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The Quest for Cosmic Justice

The Quest for Cosmic Justice

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by Thomas Sowell

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This book is about the great moral issues underlying many of the headline-making political controversies of our times. It is not a comforting book but a book about disturbing and dangerous trends. The Quest for Cosmic Justice shows how confused conceptions of justice end up promoting injustice, how confused conceptions of equality end up promoting inequality,


This book is about the great moral issues underlying many of the headline-making political controversies of our times. It is not a comforting book but a book about disturbing and dangerous trends. The Quest for Cosmic Justice shows how confused conceptions of justice end up promoting injustice, how confused conceptions of equality end up promoting inequality, and how the tyranny of social visions prevents many people from confronting the actual consequences of their own beliefs and policies. Those consequences include the steady and dangerous erosion of fundamental principles of freedom -- amounting to a quiet repeal of the American revolution.
The Quest for Cosmic Justice is the summation of a lifetime of study and thought about where we as a society are headed -- and why we need to change course before we do irretrievable damage.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One of the country's most respected conservative intellectuals, Sowell (Race and Culture, etc.) proclaims a need to clarify the notion of justice. He then hurriedly decrees an absolute dichotomy between "traditional justice"--purely procedural equal treatment--and "cosmic justice." Unfortunately, Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, never satisfactorily defines what he means by cosmic justice, using it as an elastic term. Sowell easily tears apart handpicked examples of ill-conceived cosmic justice while steering clear of serious engagement with opposing positions. Thus he attacks Supreme Court rulings such as Miranda as "attempts to seek cosmic justice in the courtroom," but it requires a much better argument than Sowell provides to see how Miranda is anything but procedural. He equates redistributive state policies with "Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot," as if Western European welfare states simply didn't exist. Sowell makes some very good points in these four essays (touching on the difficulty of defining equal performance, the necessity of considering costs in pursuing abstract ideals and the corrosive political effects of envy), but he overplays his hand. The essay called "The Tyranny of Visions" asserts that conservatives "acquire no sense of moral superiority" from their positions, a point that anyone familiar with Pat Buchanan or with Sowell himself will find hard to swallow. Certainly, a good case can be made that people use the term "justice" loosely and that many conflate procedural justice with metaphysical justice. Beyond that, however, Sowell offers a catechism for true conservative believers. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"Much of the world today and down through centuries of history has suffered the terrible consequences of unbridled government power, the prime evil that the writers of the American constitution sought to guard against." It is this "unbridled government power" that prolific political theorist Sowell (Affirmative Action Reconsidered) fears most as something that follows necessarily when societies try to achieve "cosmic justice" (as opposed to "social justice"). "Cosmic justice," he asserts, "is not about the rules of the game" but rather about "putting particular segments of society in the position that they would have been in but for some undeserved misfortune." Referring often to 20th-century world history, he argues persuasively that whatever benefits one might hope would result from trying to right the past wrongs of the world (instead of trying to repair the present world), they are not worth the almost inevitable risks of the loss of freedom and the rise of despotism. As Sowell does so well in his other books--many of which analyze the tradeoff between freedom and equality--he presents his case in clear, convincing, and accessible language. Strongly recommended for most public and academic libraries.--Jack Forman, Mesa Coll. Lib., San Diego Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Daniel J. Silver
Mr. Sowell provides a trenchant critique of this disturbing line of thought, which has done so much harm to the basic values and commitments of most Americans.
The Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
A cosmic straw man is vanquished in the fight against dangerous ideals such as social justice and equality. This is not the place to look for original ideas or honest analysis. Presumably, Sowell's (Migrations and Cultures, 1996, etc.) goal is to entertain those who share his convictions rather than convince open-minded readers, and this audience will be pleased. "Cosmic justice" is presented as a fundamental departure from the "traditional" conception of justice, which Sowell claims has the "characteristic of a process," rather than of a particular outcome. He conveniently forgets to mention that this "tradition" dates back only to the emergence of liberal-democratic states and that contrasting notions of procedural vs. substantive justice remain the subject of lively debate. Admitting legitimate disagreement over even something as slippery as justice would soften the blows he aims at those who think inequality and any associated oppression raises concerns a just society should address, and Sowell is not one to temper a political argument simply to maintain intellectual integrity. He is not straightforwardly defending inequality, of course, but rather is pursuing the familiar strategy of attacking measures that could alleviate it. Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, boldly asserts that those who believe equality should be pursued through public policy "assume that politicizing inequality is free of costs and dangers." No names are mentioned, and it is indeed hard to imagine that anyone would believe there are no costs or dangers. By stating the issue in terms of extremes, however, he ducks the real issue—the challenge of weighing costs and benefits—andavoids the need for incorporating any subtlety into his discussion.

