The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 2010)

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Michael J. Sandel

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009.

Review by Amitai Etzioni

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 12.1 (Spring 2010). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2010

(Volume 12 | Issue 1)

The first thing that must be said about Michael Sandel’s book, Justice, is that it is a remarkable educational achievement. The book is a distillation of a course Sandel has taught at Harvard for thirty years—one of the most popular courses ever taught at the college.

At his Socratic best when in dialogue with a theater full of students, Sandel has a knack, which comes so naturally to him that one tends to forget how rarely others succeed when they set out on the same pedagogical path, for finding ways to illustrate his points with perfectly chosen examples—some hypothetical, some taken from everyday life. Thus, to make the point that moral decisions must often be made under conditions of uncertainty, he tells students about a U.S. military unit, behind the lines in Afghanistan, searching for a Taliban stronghold in 2005. They are discovered by unarmed goat herders, including a boy. After deliberating about whether to kill the goat herders to prevent them from giving away their position, the Americans decide to let them go. The goat herders alert the Taliban, who kill all the Americans but one, who is severely wounded but lives to tell (24–7). Sandel asks: what would you have done under the same circumstances—and what reasoning would you apply to justify your decision?

The book is not aimed at scholars who specialize in ethics or social philosophy—but at an educated public. (Its subtitle is “What’s the Right Thing to Do?”) Serving this sizable audience, Sandel’s second very noteworthy success is summarizing complex theories in a few pages—including those of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls—without doing them injustice. Professional philosophers may argue that he should have added this point or qualified that point more. However, I have no doubt that generations of students and educated citizens will be very well served by Sandel’s introductory overviews.

The book examines three approaches to moral judgments. Sandel first takes on utilitarianism, the philosophy that seeks to maximize welfare. In more popular terms, this is the precept that minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure (or happiness) for the greatest number provides guidance for what is just. Criticizing this approach, often associated with Jeremy Bentham, is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. It is enough for Sandel to ask if it is morally acceptable to take apart a healthy person to provide organs for five others for his students to see that this line of argumentation will not hold. Sandel then turns to the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, who seeks to protect utilitarians from said criticism by assuming that individuals have strong rights that cannot be set aside to increase the happiness of the majority. Thus, one cannot throw a few Christians to the lions even if such an act would make a stadium full of Romans deliriously happy. One could still leave everything else to be subjected to a utilitarian calculus of harm and gain for the majority. However, Sandel further criticizes this modified utilitarianism by suggesting that there are higher and more debased pleasures. Hence, one cannot throw all preferences into a simple cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, Sandel writes, this approach makes what is right a matter of ever-changing calculations not based on principle.

The second approach is centered around respecting freedom, built on respect for the autonomy of individuals. Sandel includes in this approach both the familiar libertarian approach and John Rawls’s main work. Rawls maintains that the way to find out the principles that guide a just society is to presume that we do not know which place in society we are going to occupy (the “veil of ignorance”). Sandel welcomes the strong commitment to rights but holds this approach as limited in terms of the goods it supports because it makes no judgment as to the moral value of the ends we pursue.

The third approach—which Sandel favors—is built on cultivating virtue, such as our obligations to members of our families, communities, and nation. He stresses that a just society cannot be neutral on moral matters; it needs to cultivate the good life. Aristotle’s treatment of politics as an essential part of the good life provides the text for this approach. Sandel argues that society must, through collective moral reasoning, come to an agreement on what constitutes the good life and, thus, what virtues it should promote.

Although Sandel embraces the third approach, it is not completely clear whether he holds that the other two approaches should be disregarded (for instance, is cost-effective analysis always morally inappropriate?)—or that we need to combine the three approaches. He does state at one point that the demands of the good society “supplement rather than compete” with individual rights—which implies an easy marriage of the second and third approaches. However, given that in many areas our rights and our duties are in tense conflict—for example, our right to privacy and the demands of national security—one looks to Justice II (the sequel I hope Sandel will write) to fully address this issue.

Sandel is known for his observation—part of his criticism of Rawls’s veil of ignorance—that the self is “situated” in a social fabric. We derive our identities from the community of which we are members. As the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre put it in Considerations on France,

There is no such thing as man in the world. In the course of my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I know, too, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never met him in my life; if he exists, he is unknown to me.

