Justice | Michael J. Sandel

Summary of: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
By: Michael J. Sandel


Are you grappling with questions about what’s just and unjust in our modern world? Dive into the book summary of ‘Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?’ by Michael J. Sandel and explore the wisdom of philosophers like Kant, Aristotle, and John Rawls. This summary will guide you through different theories of justice, such as Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, and Kant’s categorical imperative, and highlight their practical implications on issues like progressive taxes, same-sex marriage, and moral actions. The journey through these rich philosophies will help you sharpen your sense of justice and reevaluate your position on various dilemmas.

The Practical Application of Justice

Justice is a difficult concept to define, but by examining various theories throughout history, we can gain a better understanding of what it means. The great philosophers of the past, such as Kant, Aristotle, and John Rawls, have valuable insights into practical problems we face today, such as progressive taxes and same-sex marriage. By considering their different viewpoints, we can challenge our own beliefs, approach problems in new ways, and ultimately develop our own ideas of justice. By asking the right questions and comparing possible answers, we can sharpen our sense of justice and see complex issues in a new light.

The Philosophy of Utilitarianism

The idea that the ultimate goal of human actions is to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, to benefit the greatest number of people, is the foundation of Utilitarianism – a philosophy created by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Based on the belief that an action is morally right if it leads to happiness and wrong if it leads to pain and suffering, Utilitarianism has been praised for its elegant simplicity and pragmatic approach. However, its practicality has been questioned, especially when it comes to making decisions that affect a large group of people. Despite its limitations, Utilitarianism has contributed to shaping contemporary ethical and political discourse.

Libertarianism: The Philosophy of Freedom

Libertarianism is a philosophy that places freedom at the forefront of all other rights and obligations. Libertarians believe that justice is preserving people’s freedom and view laws that interfere with the free market as unjust. They speak out against taxes and public insurance but support same-sex marriage, abortion, and separation of church and state. Friedrich A. von Hayek and Milton Friedman are famous theorists of Libertarianism. According to Libertarianism, an individual is free to live and act according to their ideas as long as they don’t harm others. The philosophy gained popularity in the 1980s under laissez-faire policies of Reagan and Thatcher administrations.

Moral Worth and Just Actions

German philosopher Immanuel Kant posits that an action’s moral worth is determined by its motives, rather than its consequences. In his rejection of Utilitarianism, which focuses on calculating the right actions, Kant argues that a moral action cannot only be what’s useful or common, but must be made with the right intentions. Kant’s example of a grocer refraining from overcharging a child solely to avoid negative repercussions reveals that such an action lacks moral worth because it is driven by self-interest. Instead, a just and moral action is one done for the right reasons. A moral action values what is right over what is useful or profitable. Utilitarianism’s emphasis on the consequences of our actions leads individuals to prioritize their own gain over determining right from wrong. Ultimately, Kant’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the outcome, in order to make an action moral.

The Difference between Billiard Balls and Human Beings

According to Kant, while both humans and billiard balls obey the laws of nature, the former has the capacity to choose its own path and act on self-made principles. The famous categorical imperative, “act only in accordance with principles that you think should be universal laws,” is a moral test to guide human behavior. Making empty promises or taking loans that cannot be repaid, for instance, fail this test. Thus, it is our free will that separates us from billiard balls and allows us to take personal responsibility and act morally.

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