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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?
Justice: What's the Right Thing...

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?


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Review by John on 14th May, 2011
5 stars "A book relating political philosophy to modern problems"

The Washington Post describes Sandler as “probably the most prominent college professor in America”. He has certainly written a brilliant book that relates various political theories , from Aristotle to John Rawls, to some of the big problems of our times. It is generally very readable and brought alive, from page 1, by excellent practical examples. At the same time it gives valuable insights into current American political thinking, from the Libertarianism of the Right to the more central Utilitarianism, with an especially useful chapter on Morals and Markets. Not being a philosopher, I found the chapters on Aristotle and Kant rather heavy going, but they were the exception.
A “must read” for anyone interested in the American political jungle.
I hear that it is one of the two books most down-loaded by Chinese university undergraduates.



Release date Australia
June 27th, 2014
Country of Publication
United States
Farrar Straus Giroux
Dimensions (mm)
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“For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport,” The Nation’s reviewer of Justice remarked. In his acclaimed book—based on his legendary Harvard course—Sandel offers a rare education in thinking through the complicated issues and controversies we face in public life today. It has emerged as a most lucid and engaging guide for those who yearn for a more robust and thoughtful public discourse. “In terms we can all understand,” wrote Jonathan Rauch in The New York Times, Justice “confronts us with the concepts that lurk . . . beneath our conflicts.”

Affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service, the moral limits of markets—Sandel relates the big questions of political philosophy to the most vexing issues of the day, and shows how a surer grasp of philosophy can help us make sense of politics, morality, and our own convictions as well.

is lively, thought-provoking, and wise—an essential new addition to the small shelf of books that speak convincingly to the hard questions of our civic life.

About the Author

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1980, and the author of many books. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Praise for the book

“Reading Justice by Michael Sandel is an intoxicating invitation to take apart and examine how we arrive at our notions of right and wrong . . . Crisply written . . . A sly current of wit animates his new book and helps pry open our habitual ways of ordering the universe. Sandel plucks insights from the fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut, and from a 13-year-old’s decision to disqualify himself at a national spelling bee. Then, with gusto and exactitude, Sandel plunks the grid of Western political philosophy atop knotty contemporary issues. He takes up affirmative action, say, or a town in India that, in 2002, began advertising surrogacy for sale to infertile Western women—and lets the reader think afresh about the rights and obligations we incure . . . This is enlivening stuff. Sandel is not looking to win an argument, he's looking at how a citizen might best engage the public realm . . . Justice invites readers toward a more capacious mind.”—Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"[Justice] is easily the most accessible primer on the topic now available. But Sandel aspires to do more than merely vulgarize the available positions in political theory and explore them through contemporary examples: he is calling, as he long has, for nothing less than a reinvigoration of citizenship . . . Sandel's book is organized as an excursion through three main theories of justice—one based on welfare, one on freedom and one on virtue—and like the best teachers, Sandel gives each theory its due."—Samuel Moyn, The Nation

"This book is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wants to be a good citizen. It shows how to balance competing values, a talent our nation desperately needs nowadays."—Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

“Michael J. Sandel is one of this generation’s most important philosophers because he combines a relentlessly inquiring spirit with a profound commitment to the idea of a common good. Justice is Sandel at his finest: no matter what your views are, his delightful style will draw you in, and he’ll then force you to rethink your assumptions and challenge you to question accepted ways of thinking. But Sandel does not leave you marooned on an island of skepticism. He calls us to a better way of doing politics, and a more enriching way of living our lives.”—E. J. Dionne, Jr., author of Why Americans Hate Politics

“Michael J. Sandel, political philosopher and public intellectual, is a liberal, but not the annoying sort. His aim is not to boss people around but to bring them around to the pleasures of thinking clearly about large questions of social policy. Reading this lucid book is like taking his famous undergraduate course ‘Justice’ without the tiresome parts, such as term papers and exams.”—George F. Will

