Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: Justice--What's the Right Thing to Do?


Title: Justice--What's the Right Thing to Do?
Author: Michael J. Sandel
ISBN: 9780374180652
Genre: Non-Fiction/ Legal

On the theme of building understanding of each other, I would like to recommend this new book, written by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel.

While acknowledging that for most of us, our conceptions of justice are more complicated than this, Sandel contrasts three conflicting views of justice. There are emphases on: maximizing welfare of all, maximizing freedom of all, and promoting virtue. Major political and social movements tend to emphasize one of these more than the others.

Using this framework Sandel discusses questions such as Who Deserves What? or What Do We Owe One Another?

Throughout the book Sandel uses a mix of idealized, hypothetical cases and real-life examples to illustrate the arguments of each position. For example, on the question of pay equity, he describes how there is a eminent judge in this country whose salary is $220,000 per year. Another judge gets paid $25 million a year.

You might have guessed that the first judge is Chief Justice John Roberts of the US Supreme Court and the second is Judge Judy. Sandel uses the example to discuss whether this is fair--or just--according to the three main perspectives mentioned above.

I find Sandel's illustrations involving current news stories to be the most intriguing. For example, he claims that public outrage over the unfairness of salary bonuses given to executives in companies receiving government bailout money also raises the question of what is fair in good times. He notes that a number of executives tried to claim that they did the best they could in a bad situation and were not fully responsible for the failure of their companies.

However, Sandel notes that this argument would then apply equally well during prosperous times, implying executives should accept that they were just as over-paid then because they could not be fully responsible for their success if they weren't responsible for their failure.

The main point of the book is to get readers to think and to understand the positions of people who disagree with them.

His popular course has been turned into a 12-part Public Television series, available on DVD. There is also a website accompanying the book and the television series available here http://www.justiceharvard.org/.

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