Justice: What's the Right Thing to DO?

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a philosophical book written by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. This analytical book challenges every person in terms of their personal ideals of morals, justice, and freedom. It goes into depth about justice theories like utilitarianism vs libertarianism vs kantian. It gives cases involving affirmative action, birth contracts, and the free market. Sandel deciphers theories about justice and morals, while also challenging the thinking behind them. The author, Michael J. Sandel, is a professor at Harvard who teaches the courses “Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature,” “Ethics, Economics, and Law,” and “Globalization and Its Critics.” He has written many books that also delve into philosophy, morality, and politics. He was recognized as an excellent teacher by American Political Science Association. His most popular undergraduate class is Justice, which has enrolled over 15,000 students. He is known globally as an influential leader in morality and justice. The book Justice is partially based off his teachings, lectures, and students in his class.

The format of the book is quite unique. Sandel will explain a theory and mention the opposing theories. After explaining the theory and ideas behind it, he applies them to the real world using either hypothetical scenarios or past events. This novel does not have a concrete plot, however each theory builds upon previous theories and conceptions throughout the book. Sandel has a very formal style of writing. It’s not casual and the book demands your attention. This book is jam-packed with ideologies, and is very dense. Even though the book is dense, requires concentration, and an open mind, you can put down the book (although you won’t want to) and pick it up wherever you left off due to the excellence of Sandel’s explanations.

Sandel really shines when it comes to the relevance of this book. Throughout the book he constantly questions how every person acts with guidance from morality or lack of. This book is a great tool for creating quality citizens, who in turn, could create a quality society. The reappearing motif in this book is the question (as said in the title) “What is the right thing to do?” Sandel continuously clarifies, reviews, and applies many theories of what’s just and what’s morally right in his book. One of the reasons why this book is incredibly thought-provoking is that Sandel never tells you what the right thing is. He gives different sides of the stories and backs them up, with added input from philosophers, but never gives a definite answer. One example Sandel gives is of a “debate over surrogate motherhood.” This case involved a woman, in New Jersey, who was paid to carry a couple’s child. The baby’s father was the man in the couple. The surrogate mother agreed to give over the baby at birth without visitation rights. However, when the birth of the baby came, the surrogate mother could not part with the child and fled to Florida. She was later brought back to New Jersey. The couple took the surrogate mother to court, and the judge ruled that the baby was to be in full custody of the couple because of the surrogate mother’s consent and contract. However the course was then taken to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, and they again ruled that the baby belonged with the couple, but for different reasons. This court said that the reason custody belonged to the couple was because of what was best for the child. They also argued that the surrogate mother was not knowledgeable about how she would feel after the baby was born, therefore making the contract was not an “informed choice.” He then challenges the reader and asks who was right? This book really makes the reader question what they believe in and how they decide what is right.

Another repeating theme is the ongoing battle of group vs. individual rights. One way Sandel demonstrates this debate is through utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is based on the belief that people seek pleasure, and aim to avoid pain. The main principle is utility. Therefore when practicing utility, one must focus on maximizing the pleasure of the majority. Sandel explains that this method is used often in politics. As in ‘What will help the most people?’ Sandel explains that the biggest weakness of utilitarianism is that “it fails to respect individual rights.” He offers an example of the weakness through “Throwing Christians to Lions.” Sandel says how “In ancient Rome, they threw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum for the amusement of the crowd.” He then goes on to explain the utilitarian rationale, “Yes, the Christian suffers excruciating pain as the lion mails and devours him. But think of the collective ecstasy of the cheering spectators packing the Coliseum. If enough Romans derive enough pleasure from the violent spectacle, are there any grounds on which a utilitarian can condemn it? (Sandel also justified the utilitarian belief later on)”

In Justice, Sandel encourages the reader to learn about all ideas of justice to form their own idea of the ‘ideal’ justice, and to then practice and apply to one’s daily life. As a reader you’re under the impression that Sandel has given you an encyclopedia on morality and justice, and it’s your job to envision your own theory. Once you’ve found the right blend of principles, practice using this combination in your daily life. Everyday people are faced with ethical obstacles, and as virtuous people, it is our duty to navigate them as best as we can. After reading Justice you will not only feel well versed in various theories, but you will be able to determine yourself what the right thing to do is.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Michael J. Sandel

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux


269 pages


Creative piece:

I based my creative piece off of John Rawls' theory of "The Veil of Ignorance." His theory is that people cannot choose just principles of society unless every person is equal. In order to make everyone equal people should imagine the hypothetical scenario of "The Veil of Ignorance." "The Veil of Ignorance" would be so that people would not know any information about their religion, health, social status, etc. Therefore no one would be picking principles of justice from a biased standpoint, in turn making society 'just.' This model demonstrates this idea by showing a person who is very biased and what they favor in society vs. a person behind "The Veil of Ignorance" and what they favor. In Rawls' theory, the people who 'look' from behind "The Veil of Ignorance" will pick the 'right' principles.


Comments (3)

Lauren Hummel (Student 2016)
Lauren Hummel

You did a great job analyzing the authors writing and explaining what you thought of the book with excellent descriptions. I also think that your creative portion is well executed and represent the idea that you wanted it to really well. :)