"For nearly 30 years, Harvard professor Michael Sandel has taught a course entitled 'Moral Reasoning 22,' nicknamed 'Justice,' to a packed auditorium of more than 1,000 undergraduates. This stimulating volume, prepared in conjunction with a PBS series airing this fall and available online succeeds admirably in translating to a wider audience the challenging moral dilemmas he and his students confront and will help thoughtful readers focus their thinking about what a just society might look like while sharpening the vocabulary they call upon to express their views. At its heart, Sandel's book offers a broad and, for the most part, readily comprehensible survey of some of the major theories of justice. He rejects the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and its grounding of morality in the attempt to maximize the overall balance of pleasure over pain and is equally critical of the unbridled free market ideology of libertarianism. While more sympathetic to what he calls the 'liberal neutrality' of Immanuel Kant and his modern counterpart John Rawls, he likewise finds their ideas wanting. But Sandel is more than a tepid repackager of received philosophical wisdom. He subjects each of these theories to a probing critique and is a witty and graceful writer who understands he's addressing the intelligent general reader, not an academic audience. And it's that understanding that gives Justice its real zest. Sandel has richly seasoned his analysis with crisp treatments of an impressive array of contemporary social and political controversies: the familiar (abortion, stem cell research and the debate over same-sex marriage) and the obscure but no less thorny (whether a disabled professional golfer should be permitted to ride a cart or whether it would be appropriate to auction college admissions). In each instance he gently challenges us to question our conventional ways of thinking, relying on real (if occasionally bizarre) examples to push competing philosophical positions to their limits: If surrogate motherhood is O.K., why can't we simply buy babies? Is there a moral basis for limiting immigration or for laws that require government to 'Buy American?' Is consensual cannibalism acceptable? For Sandel, 'a politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life.' Instead, he advocates what he calls 'a new politics of common good,' one that 'takes moral and spiritual questions seriously, but brings them to bear on broad economic and civic concerns, not only on sex and abortion.' It's impossible to come away from this thoughtful book without feeling invigorated by the possibility of realizing that exalted vision, if only slightly daunted as to how it might be achieved."—Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness

"A Harvard law professor explores the meaning of justice and invites readers on a journey of moral and political reflection, 'to figure out what they think, and why.' Does a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder 'deserve' the Purple Heart? Should the U.S. government formally apologize and make reparations for slavery? Is it wrong to lie to a murderer? Following the taxpayer bailout of the company, are executives at insurance giant A.I.G. still entitled to their bonuses? Should a professional golfer afflicted with a severe circulatory condition be allowed to use a golf cart during tournaments? Are you obliged to surrender your criminal brother to the FBI? Although Sandel concedes that answering the many questions he poses, bound up 'with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition,' is never easy and inevitably contentious, it's necessary for a healthy democracy. 'Justice,' he writes, 'is inescapably judgmental.' Using three approaches to justice—maximizing welfare, respecting freedom and promoting virtue—the author asks readers to ponder the meaning of the good life, the purpose of politics, how laws should be constructed and how society should be organized. Using a compelling, entertaining mix of hypotheticals, news stories, episodes from history, pop-culture tidbits, literary examples, legal cases and teachings from the great philosophers—principally, Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill and Rawls—Sandel takes on a variety of controversial issues—abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action—and forces us to confront our own assumptions, biases and lazy thought. The author has a talent for making the difficult—Kant's 'categorical imperative' or Rawls's 'difference principle'—readily comprehensible, and his relentless, though never oppressive, reason shines throughout the narrative. Sparkling commentary from the professor we all wish we had."—Kirkus Review

"Harvard government professor Sandel dazzles in this sweeping survey of hot topics—the recent government bailouts, the draft, surrogate pregnancies, same-sex marriage, immigration reform and reparations for slavery—that situates various sides in the debates in the context of timeless philosophical questions and movements. Sandel takes utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative and Rawls's theory of justice out of the classroom, dusts them off and reveals how crucial these theories have been in the construction of Western societies—and how they inform almost every issue at the center of our modern-day polis. The content is dense but elegantly presented, and Sandel has a rare gift for making complex issues comprehensible, even entertaining (see his sections entitled 'Shakespeare versus the Simpsons' and 'What Ethics Can Learn from Jack Benny and Miss Manners'), without compromising their gravity. With exegeses of Winnie the Pooh, transcripts of Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing and the works of almost every major political philosopher, Sandel reveals how even our most knee-jerk responses bespeak our personal conceptions of the rights and obligations of the individual and society at large. Erudite, conversational and deeply humane, this is truly transformative reading."—Publishers Weekly

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