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Home Soziale Ethik Rechtsethik Luey Kit Ling, Elaine: Book Review on Justice , what’s the right things to do
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Mittwoch, den 10. April 2013 um 20:47 Uhr

Book Review on Justice , what’s the right things to do

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Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok

Anthor: Luey Kit Ling, Elaine

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Sandel presented a number of different ideologies and view points about justice. The book is a great summary of thoughts from Aristotle to recent philosopher such as  John Rawls in the 2oth century.  However, Sandel did not take a ‘historical’ approach to explain the various development and view points about Justice –for example ancient philosopher, Aristotle’s ideology (he lived in 384 – 322 BC)  on justice was quoted only in chapter 8.  Rather Sandel took a very good approach to first explain those concepts that could be understood easier then on to the more complex theories and addressing a higher level of issues about justice (and humanity).

To begin with , Sandel defined what is ‘just’ society,

It is about ‘how it distributes the things we prize –income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honors” (P.19).  The key concepts deal quite a bit with ‘distributive justice”.

Sandel first introduced two broad  approaches – the utilitarianism who value the maximize welfare, justice means maximizing happiness . Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) put forward the highest principle of morality  is to maximize happiness, the overall balance of pleasure and pain (P.34) (chapter 2)

Then, on the other hand, there are the Libertarianism who favor unfettered markets in the name of human freedom. In their point of view, justice is about respecting and upholding the voluntary choices  and agreements by adults with their consent. Policies shall correct social and economic disadvantage and give everyone a fair chance to excel. (P. 20) . This may sound very broad. Sandel then quoted a recent philosopher, Robert Nozick, who added more clarification to the free market requirements – namely justice in initial holdings and justice in transfer (P. 63).  On the ‘freedom’ foundation, Sandel did not deal directly with the distribution justice but he stepped back to address a fundamental question - whether we really own ourselves? The self-ownership concept is a key foundation for individual rights. With the examples of  Michael Jordan, the selling of kidneys, the assisted suicide and consensual cannibalism, the issues in other legal domains such as prostitution, homosexuals, Sandel demonstrated there are higher principles on ‘individual freedom’ – ie moral importance of saving lives, dignity and compassion etc.

Then he naturally flowed to the issue of  markets and morals  in chapter 4. Because it is not  just about economic activities which equal to dollar sign and it is not just about the consent of individuals, the morality comes into play. Because it is what set us apart as human being, we shall not be treated as mere object but rather with dignity and respect (P.98). The surrogacy mother is a  great example representing the argument. Sandel posed the question to readers should  goods and social practices can be governed by just the market - it is more than trading goods? Sandel closed the chapter with a key question what “how free are the choices we make in the free market? And are there certain virtues and higher goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy”?  (P.102) . These were answered in the following chapter.

After stating the concept of morality does exist and set above just free market, Sandel moved into the sphere of morality. In chapter 5 , Sandel explained the works of Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804) a key philosopher, trying to define supreme principle of morality and addressing freedom. Kant stated human being is worthy of respect because we are rational beings (capable of reason) and autonomous (capable of acting and choosing freely).  How did these two capabilities link together? “Our capacity for reason is bound up with our capacity for freedom” P.108. However, Kant argued in morality, we are actually governed by the law of nature (similar to law of gravity), that is outside of us and we act according to that determination. Kant created a new word for it as “heteronomy” (P.109). When we act heteronomously, we are the instruments not the authors of the purpose we pursue. We act for the ends given outside. This end is respecting human dignity. (P.110) as the motive of the choices we make (not the consequences), for doing the right things for the right reason (P.111)

At the end of the chapter 5, Sandel linked Kant’s principle of morality to political theory by introducing the idea of original contract, an imaginary one, which a legitimate government be based on. Here,  Sandel brought us to the civil sphere and citizenship.

