Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Sandel)

I’ve always been curious about this book and its author, and it just seemed right to buy it on while I was on his campus (Harvard) recently. Though the mental muscles I developed in college in order to read philosophy have atrophied quite a bit, I was still able to keep up with much of this and managed to squelch an impulse to go buy some Kant.

Sandel is an amazingly careful thinker and writer (and, I suspect, teacher). For the most part, he moves fluidly between the abstract and concrete (sometimes serious, sometimes silly) in order to explore notions of justice. I admit, I got a little lost in the discussions about John Rawls, but that may be because I’d never heard of him prior to this.

It took a while, but eventually, I had to get out my pencil and start arguing with and annotating the text. I even sent Sandel an email. (I’ll add it to this post if he replies; apparently, he’s on sabbatical.) All that’s to say that I was definitely engaged and will find to use some of this book in the class. The examples about the Bulger Brothers and the Unabomber and his brother (and the notion of loyalty) seem to be a perfect connection with “Antigone.”

A few favorite moments:

“A more robust engagement with our moral disagreements could provide a stronger, not a weaker, basis for mutual respect” (268).


“[I]nequality can be corrosive to civic virtue” (267).


“Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires” (266).


“[W]e need a public debate about the moral limits of markets” (265).


Sandel quotes from RFK (262-263):

[T]he Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.


What if he hadn’t been shot?

Sandel made me think in new ways about old topics, like abortion. It’s not that he swayed me to change my mind, only that he prompted me how to make my arguments better. He made me re-think the role of religion in public life. He made me curious about the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.

More Sandel –

“Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread” (243).

“To have character is to live in recognition of one’s (sometime conflicting) encumbrances” (237).

“A politics of moral engagement is not only a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. It is also a more promising basis for a just society” (269).


Challenging and inspiring.


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