"Justice" by Michael J. Sandel (2010)
"What exactly is at stake in this debate between the narrative account of moral agency and the one that emphasizes will and consent? One issue at stake is how you conceive human freedom. As you ponder the examples that purport to illustrate obligations of solidarity and membership, you might find yourself resisting them. If you are like many of my students, you might dislike or mistrust the idea that we're bound by moral ties we haven't chosen. This dislike might lead you to reject the claims of patriotism, solidarity, collective responsibility, and so on; or to recast these claims as arising from some form of consent. It's tempting to reject or recast these claims because doing so renders them consistent with a familiar idea of freedom. This is the idea that says we are unbound by any moral ties we haven't chosen; to be free is to be the author of the only obligations that constrain us."
Michael J. Sandel is a Professor of Government at Harvard University. Justice is (by far) his best-known book, though he has written elsewhere on other topics.
After a short introduction, he centers his discussion of justice around the utilitarian philosophers, namely Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, claimed that social justice consists of allowing the largest number of people to live/think/believe in the manner that makes them happiest. Bentham's successor, John Stuart Mill, offered a softer approach to this doctrine, which included certain moral distinctions (or, some might say, equivocations) that Bentham hadn't anticipated. The author's criticisms of utilitarian thought are sound, though I continue to suspect that utilitarianism might actually be the philosophy best suited to modern government.
After the utilitarians, the author discusses Kant's moral philosophy. He offers an excellent summary of Kant's thinking, and I'm happy to say that yes, I finally understand the Categorical Imperative. I've made attempts at Kant before, and I can assert that boiling his philosophy down to its essentials is no easy business.
And despite the beauty of the author's execution, I have to say that I remain a bit skeptical of Kant's philosophy. This idea of a "rational actor" deep inside of us, working towards the greater good, seems (to me at least) at odds with much of human behavior. I'm also unsure of how people, communities, and governments would go about realizing Kant's lofty ideals. His ideas on sex fly in the face of modern morality, and his ideas on many other topics lead (seemingly) into blind alleys.
John Rawls is the subject of the next chapter. I wasn't familiar with Rawls before reading this book, and if nothing else the discussion of his ideas has piqued my curiosity. I'm not sure that I can picture any individual existing (much less coming to a decision) outside of his "veil of ignorance," but Rawls does have a lot to say about social justice.
Aristotle is the last major philosopher discussed, and I think putting him at the end was a nice touch. His teleological (purpose-driven) thinking is described in the context of government and social harmony, and although this type of thinking leads one into absurdities, I found the author's presentation of it very refreshing.
If I have any reservations about this book, they only pertain to philosophers and issues not included. Communism, for example, is never discussed. Neither is the genetic basis of altruism (the "selfish gene"). No Nietzsche. There is also no distinction made between laws and cultural norms, and the differing roles of each. Certain facets of our society, such as information technology, are also noticeably absent. It could be that the author thought including such things would have bogged the book down, and he might have well been right, but they would have also offered interesting counterpoints to some of the older, more familiar ideas.
But even with these omissions, Justice is a great book, and an invigorating take on what are, for many of us, tired philosophical concepts. The author succeeds in bringing moral philosophy back to life, and has at the same time written a very timely, very necessary guide to social justice.