The bridge to chapter 6 is the linkage of John Rawls (1921- 2002) attempt to answer Kant’s questions posted two centuries ago – the idea of social contract. Rawls believed two principles of justice would form these hypothetical social contracts – first, the equal basic liberties for all citizens such as  freedom of speech  and religion. The second principle concerns equal distribution of income and wealth.  John proposed the fourth theory on distribution justice (other than feudal, libertarian, meritocratic) namely Egalitarian, the difference principle. The principle suggested there be  “ an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be” (P. 156- 157). Rawls proposed us ‘to share one another’s fate and to avail of the accidents of nature and social circumstances’ (P.166) because “ no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society , nor is it our doing that we live in a society that happens to prize our particular strengthens” (P.178). The respect of equality in people is key in Rawls theology.  Sandel pointed out the key main objections to the difference principles are incentives and effort. (P.157 – 160). While time will tell whether it will be a successful theory of justice , Sandel complemented Rawls’ proposal is the most compelling one to make USA  a more equal society.  (P.166)

One of the controversial policies to make USA a more equal society is the affirmative action which was addressed in the chapter 7.  I think it is a very good illustration to provoke our thoughts that something more is in the equation when coming to justice and rights. Firstly, the argument on affirmative action pointed out the admission system is based on merit , the ability to contribute, not just on scores.  The contributions from different racial and ethnic diversity make the whole education learning environment better. It shall be viewed as a  policy for inclusion rather than exclusion.  Then the second point is the balance of the purpose of universities between scholarly excellence and the civic goods. This brings out the question of honor and virtue which is hard to detach from justice and rights. (P. 183)

This then leads us back to the consideration and relationship between fairness and rights and honor, virtue and moral desert. As early as in BC time, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) already thought justice and good life must be connected which is well documented in chapter 8.  Aristotle’s two political philosophies are – justice is teleological (based on purpose, end and essential nature); justice is honorific (to reason about a telos, we shall reason what virtues it should honor and reward) (P.186-7). After a lot of good examples explaining the thoughts, Sandel stated Aristotle’s view on purpose of politics is to form good citizens and to cultivate good character, that is to cultivate the virtue of citizens (P.193). It is enabling people to develop their distinctive human capacities and virtues (P.194). Legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them (P.198)

The moral life aim of the society is happiness (not what the utilitarian mean) but for virtuous person the happiness is doing the right things , to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time , with the right motive , and in the right way (P.196, P.199)

There is a higher place in politics according to Aristotle’ vision – it is not just maximizing utility nor providing fair rules for the realization of individual interests, it is “an expression of our nature, an occasions for the unfolding of our human capacities , an essential aspect of the good life”. (P.200)

All  great about Aristotle’s pursuit of a very high grounds of maximizing human capacities and good life over 2000 years ago. Aristotle proposed politics should shape citizens good by forming habits. But nowadays, the notion was rejected by philosophers such as Kant and Rawls on the ground that it may be dangerous for leaving no room for freedom and imposing values.  Aristotle’s way of thinking about justice  along with issues of loyalty , moral individualism and shall government be morally neutral were discussed in detailed in Chapter 9 . At the closing of the chapter, Sandel stated the dilemma between politics and moral and religions controversies – even though liberal political philosophers such as Kant and Rawls had the ambitions to try avoiding tangling  politics, laws with moral and religious together  but it is not successful. Sandel concluded it is difficult to define the rights and duties of citizens by setting aside competing conceptions of the good life. (P.243)

In the concluding chapter (Chapter 10), Sandel further elaborated and cited examples on how the political questions are tangling with moral and religious argument such as abortion, stem cell debates and same sex marriage. Government cannot stay neutral because those issues involves in taking the life of a human being (P. 253), goods that the issue honors such as purpose of marriage  P.253) (the telos) and the social recognition of just distribution of offices and honors. (P.258)

To summarize, Sandel recapped the three approaches to justice. One is to maximizing utility or welfare. Second is the respecting of freedom of choice. The third is justice involves cultivating virtue and reasoning about the common good.  Sandel made his standpoint of favoring the third approach with the following remarks :

“A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise” (P. 261). Finally Sandel  suggested four possible themes  for new politics of common good life as a conclusion of the book (P. 263 – 269)


2.1. Structure and flow of key concepts of the book

When I first read the book the first two chapters were easy to read. Then it became harder especially on chapter 5 where Immanuel’ Kant’s philosophies were introduced. In the beginning the connection  of different chapters and philosophers were  not very clear possibly due to my limited knowledge on this subject matter.

