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

3.8 68
by Michael J. Sandel
 

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What are our obligations to others as people in a free society? Should government tax the rich to help the poor? Is the free market fair? Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth? Is killing sometimes morally required? Is it possible, or desirable, to legislate morality? Do individual rights and the common good conflict?

These questions are at the core of our

Overview

What are our obligations to others as people in a free society? Should government tax the rich to help the poor? Is the free market fair? Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth? Is killing sometimes morally required? Is it possible, or desirable, to legislate morality? Do individual rights and the common good conflict?

These questions are at the core of our public life today—and at the heart of Justice, in which Michael J. Sandel shows how a surer grasp of philosophy can help us to make sense of politics, morality, and our own convictions as well.

Sandel's legendary Justice course is one of the most popular and influential at Harvard. Up to a thousand students pack the campus theater to hear Sandel relate the big questions of political philosophy to the most vexing issues of the day. In the fall of 2009, PBS will air a series based on the course.

Justice offers listeners the same exhilarating journey that captivates Harvard students—the challenge of thinking our way through the hard moral challenges we confront as citizens. It is a searching, lyrical exploration of the meaning of justice, an audiobook that invites readers of all political persuasions to consider familiar controversies in fresh and illuminating ways. Affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service, the moral limits of markets, patriotism and dissent—Sandel shows how even the most hotly contested issues can be illuminated by reasoned moral argument.

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

Editorial Reviews

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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781427208163
Publisher:
Macmillan Audio
Publication date:
09/15/2009
Edition description:
Abridged
Sales rank:
721,072
Product dimensions:
5.08(w) x 5.96(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

Justice

What's the Right Thing to Do?


By Michael J. Sandel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Sandel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5268-2



CHAPTER 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. 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.

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."

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.

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.

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 services 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.

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 services 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."

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." 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.


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 services 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 services, 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."

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. Price-gouging 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.

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.

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. 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. 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."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Justice by Michael J. Sandel. Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Sandel. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 68 reviews.
DiniOv More than 1 year ago
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.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
"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.
Dorothy Denson More than 1 year ago
Although i did not purchase it on the nook, it was still a very eye opening read. Very good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking, excellent read....a book worth recommending!
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talk.with.mary More than 1 year ago
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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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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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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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