From the Publisher
Jay Nordlinger National Review The burnished product of a lifetime of thinking, arguing, refining, and -- in essence -- getting it straight.

David Boaz author of Libertarianism: A Primer and editor of The Libertarian Reader No one should pronounce on justice or equality again without grappling with Thomas Sowell's powerful argument. In this book, reflecting a lifetime of wide-ranging research and careful reflection, Sowell makes us understand the difference between results and processes, between "cosmic justice" and traditional justice, between the rule of law and the power to do good. The ratio of insights to words in this book is remarkably high.

Judge Robert H. Bork In The Quest for Cosmic Justice Thomas Sowell once again displays his distinctive combination of erudition, analytical power, and uncommon sense.

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General principles, such as "justice" or "equality," are often passionately invoked in the course of arguing about the issues of the day, but such terms usually go undefined and unexamined. Often much more could be gained by scrutinizing what we ourselves mean by such notions than by trying to convince or overwhelm others. If we understood what we were really saying, in many cases we might not say it or, if we did, we might have a better chance of making our reasons understood by those who disagree with us.

The heady rush of rhetoric and visions are the stuff of everyday politics and everyday media discussion. That makes it all the more important that, at some point, we step back and examine what it all means underneath the froth or glitter. This book is an attempt to do that.

The ideas discussed here took shape over a long period of time. The title essay evolved out of a paper I gave in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1982 on "Trade-Offs and Social Justice." By 1984, it was recast and elaborated at great length in another paper called "Social Justice Reconsidered," which was circulated to various people around the country, including Milton Friedman and Mancur Olson. Professor Friedman's typically incisive criticisms were followed by the opinion that "it is well worth the effort required to put it in shape." Professor Olson's comments were likewise critical and perhaps not quite as encouraging. I too understood the difficulties of that draft, which was academic and radically different in form from what appears in this book.

Over the years, "Social Justice Reconsidered" evolved into "The Quest for Cosmic Justice," completely recast yet again, but still not finished a decade later. Nor was it certain that it ever would be finished, given the various other projects I was involved in. However, in the spring of 1996, some particularly sophomoric remarks by one of my Stanford colleagues not only provoked my anger but also convinced me that there was a real need to untangle the kind of confusions that could lead any sensible adult to say the things he had said -- and which all too many other people were saying. I went home and immediately resumed work on the essay on cosmic justice, writing it now for the general public, rather than for an academic audience.

By the autumn of 1996, the new version was completed and I presented "The Quest for Cosmic Justice" as a lecture in New Zealand. Much to my pleasant surprise, large excerpts from it were published in the country's leading newspapers. This press coverage, as well as the enthusiastic reception of the talk by a non-academic audience, convinced me that this was something that the general public would understand -- perhaps more readily than some academics who are locked into the intellectual fashions of the day.

The other essays in this book also evolved over a period of years and within a similar framework of thought that now gives them a collective coherence, even though they were written to stand alone individually. The central ideas in "Visions of War and Peace" first appeared in an article of that title that I published in 1987 in the British journal Encounter. The current and much briefer version is now a section in the essay "The Tyranny of Visions."

The generosity of Milton Friedman and the late Mancur Olson in criticizing the earlier, academically oriented paper of mine is much appreciated, but of course they share no responsibility for any shortcomings of the present, very different essay, aimed at a more general audience. In a truly just world, I would also have to acknowledge my debt to my colleague whose sloppy thinking galvanized me into action. However, I shall not do so by name, in deference to collegiality and to the libel laws in a litigious society.

