Justice: What’s the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel, in his Harvard lecture series on Justice, and in the book that goes by the same name, discusses what the right thing to do is, with the help of Rawls, Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and others. He does it with the responsibility of a lecturer who understands that his readers/students are not philosophy majors, sociologists or readers of Prince, or On Liberty. There is no name dropping that you wouldn’t follow, if you’ve read the book in sequence. And there’s a seamless flow to the lectures.

Be it questions on abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, tax, civil rights, human rights, Michael Sandel has you peeling these questions to get to their core, and then he makes you fold them back, so that you can analyse it with new perspectives. A common theme running through the lectures is the juxtaposition of pressing issues, compelling reasoning, and critical thinking. It enriches the once humdrum issues, or the once evocative issues; they become more nuanced.

Does something have to be fair to be right? Sandel gives you scenarios, and also gives you values by which to analyse them. Take, for instance, the question of refinancing banks for bad loans. Is it right to use tax payers’ money to undo the (apparent) wrongs of bankers who didn’t do their job (apparently)? There’s no single answer to this question, as there are multiple and complex factors associated with it. The concept of black and white greys.

By the end of the book (or the lectures, if you choose to watch instead of read), you will be overwhelmed by his concluding remarks (and also slightly worried that it’s getting over, after having unloaded heavy moral and ethical questions on your shoulders). It’s not a book that you can read just once, and it’s not a light read even though it might seem that way (it’s written in a simple and appealing style). You can finish it at one go, but that would be such a loss.

I thrive on books that alter my world view. They tend to subtly change yours truly, for the better, I hope. Word of caution: It’s the kind of change that alienates you, too.

Throughout the book, I realised, he had not said a word about what the right thing to do is. But, like me, even you’d know. What’s right to me, though, may not be right to you. That’s the beauty of the book, it’s open to interpretation. And it opens up your mind, to ideas that you may not have considered before. This, I admit, has left me feeling alienated from the usual discourses that are characterised by people being outraged, offended, vengeful and what not. Principles, morals, values, are words that are usually thrown lightly (or/and noisily), without due regard. Not any more, not after you read this book.


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