But as I re- read the different chapters and try to identify connections then I can see Sandel posted amazing linkages between chapters and the flow. More importantly, he is  pushing where we need to visit and where justice shall lead us  onto higher and higher grounds .I think the book was written with an excellent structure and has presented the key concepts and key philosophers clearly with great associations especially to layman like me.  After the introduction in chapter 1,  Sandel identified the two broad approaches to justice – namely utilitarianism and libertarianism. While speaking on libertarianism’s foundation of freedom and free market, Sandel brought up the issues of moral and markets. When coming into the area of morality, he introduced the concepts of Immanuel Kant. But one unanswered question by Kant is social contract which was addressed by John Rawls (two centuries later) and his philosophies were explained.  To elaborate on the subject of equality in society, Sandel then discussed the affirmative action in details. With the cases of university admission, he then brought up the matter of honor and justice and then it circled back to Aristotle’s philosophies on justice. Not only did Sandel elevated the good life  and he cleverly linked it to the purpose of politics, roles of legislators. Then the next question came into play is whether politics and moral and religious controversies can be separated and shall government be neutral. He concluded it cannot be because  issues of higher grounds such as human life, telos and social recognition are involved than merely economic or individual considerations.

2.2 Three broad themes and two dimensions

Sandel has already defined the three approaches to justice – maximize overall utility, freedom of choices and cultivating virtue and pursue of common grounds.

I think the key philosophies can also be summarized into two broad dimensions

By Sandel’s definition, justice is  about ‘how it distributes the things we prize –income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honors” (P.19).  The two dimensions are distributions and choices. It is quite apparent the utilitarian falls in distribution  , so as John Rawls’ ideology.  Libertarianism is about choices , so as Kant , the law, heteronomy’ govern our choices. How about Aristotle and those uphold virtue?  I believe it also falls into choice as it is a decision we/ legislators make for what is more preferable – for being right , doing the right thing with the motive and pursuing aspects of the good.

2.3. Use of examples

With so many complex theories and tangling issues, I think Sandel handled it very well by using  simple , updated examples that make it easier to understand – e.g. he used Michael Jordan on a few occasions, the dropping of balls to illustrate natural law, he even used Winnie the Pooh to explain ‘the ends’ ! Many times the simplest examples in daily life can best help illustrate complex concepts. He did a good job. Not only this , some of his examples are humorous but to the point – eg the acceptance,  rejection letter written for the university admission  and Bill Clinton’s misleading truth brought smiles to the face when I read it.

However, on some parts of the book, especially chapter 5  where Immanuel Kant’s ideology were illustrated, it is not easy to follow. Actually on youtube, there are 12 episodes documenting Sandel’s lectures on these 10 chapters. In addition to the great examples I mention above, the questions he poised, the answers from the students were very helpful in further analyzing the issues and explaining the concepts.

2.4. cultivating virtue and pursue of common grounds

I absolutely aligned with Sandel’s view point in favor of the third approach believing justice is pursuing of higher grounds of humanity.  He also used a very good approach and example such as the dropping ball to demonstrate there is a law , a natural law that governs us.

I believe it is because I share similar value and being a Christian, I concur with a greater purpose of humanity and pursuit of common good.  We shared the same pre-supposition. However,  I am afraid it is not so easily being accepted to non-believers or to argue these points with people with lower morale standard. Also the foundation based on Aristotle is good but after all, it was over 2000 years ago, especially the uphold of virtue compared to the uphold of individualism is now a total flip . I think presenting and getting the acceptance of  these concepts especially to non Christian communities would still a bit more work.

2.5.    Global applications

When I come across John Rawls philosophy , Sandel mentioned the belief of basic liberties for all citizens. such as freedom of speech an religion.  While it is true for American value ,how would  it apply to countries like China ? So are these philosophies with a pre-supposed American value ?

2.6  Getting down to the heart of the issues

Finally it is very inspiring to see how Sandel pushed the issues to the core to find the answer , the principles. For examples , on same sex marriage, it is not just on individual freedom and their choices, it is about  the purpose of marriage, and the goods the society honors. On the case of Cassey Martin’s appeal on using  golf cart appeal for the golf game, the question is to revisit the ‘telos” and the essence nature of the game. It is a great reminder that when we try to deal with differences, we need to go back to the origin , the source. Finding the fundaments will give us a bigger picture to find the clarity rather than sticking with a narrow view point.

2.7 justice in public arena

In the  past, I only think along the line of justice in public arena being allocation of resources , a more economical view while those virtues and the good from a Christian point of view. It is very interesting to see how actually the two tangle closely together and cannot be separated. This is also what the course and the book has inspired me  - how do we create the linkage, the dialogue, the relevancy of our belief to the society.

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