Thomas Sowell
Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University

Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Sowell

Meet the Author

Bestselling author Thomas Sowell has been on the faculties of leading universities across the country, an economist in the corporate world and in government, and a scholar in residence at three think tanks. His books have been translated into nine languages, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, and Fortune and are syndicated to 150 newspapers. For the past two decades, he has been a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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Quest for Cosmic Justice 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a so called minority I agree with Mr. Sowell about 95 percent of the time. He just makes a lot of sense. I have dubbed him 'The Master of Common Sense. I just wish I had started reading his books a lot sooner
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this to be one of Thomas Sowell's best works, a truly insightful, no holds barred look at the current social problems facing this country. Be prepared for truth and honesty and not the skewed, liberal view point that most forms of media today provide. This is a hard nosed look at this country and the consequences of our political and social decisions. I only wish we were required to read this in school. Take this book, read it to you children and read it yourself, although a dictionary is a required supplement.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Sowell has made me think more in depth than any of my professors in college. Thank you sir. Anyone who wonders why we are in our current social and economic situation in the US, need only read this book. Keep a dictionary at your side or have your computers dictionary on.... your vocabulary will be challenged and expanded.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Sowell, I along with Mr. Webster (Colligiate dictionary) have found 'Quest' to be most provocative. Anyone who would diligently read your treatise will have to agree with this statement even if they disagree with your assertions. I wish I had been exposed to your writings and philosophies when I taught high school. Must reading for any truly serious pedagogues in the area of the social sciences.
247jjw More than 1 year ago
"I'd say this book should be required reading, but that would somewhat undermine the premise. So I'll just say this: If everyone would take it upon themselves to read and understand the principles presented in this book, the world would be a much better place. "
Guest More than 1 year ago
Of all the 100 or more books I've examined that purport to describe ideas that have influenced world history and/or the policies of modernday governments, this is perhaps the worst one I've ever seen. Sowell's books typically provide a weird mix of brilliancies worth memorizing and absurdities worth condemning, but in this book the bad outweighs the good by far. With the short space of this review I will describe the worst error I found. On pages 28-29 Sowell ridicules the world-famous book of philosophy titled "A Theory of Justice", by John Rawls (note: I've read that Rawls' book created a worldwide sensation in philosophy departments around the world, because it gives a coherent integration of the most influential ideas about justice). Sowell claims that Rawls' theory places so much emphasis on equality that it would require that if 300 people are on a sinking boat with only 200 life preservers, then the Theory would say that equality should be maximized by all drowning! Sowell's claim is incredibly absurd, given what Rawls actually said in that book. Rawls' theory emphasizes fairness, but NOT equality. In Rawls' examples equality is ALWAYS sacrificed to get more fairness. Rawls even uses graphs in the book to illustrate how equality should be reduced so as to increase fairness. Rawls defines "fairness" very carefully: what people would do if they all believed that they could be anyone affected by decisions, including any of the least-advantaged persons. Rawls claims that under such conditions people would naturally focus on improving the situations of the worst-off persons. His system starts with equality (as the least-fair possibility to be considered), and introduces inequalities that improve the situations of the worst-off persons. E.g., Rawls uses his method to justify capitalism (because it greatly improves the situations of the worst-off [the poor] in societies with capitalism). In the example of the sinking boat, Sowell's claim requires that Sowell also decribe how the 100 persons destined to drown are BETTER OFF if all the others DROWN. Good grief...HOW? This cannot be done, surely, and Sowell's conclusion is an absurdity. Note: with this absurd claim Sowell trashes Rawls' world-famous book with a mere 3 sentences totalling 89 words! Moreover, his hit-and-run includes a hidden stab of a knife-like lie into Rawls' reputation. I pity readers of his that unknowingly and trustingly accept such blatantly absurd nonsense. Please note: Sowell's words fail to reveal Rawls' total emphasis on a type of fairness, and that equality should always be sacrificed to increase it. Sowell's error here is so severe that I'm really forced to conclude that it was intentional: it is a lie intended to deceive his readers.