Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.00 (cloth)

When I was young, I thought that Hillel’s “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”—the Golden Rule—was all the political theory necessary to make the world a good place in which to live. The Rule demanded only that I honor the same irreducible humanity in my fellows that I identified in myself. Just as I understood that I wished—no, needed—to not be dismissed, discounted, or traduced; restrained, cheated, or humiliated; robbed, raped, or murdered; so I understood that all other persons needed the same. This practice alone would provide the equality necessary to make all of us see ourselves in one another.

Equality. The word itself moved me, made my heart sing. Instinctively, I felt that equality was the key to human comradeship. In fact, I thought that it almost didn’t matter how impoverishing or threatening a circumstance might be, so long as it was experienced equally. Repeatedly, throughout history, it had been shown that the most soul-destroying of conditions—wars, plagues, depressions—could be borne if shared equally. (A recent study, published in the United States as The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, actually argues that everything—life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even garbage collection—improves in societies that are more rather than less equal). It was inequality, I was certain, that did the damage; inequality that destroyed one’s innate sense of self-worth.

Not all political philosophers agree with me that equality is the word (that is, the concept) to concentrate on. For instance, Harvard professor Michael Sandel, absorbed by the question of how to make a good society, certainly thinks justice is the better word with which to address the ethical dilemmas that arise when we make decisions about “the right thing to do”—either on our own behalf, or on behalf of society.

Sandel presents ethical dilemmas that allow readers to consult their feelings and also demand that they use their reason.

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.”

What subsequently comes under discussion are Aristotle’s devotion to the virtue of citizenship; Jeremy Bentham’s to utilitarianism (the greatest happiness for the greatest number); Robert Nozick’s to libertarianism (my person and my goods are mine and mine alone to do with as I please); John Rawls’s to an equalizing “fairness” that owes much to Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who struggled hardest with the question of the individual’s rights and obligations in a modern society.

For Kant, Sandel tells us, “morality . . . is about respecting persons as ends in themselves.” No social end is justified—whatever the gain or advantage—if its achievement depends on making instrumental use of other people, because such usage is degrading; to feel degraded is to know injustice. One must always treat humanity, Kant insisted, “whether in your own person or in the person of any other,” as an end-in-itself, never simply as a means, so as to avoid that degradation. This was one formulation of his “categorical imperative.”

By declaring the definition of moral worth to be that which treats each and every person—including oneself—as objectively and unconditionally valuable, Kant requires not so much that people ask for justice as that they teach themselves how to dispense justice. Why? Because that, he said, is the road to freedom. For Kant, freedom was not about appetite and acquisition, it was about agency. To hold oneself responsible for one’s own actions was to achieve agency.

Two centuries after Kant, the American political philosopher John Rawls took another shot at justice, society, and the individual. For Rawls, justice is fairness; his intellectual struggle was to lay out the argument for a society that could achieve it. Here is how he reasoned: no one is intrinsically more worthy or more deserving than anyone else of a favored starting place in society. If you are rewarded because you are blessed with wealth, beauty, or talent—endowed with drive, intelligence, or self-confidence—it is only because you are lucky enough to be living in a society that happens to value these qualities. The rules of the particular game into which you were born have determined the social agreement in your favor. But what of those not so favored? Are they to be punished while you are inordinately rewarded? A just society will be one that aims at eliminating those levels of disparity so huge they are experienced as what Kant would have called degrading. How do we approach the making of such a society?

Rawls’s answer, Sandel tells us, is simple: basic liberties for all (such as freedom of speech, movement, religious belief), fair opportunities regardless of social class, and social and economic inequalities so manipulated that the least fortunate of a society’s citizens rather than the most will be taken into consideration. Which means that the free market will not call the social shots. Those who are born lucky will not be held back, but luck will not permit a super privileged life to be lived side by side with a super deprived life. The gifted will be free to develop and exercise their talents—and, no doubt, to the swift will go the race—but the social understanding is that, beyond an agreed upon point, “the rewards these talents reap in the market belong to the community as a whole.” Rawls’s theory thus embraces a Kantian link between respect and self-respect: the expectation is that if the individual in society is accorded the means sufficient for self-respect, the need to exert power over others will dissipate; and with that dissipation, moral (that is, social) responsibility will come as close to actuality as we can get.

“Whether or not [Rawls’s] theory of justice ultimately succeeds,” Sandel remarks generously, “it represents the most compelling case for a more equal society that American political philosophy has yet produced.” I say generously because he disagrees strongly with Rawls’s essential position that a “political conception of the person” as an individual is central to any workable idea of a just society. For Sandel, the claims of those “loyalties and attachments” that defy pure individual interests—family, religion, patriotism—are the very meaning of society.

