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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?
Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
320 pp., 17.00
Duties and Rights
Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. His most recent book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do, is the distillation of a popular undergraduate course he has taught at Harvard for the past thirty years. The book is aimed at the general educated public, not at scholars.
One can see why the course is popular. The book is filled with fascinating examples, most of them taken from real life, of complicated situations in which it's hard to know what's the right thing to do. Here's an example that occurs early in the book. The U.S. military has traditionally awarded the Purple Heart to soldiers who were killed or wounded by enemy action. The Iraq war has resulted in an unusually large number of veterans who were not physically wounded but suffer from depression or severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some have argued that these veterans should be candidates for the Purple Heart on the ground that their "wounds" are often just as debilitating as the physical wounds that have traditionally qualified a veteran for the Purple Heart. Others have insisted that this would be a debasement of the Purple Heart. Who's right? It's not clear.
I received my copy of the book direct from the publisher. It was accompanied by several pages of ecstatic praise from a number of prominent scholars and intellectuals. "A terrific example of moral philosophy at work," said one. These words of praise all focus on the subtitle of the book; they praise Sandel, and rightly so, for the illuminating things he has to say about the right thing to do in various perplexing situations. But the title of the book is Justice. Sandel says that his project is to explore "the strengths and weaknesses of … three ways of thinking about justice." And the structure of the book consists of Sandel discussing in succession those three ways of thinking. The perplexing cases are introduced not for their own sake but to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses ...