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Book review: Justice -what’s the right thing to do? (2009), Michael Sandel

Justice – what’s the right thing to do? (2009), Michael Sandel

Title: Justice – what’s the right thing to do?

Author: Michael Sandel (Harvard professor, United States)

Grading: 5/5

Genre: non-fiction, analytic, philosophic

Reminds me of: –

Why? My political discussions have always been based on a moral and philosophical ground rather than purely petty policy-politics arguments. Hence, a book written by a professor of philosophical politics who is renowned all over Youtube for his fantastic lectures on justice must prove to be the perfect read for me? 


First of all I think it is rather important to note that he actually is a teacher, a lecturer, because his whole book is a lecture, a lesson. I actually started out watching his videos on Youtube, one is embedded just beneath (he also had a lecture at the TED conferences). I was fascinated by his pedagogical skills, his eloquent style of teaching, and of course his simple yet convincing arguments. The book is like a long, but not verbose, lesson, a journey into the basis of political philosophy and an understanding of society.

I loved this book, in all its simplicity. It gives the reader a sense of participation, which I guess comes from Sandel’s usual way of dealing with these issues (at the stage, in front of hundreds of law students at Harvard). He repeats the most vital points throughout, which has the effect that the reader actually, in the end, tends to remember what he or she has read. So, like a lesson in school, he hammers the main points in, but without making it stiff or uncomfortable to read.

So, what are his points? Well, he tries to give the reader an understanding of some of the main players in philosophy, both modern and ancient. He presents these players:

  • Jeremy Bentham – ultimate form of utilitarianism: maximise happiness for all, regardless of individual suffering
  • John Stuart Mill – tries to adapt utilitarianism to value human treats, but still utilitarian
  • Immanuel Kant – we should live according to autonomy, meaning that we individually should develop our own policies to live by and act strictly according to those policies – the capacity of the human mind is thus respected as the highest virtue
  • Aristotle – good things to those who deserve them according to the rules of the game (society) and the common good, first one must decide what is the common good and how it is best served
  • John Rawls – best policies are those formed by people in a ”veil of ignorance” i.e. when people decide how to run a society without knowing what roles they will play in that society (=my favourite!)

Jon Rawls.

So, what he basically does is first of all defining such over-used words such as ”libertarianism”, ”liberalism”, and ”utilitarianism” and he skilfully does so by invoking the ideas of philosophers with very different perspectives, which makes the whole book seem very well-rounded. Sandel himself steps in a few times to give his own views on things, for instance on how universities should communicate with candidates they reject (a rather humours passage!).

He has managed to comprise the whole book to about 280 pages, which is quite a feat keeping in mind the extreme complexity of the ideas that philosophers tend to have. However, the real implications of these should probably be analysed better than I can analyse them, so I would suggest that you google around to find  better page or analysis of the ideas presented by Sandel.

I give this book 5 out of 5 because Sandel so brilliantly managed to cut down the sheer volume of thought to 280 pages, including hypothetical and real-life examples, together with his own thoughts about the ideas and implication of those ideas in focus. A great book for those interested in society, politics, and humanity. To me, those three issues are indeed important and I want to be knowledgeable in those areas, and Sandel’s fantastic presentation of philosophers and their ides and his dealing with some of the hardest moral dilemmas that we as citizens encounter.

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