Book Review: Justice
Posted by Lauren Socha on Sunday, December 31, 2017

I finished my last book of 2017 this afternoon. It was Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. This book was a good refresher on the ethics course I took as an elective while in university. I really enjoyed revisiting some of the different moral philosophies and the spin that Sandel put on it by applying the idea of justice to well-known historical and current events. Something like this would have been great, even as supplemental reading, when I was taking my introductory-level course because it felt very approachable compared to the traditional philosophy textbooks we used.

It covers three moral theories and how they apply to the idea of justice:
1. Utilitarianism
2. Freedom-Based Approach
3. Teleological Thinking and the Good Life

Utilitarianism was devised by Jeremy Bentham and supported by John Stuart Mill. It attempts to quantify pleasure and pain and then maximize utility (or happiness) for the greatest number of people. The challenges with utilitarianism are that individuals appear to have less importance than the group as a whole and that it is not possible to objectively assign value to all aspects of the human existence.

The freedom-based approach discussed two specific philosophers: Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Kant was what is known today as libertarian. Kant's philosophy was about human freedom and having the right to do what we want with our possessions and ourselves, as long as we do not infringe on these same rights of others. Rawls was considered a liberal egalitarian and formulated the idea of a veil of ignorance where we make policies and distribute justice without considering our station in society. Since we would not have a bias from our life experience, then we should make decisions for equality because we may end up being a part of the minority.

Teleological thinking, conceived by Aristotle, proposes that we have to discuss what the nature of the good life is and establish the essential nature of what is being debated. It bestows honours and rewards those who have developed their moral virtue, so those looking to attain the good life must work to become virtuous. However, Aristotle also believed that some of this virtue was inherent, so it was important to cultivate the virtues that aligned with your natural talents to be able to be valued for them and receive recognition, if you so aspire to.

One of my favourite discussions, which was deliberated extensively, was the concept of affirmative action. This is when organizations (i.e. universities, boards, governments, etc.) admit or hire someone because they meet a specific demographic profile (almost always a minority). Some of the key discussion points were about how doing so maximized utility because more people of the same demographic would likely benefit from seeing that person in the role, that if we were to make decisions about who to select under the veil of ignorance, we would want people who may face discrimination to have the opportunity (because it could be us) and that the person was being selected because they possessed specific virtues (used to describe an attribute) that were desired by the organization at that point in time.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an introduction on moral theories or who is looking to refresh their previous knowledge. There was great discussion on a number of controversial issues that crop up on a regular basis, including abortion, same-sex marriage and the free market, so even if moral philosophies are not of interest to you, it may open your mind to differing viewpoints on some of today's popular topics.

See something that needs to be corrected? Have a comment? Get in touch with me at laurensocha(at)outlook(dot)com.