Book Review: ‘Justice’ by Michael J Sandel

July 30, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do by Michael J Sandel is not the type of book I would usually pick up in a book store, but I did one day after seeing it being displayed prominently at Taipei’s 24 hour Eslite book store, possibly the greatest creation of human ingenuity behind the air conditioner and the afternoon nap.

I started reading it in the store and could not put it down, and eventually I decided to acquire an e-book version, which I devoured in a few days to my own surprise. It’s not often that I find a non-fiction book that discusses concepts rather than people (biographies) and stories (true crime) so engrossing and thought-provoking, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has ever given thought to the seemingly limitless moral quandaries every aspect of society, big or small, has faced throughout history and continues to face every day.

Author Michael J Sandel is a professor at Harvard University who has taught a course on “Justice” for more than two decades. Justice is essentially that course in book form. Don’t be dismayed, because Justice does not at all read like the work of a snobby academic. In fact, I am still in awe of how Sandel has taken all these difficult concepts and philosophies and distilled them all down into articulate, engrossing prose that is about as easy to understand as you could ever hope it to be. Rather than reading a textbook, it feels more like reading the transcript of the most interesting lecture given by the most charismatic lecturer you’ve ever had. In some ways, Justice reminded me a little of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in that the author was able to make a seemingly dry subject fascinating — and once you read it you realise it’s not a dry subject at all.

As the title of the book suggests, Justice explores the meaning of “justice” by asking us “what is the right thing to do?” in various morally complex situations, then taking the reader through the reasoning behind each of the possibilities and the pros and cons of each scenario. Of course, the questions and scenarios are not just based on ideas that Sandel has made up himself — the book is also an in-depth exploration of basic philosophical theories from utilitarianism and libertarianism to the theories of great thinkers like Kant, Rawls and even Aristotle. I had encountered most of these theories at one point or another (most likely during advanced economics classes) but I had always considered them boring — until now.

There are two aspects to the book that make it such a page turner. The first is the hypothetical questions Sandel asks his readers. For example, and I am really simplifying here, is it wrong to push a man to his certain death if it means saving the innocent lives of others? Is it OK to torture someone in a ticking time bomb situation? Should we pay taxes? Are free markets fair?  Should all contracts be binding? These are just some crude examples off the top of my head, but Sandel usually asks not just one question, but several layers of questions to see if your answers would alter with subtle to significant variations in the circumstances.

The other part I love about the book are the real life examples Sandel uses to illustrate his points. Why use a hypothetical example when there are real ones? There’s the 1884 incident when stranded sailors were forced to kill and eat the weakest survivor to survive. There’s the Stern surrogacy case from 1985, when a woman refused to hand over a baby she contracted to carry to term for a couple in return for payment. There’s the Cheryl Hopwood case, when a white woman sued after losing out to inferior candidates for admission to the University of Texas Law School because of affirmative action policies that favoured African Americans and Mexican Americans. And striking close to home was the refusal of former Australian prime minister John Howard’s refusal to apologise for the Stolen Generation, on the basis that future generations should not have to apologise for past wrongs committed by their ancestors.  These are just some of the many examples that Sandel draws upon to get us to think about our own concepts of morality and justice.

You have probably gathered by now that I had a great time with this book. If only all the classes I took throughout school and university could have been this engaging and thought-provoking. Granted, some sections could prove challenging or even frustrating for some readers — as they do, after all, deal with some complex ideas — but it’s almost impossible to stop turning the pages as soon as you dive into this book. Do it!