At this point Sandel himself, as philosopher rather than teacher, weighs in, pitching a communitarian view that argues, much as Aristotle argued, that “only by living in a
polis . . . do we fully realize our nature as human beings.” Egalitarian or libertarian theories of justice that place a higher value on rights than on the communitarian good, Sandel declares,

have a powerful appeal. . . . Despite its appeal, however, this vision of freedom is flawed. . . . If we understand ourselves as free and independent selves, unbound by moral ties we haven’t chosen, we can’t make sense of a range of moral and political obligations that we commonly recognize, even prize . . . obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory and religious faith.

Sandel’s course is exhilarating; more than exhilarating; exciting in its ability to persuade this student/reader, time and again, that the principle now being invoked—on this page, in this chapter—is the one to deliver the sufficiently inclusive guide to the making of a decent life. Yes, I found myself thinking, as one philosopher after another paraded his elegant thinking, this sounds good; then again, so does this; now this really does it.

Yet, with all the pleasure stimulating my reasoning powers, some persistent unease kept coming between me and the entire enterprise, which soon—from Aristotle to Rawls—began to seem rather more like a board game with the dice of recombinant moral consideration being rolled repeatedly, and repeatedly landing on one square or another of a grid of neatly idealized possibilities, with none of the moves adequately reflecting the distinctly un-aesthetic struggle over moral judgment that one has with life on the ground. Then I remembered that Sandel famously enjoins his students to argue with him, and so, I, as much an amateur at political philosophy as any undergraduate, accept the invitation to grapple with theory in the flesh as well as in the abstract.

As I grew older, I saw that the Golden Rule, while excellent in theory, was not workable. Transgression was alarmingly present.

Let’s go back to the Golden Rule. As I grew older, I saw—with a shock from which I don’t think I ever recovered—that this Rule, while excellent in theory, was not workable in practice. Transgression was alarmingly ever-present. People simply could not accord each other the “justice” of treating one another as they themselves wished to be treated. Let me revise that. Forget people. It was I who couldn’t help transgressing. With all the good will in the world, I soon came to see that I myself was a swamp of fears, fantasies, and defenses that caused me to forfeit the integrity needed to act with Golden Rule fairness toward those around me. My temper was ungovernable; an aggravated sense of insecurity caused me, in exchange after exchange, relationship after relationship, year after year, to do exactly what the Rule said it was impermissible to do: I scorned and humiliated, I challenged and confronted, dismissed and discounted; suffered when I acted badly, but could not bring myself under control. The source of the transgression lay deep in the wounded unconscious: it commanded me. I loved many people in the abstract—felt for them, sympathized with them, romanticized them—but I could not give them the only thing that mattered: what Kant called “respect,” the one basic recognition required to bypass that fatal sense of degradation. In short, the chaos within prevented me from acting as though others were as real to me as I was to myself, although in theory they were. And here we come to a crux of the matter.

It is this—the chaos within—that is hardly ever addressed in Justice; although it is this, precisely, that is responsible for the all-important gap between practice and theory. Within that gap lies life as we actually experience it, with peace-making reason eternally in thrall to the emotional conflict that steadily undermines our ability to accord each other the required respect of acting as though others are as real to us as we are to ourselves.

Now that I am thinking about all this, I am remembering that in the early 1970s, when the second wave of the woman’s movement began to gather steam in America, the crucial word at the center of my feeling intelligence was neither “equality” nor “justice”; it was always “real.” “Real” meant that I wanted only to be born into the same existential unhappiness that afflicts all who take their social and political reality for granted. Suddenly, I was stunned—insulted!—by the realization that political history, from antiquity on, had withheld the recognition of that “reality” from whole classes of people, including women, and—as though I’d become the doctor in Chekhov’s Ward Six, the man who comprehended the horrors of imprisonment only when he himself was imprisoned—could only now grasp what that insult signified. It was the existential need of our souls to not put ourselves in the place of another; to make hierarchies that would include and exclude; declare this group fully human and that one not; as though a sense of one’s own reality depended on the lesser reality of another. And indeed. As Virginia Woolf asked, how could men dress up, speechify, go out and civilize the natives if they couldn’t come home and see themselves writ twice as large as life in the eyes of their adoring wives?

It seems to me that of all the philosophers we encounter in Justice, Rawls comes closest to understanding and taking into consideration the nature of our shared psychic disability; and he seeks to counter it with precisely those measures that might close the gap between practice and theory. But even Rawls cannot speak adequately to the fact that political history, from classical times on, reflects our fear not of one another but of ourselves, projected onto one another.

Inevitably, a tide of emotional bewilderment overcomes us when we are made to realize that no matter how sophisticated the theory gets, the mystery remains of how to safeguard the necessary sense of self-worth—every human being’s birthright—that we continually outrage, just by being ourselves. I am grateful to Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? for forcing me to think again about that which I once thought I would never stop thinking.