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Justice by Michael Sandel – Rewarding if not riveting

Though it fails to answer its titular question, “what’s the right thing to do”, Michael Sandel’s Justice is a highly worthwhile read. Sandel illustrates questions of moral agency with rich examples relevant to anyone who reads a newspaper. Ultimately, however, its success comes from an eminently accessible read that will enlighten all but the most educated not from presenting a novel way of thought, as suggested by some reviewers.

In a time of rife unrest about the so-called “one percent”, Sandel offers a book for the rest of us. He makes accessible ideas otherwise locked to students of expensive courses or to those with the time to actually understand dense translations of Aristotle’s Greek. Sandel’s ability to make his both book readable and relevant speaks volumes about his role as a modern day political theorist.

Though we learn of his neo-Aristotelian sympathies late in the book, his description of Kantian and Rawlsian  philosophies are hardly biased, offering an unobscured snapshot of their respective theories of justice.

The most irritating flaw was the very cursory consideration of the “trolley problem”, introduced in his discussion of utilitarianism. While Sandel gives a detailed explanation of this age-old puzzle, as well as a historical parallel in R v Dudley and Stephens the resulting discussion is rather staid, predictable, and lacks the animation found in his lectures.

Well, obviously we find it harder to push the fat man off a bridge – but Sandel leaves the question as a simple check on Bentham’s utilitarianism rather than a powerful question of ethical agency that is relevant in almost every political and legal discussion. While this beautiful puzzle is an excellent way to catch the mind of an uninterested reader, Sandel does not do justice to the rest of his book by considering this question as a teaser rather than as a culminating feature of the book, as it ought to have been.

I also found his discussion of Kantian and Rawlsian flaws to be rather vague. While it would be nearly-impossible to address completely every flaw of a political theory in a book as accessible as Justice, there was a glaring flaw in each theory which I sorely wish Sandel mentioned. I am sure I am not the only one.

When Sandel noted Kant’s dislike of sex outside of marriage, prostitutes, etc. as such unholy institutions undermined our autonomy, representing base instincts rather than a higher purpose, I couldn’t help but wonder, who decides that which is ‘higher purpose’. Kant seems to give us a few vague tools to gauge our autonomy (i.e. would we give to charity even if ripped of all human emotion?) but nothing worthwhile. I feel I am doing great disservice to a thinker like Kant, but I can hardly help but wonder if he was just another man that preached what he considered to be morally virtuous and defended it with contrived reason to maintain an illusion of secularism.

I liked Rawls much more, but I wish Sandel had spent more time discussing the “veil of ignorance”. My greatest qualm – one I am sure many share – is its impossible nature. Rawls wants those who craft the world, behind this veil, to be devoid of any human emotion (such as a predilection for risk), any knowledge of race, sex, sexuality, etc. Yet, by virtue of having the gift of thought (as someone crafting our world ought to have), by virtue of having the ability to philosophize about tax laws, about regulations one must have an opinion. One must have a bias. Even in the hypothetical world so romantic to political philosophers, I find it unbelievable to conceive a so called veil of ignorance that has un-opinionated men, entirely clueless of their station in life, someone able to create law and institute a government. I am sure Rawlsian thinkers would beg to differ, but I would have at least liked a greater discussion of this point.

Towards the end, it becomes clear that Sandel is racing towards Aristotle, who dominates the last one hundred pages. By virtue of length, Sandel provides a great glimpse into both the triumphs as well as flaws of Aristotelian thinking. He does an excellent job of advocating for what seems like a limiting and highly moralistic ideology. I was left wondering, however, who determines the purpose of an object? The maker? The patrons? The market? Ultimately it seems Aristotelian thinking, through the lens in which it is viewed, can be used to defend each of the previously studied philosophers. Its versatility makes it strong, but fails, then, to answer the guiding question “what’s the right thing to do?”

While the absence of eastern philosophers seems to be a common thread of complaint among reviewers of philosophy books, I thought Justice was already somewhat overambitious in its mission. However, in a failed attempt to answer so grand a question, Sandel provides a solid and entertaining journey through moral philosophy.

It would be very difficult to find a better way to spend the three to four hours required to read this rich if not riveting book.

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1 comment
  1. Navaneetha Rao said:

    baddu…give me the book…got to read by this weekend.

    Appa

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