On the Theory and Practice of Justice

SandelVivian Gornick reviews Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? in the Boston Review:

Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do? is a book-length summary of a celebrated survey course on the moral basis of political philosophies ranging from Aristotle to John Rawls, given by Sandel, a remarkably skilled teacher who, over the course of some 30 years, has learned how to be undergraduate-lucid: anyone who has reached the age of reason can read the book. Its cleverness lies, especially, in Sandel’s continual re-creation of homely situations that allow his readers to consult their feelings, while demanding that they use their reason in trying to figure out whether this or that approach to a question of justice makes sense. As Kathleen Sullivan, Professor at the Stanford law school and a former teaching fellow of Sandel’s, remembers it, “He posed moral dilemmas so acute one could escape the agony only by thinking.”

Three approaches to justice—the welfare of the community at large, the rights of the individual, the value of good citizenship—are the heart of Sandel’s matter. How to reason one’s way through the thicket of argument both for and against each of these perspectives—all concerned with the relation between rights and obligations—is the subject of this book. In service to it, Sandel puts up, then knocks down, then resuscitates the reasoning of political philosophers who have struggled, over many centuries, to understand what it is that a human being needs in order to feel that he or she is being treated justly. Sandel posits an opinion about “the right thing to do,” then reflects on that opinion, then works to name the principle on which it is based.

Roughly speaking, ancient theories of justice were concerned with making morally responsible citizens, while modern theories are concerned with individual freedom. None of these theories can separate cleanly from one another—“Devoted as we are to freedom . . . the conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep”—but, Sandel suggests, political philosophy, as a practice, can “give shape to the arguments we have, and bring moral clarity to the alternatives we confront as democratic citizens.”