another way to look at anything.

    Relevant examples of age-old problems. Congratulations Michael Sandel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2009

    A "Must" read!

    A most insightful, thought-provoking, meaningful, and timely look into the meaning of justice and practical morality. I am recommending to my book club as a "must" read!

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    Posted October 12, 2011

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    Posted September 7, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2013

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    Posted September 30, 2010

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    Posted January 25, 2010

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