In the same vain, Sandel stresses the importance of identity that is community-specific, and he argues that unless we acknowledge the significance of solidarity and loyalty, we cannot understand the full range of our moral and political commitments. He does not get around, in this book, to exploring the importance of community for human flourishing, another subject for Justice II.

As an aside, one notes that Justice, as a text aimed at a “lay” audience, does not have many footnotes pointing to others who cultivated the same vineyards long before Sandel and that point to additional resources for those who wish to go beyond Justice. For instance, two hundred years of sociology and social psychology that extensively deal with the situated self and the role of community are not granted even a passing reference. It is as if the last one who has written on the subject was Aristotle.

Moral Reasoning or Character Education?

Sandel often speaks of the merits of moral clarity. He criticizes the freedom school for not requiring us “to question or challenge the preferences and desires we bring to public life.” He says further, “to achieve a just society we have to reason together.” The title of his course in the Harvard catalogue is “Moral Reasoning: Justice.” Although one should not hang too much on a title, it is a revealing one. Moral reasoning aims to help people sort out their moral intuitions and advance their deliberations, but not to argue for any particular virtues. (Thus, my granddaughter’s excellent middle school asked her to indicate what she wants to be when she grows up: a scientist, rock star, millionaire, astronaut, and so on. As long as she was clear on what she was after, the school considered it improper to convince her that some goals were worthier than others.) In short, moral reasoning does not call for cultivating specific moral commitments by other means than “cool,” rational deliberations—such as persuasion, role models, leading by example, and the introduction of compelling narratives—what is called character education.

Thus, oddly, Sandel makes a strong case for a good society that promotes specific virtues including sacrifices for the common good (for example, mandatory national service), reducing inequality (for example, using progressive taxation to rebuild public institutions), setting limits on what is subject to the marketplace (for example, not paying students for good test scores). However, unlike Aristotle, who held that these commitments need to be “habituated,” Sandel seems to believe that we can sort out which these ought to be through the kind of reasoning moral philosophers engage in, and that takes place in his exemplary classroom. And, in this way, get people who do not see the light to follow it.

In a telling example, Sandel examines same-sex marriages. He shows compellingly that the question at hand is not merely a question of rights but also of the virtues a given institution promotes. If it is procreation, same-sex marriage will not do; however, if it is a public commitment to exclusive loving relationships, same-sex marriage will pass muster. (He does not explore why such reasoning would not legalize polygamy among consenting adults or even person and animal marriage.) Although Sandel hints that he sees marriage as a public commitment, he does not come out and say so. He merely stresses that one can see in this and other such cases the need to ask which virtues the state ought to promote—and that we can rationally reason out these matters.

Justice II

Reviewers ought not to criticize a book for subjects it does not cover, especially a book that covers so much ground so well, as Justice does. I hence leave it for Justice II to explore a subject that Sandel does not get to address in this book: the tensions among the principles encompassed in the third approach, and how these might be sorted out by means other than moral deliberations. Our commitments to other persons (say, our children), our community (for example, to the environment as a common good), and to specific virtues (such as social justice) often come into conflict. We need to establish which principle we should draw on to sort out under what circumstances each of these commitments should trump the others.

Of much more limited interest but still worthy of discussion is Sandel’s relationship to communitarianism, a term often applied to the third approach. Sandel and several other often-cited academic communitarians, such as Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, as a rule shy away from using this term. This is as if Marx refused to use the term “class conflict.” Sandel dedicates but a few lines to explain this oddity, writing that the term “communitarian” implies to some people that communities are and ought to be the final arbitrator of that which is good. This kind of stark cultural relativism is incompatible with our commitment to the universality of human rights. In Justice II one hopes that Sandel will visit the difference between East Asian communitarians (the kind championed by Singapore) and the kind embraced by responsive (or neo-) communitarians, who hold that we face two competing moral demands: the particular values of our communities and our commitment to universal rights. And that we must find ways to sort out the extent to which these two sources of normativity can be reconciled and which is to trump the other, when they are in conflict.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at The George Washington University and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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