Skip to content

Review: Justice – What’s the right thing to do

November 22, 2013

I compelled myself to spill my inner thoughts on those books that I have recently been able to digest. This post, and those that will follow will be reviews of sorts, in them I will discuss the gist of a particular book, what I enjoyed and took away from reading it and what if anything the book lacked.

Before I disclose the title of this post’s book let me run some questions by you to which you the reader will no doubt will formulate answers to as we go. Should we as individuals be able to sell our organs such as a kidney to the highest bidder? We currently can donate a kidney, but should we be allowed to donate both our kidneys or even our heart to save someone else’s life? How about this, Is it acceptable to torture a terrorist suspect to reveal the hidden bomb in hopes of savings thousands of innocent lives? What about the terrorist’s innocent daughter, if that is what will make him talk? Should we have conscription into the military service? What about if the person chosen for conscription was given the freedom to sell his place to another person much like it was allowed in the US civil war? Is affirmative action fair? Is admitting an aboriginal or a Torres Strait island student into a university course who has a lower mark than a ‘white’ students who scored slightly higher the correct thing to do?

In the book titled Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Harvard professor Michael Sandel makes use of such questions to introduce and explore the essential branches of moral theories of justice. Sandel throughout his book presents to us a brief history of each of the philosophical formulations and the men behind the ideas. This provides us context and allows us to gain insight into what shaped the minds of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls & Aristotle.

Justice Michael J Sandel

The format of the book that the author chose to adopt follows an easy to read structure. We are introduced to a particular theory of justice, from which we are lead into several real world examples and scenarios as if to test & apply them directly. This method transforms the book from a mere collection of pie-in-the-sky armchair philosophical musings into real issues that are an integral part of our modern society. Sandel then plays the role of the devil’s advocate and begins to propose common objections that have arisen over the years to each theory as well as some rebuttals that have followed. In the ending chapters the author reveals to us his own leanings to a particular theory or at least a neo-version of it. However you would be hard pressed to tell which post the author was sitting on before you arrive to the end of the book. In my opinion Sandel does a great job in providing a very objective overview of all the material, and he manages to do it in a thought provoking and captivating manner.

Each of the rhetorical questions I began my post with serve to examine justice through one or more of the following lenses: maximizing welfare, respecting freedom or promoting virtue.

Take the last example I brought up about university admissions and let us examine a real world case,

Lady Justice frankfurt

Affirmative Action at Universities

Sandel writes:

Cheryl Hopwood did not come from an affluent family. Raised by a single mother, she worked her way through high school, community college, and California State University at Sacramento. She then moved to Texas and applied to the University of Texas Law School, the best law school in the state and one of the leading law schools in the country. Although Hopwood had compiled a grade point average of 3.8 and did reasonably well on the law school admissions test (scoring in the 83rd percentile), she was not admitted.

Hopwood, who is white, thought her rejection was unfair. Some of the applicants admitted instead of her were African American and Mexican American students who had lower college grades and test scores than she did. The school had an affirmative action policy that gave preference to minority applicants. In fact, all of the minority students with grades and test scores comparable to Hopwood’s had been admitted.

Hopwood took her case to federal court, arguing that she was a victim of discrimination.

Is it unjust to consider race and ethnicity as factors in hiring or university admissions?

An argument can be made that administering minority students over whites students corrects biases in the tests, or better still compensates them for past wrongdoings. The argument follows that minority students should be given preference to make up for a history of discrimination that has placed them at an unfair disadvantage.

Sandel is quick to provide a response to the argument:

“But the compensatory argument runs into a tough challenge: critics point out that those who benefit are not necessarily those who have suffered, and those who pay the compensation are seldom those responsible for the wrongs being rectified. Many beneficiaries of affirmative action are middle-class minority students who did not suffer the hardships that afflict young African Americans and Hispanics from the inner city. Why should an African American student from an affluent Houston suburb get an edge over Cheryl Hopwood, who may actually have faced a tougher economic struggle?”

He continues

Whether the compensatory case for affirmative action can answer this objection depends on the difficult concept of collective responsibility: Can we ever have a moral responsibility to redress wrongs committed by a previous generation?

But there is one more argument to be heard and that is promoting diversity.

The chapter reads

The diversity rationale is an argument in the name of the common good—the common good of the school itself and also of the wider society. First, it holds that a racially mixed student body is desirable because it enables students to learn more from one another than they would if all of them came from similar backgrounds. Just as a student body drawn from one part of the country would limit the range of intellectual and cultural perspectives, so would one that reflected homogeneity of race, ethnicity, and class. Second, the diversity argument maintains that equipping disadvantaged minorities to assume positions of leadership in key public and professional roles advances the university’s civic purpose and contributes to the common good.

Such topics go at the heart of various theories of justice.

The diversity rationale is an argument about the common good. What is best for the society as a whole? A utilitarian like Jeremy Bentham could argue that a racially mixed campus draws from many backgrounds to facilitate diversity in thought and learning, it outweighs any disappointment to the likes of Cheryl Hopwood. Critics may object that affirmative action does not actually bring a more pluralistic society, but sows bitterness and resentment between races.

What about individual rights? Does not using race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions violate Cheryl Hopwood rights? After all she through no fault of their own, is put at a competitive disadvantage. The school of thought such as Libertarianism argues that even desirable ends must not override individual rights, and that it is unjust to deny Cheryl on that ground. Such arguments have echoed in other current affairs. Are higher income earners not entitled to their money, why should they be taxed more?

Sandel offers another angle to the debate. Begin by asking a two pronged question that was originally developed by Aristotle and refined over the years; what is the purpose of a university? Some would say universities are there for promoting scholarly excellence, so academic merit should be the sole criteria for admission. While others may say that universities exist to serve a certain civil purposes e.g diversity of thought, which opens the door for other criteria of admission.

The other related question to be asked is what virtues or excellences do universities honour? If you believe that a university is there to reward scholarly excellence alone you would reject affirmative action on that ground. However those who believe universities exist to promote certain civil ideas may well embrace it. Purpose & virtues may seem a strange concept to identify what is just, but Sandel shows us that people frequently formulate their reasons just on those grounds.  Think about the topic of same-sex marriage. It helps to ask what is the purpose of marriage e.g. a public recognition of certain individual’s commitment to one another? To procreate? Reflection of Gods design? How about the virtues that marriage bestows? Promoting companionship? fidelity? family? honouring God? Your answers to the above will most likely dictate whether you are for or against allowing the allowing the practise.

Sandels does a fantastic job in tying back all the material that he has expounded so far and to breakdown the issues into the different views and arguments. It gives a real perspective on how people reason and demonstrates to me some of the impasses that exist.


I found Sandel’s style of writing very approachable without having to slog through lots of academic jargon. If nothing else it helps you understand how people reason through their justifications when they take on certain beliefs.

There weren’t a lot of objections I found with the book. I wish the author touched more on retributive justice as well as at least mention the divine command theory.

I would definitely recommend reading it.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: