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4.0 out of 5 stars Blind Justice? - an eye-opening discussion, October 7, 2009
This review is from: Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Audio CD)
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Michael Sandel's discussion of Justice begins and ends with what he believes are the three main views on what Justice is or rather what it should promote: the maximum good to the largest possible number of people, individual freedom or encourage the collective virtues and the development of harmonious and enlightened communities (who wouldn't?)?.

Sandel's discussion, based on a popular course he teaches at Harvard, mixes a pretty good dose of 'history of political philosophy' with an interesting selection of hypothetical and real life 'cases', meant to stimulate thinking and understanding of the difficulties one faces when one's mission is to distribute 'justice'.

Is affirmative action justified as a criterion for college admission? Are the handicapped entitled to jobs their handicaps prevent them from performing well? Are abortions 'murder' or an expression of free choice? Should the State get out of the 'marriage' business altogether? Is it okay to kill and eat a sick boy about to die anyway if that would save the lives of three men? These are some of the dilemmas Sandel presents his students. And, for context - or is this the true purpose of the course? - he presents a summary of what he considers to be some of the more prominent thinking on the matters of morality and justice: the Utilitarians, Kant, Aristotle, John Rawls.

The journey ends with an attempt to answer the initial question: what is Justice for? And, now, that we better understand the main arguments and their proponents and we saw how they applied in 'real life', Sandel is ready to reveal his preference. He rejects Justice as a means to maximize the collective welfare because there's no way to accurately measure happiness and because not everything that gives us pleasure is worth pursuing or even 'good'. He dismisses the libertarian view of Justice as defender of our freedoms and individual rights because we are a society, not isolated individuals and because there are moral standards that are imposed by society on us. He supports a Justice that promotes a community where Virtue is celebrated, where civilized debate is possible, where good people and good deeds are recognized, and honor rewarded. Who wouldn't?

I found the history part of the course to be the most interesting. The author's deep understanding of the philosophers and thinkers he covers gives him the ability to present them to the students in a manner that's succinct and interesting without missing the essence. His presentation of Kant and Aristotle are among the best 'introductions' I've heard or read anywhere. While I respect the author's choice of what to cover and what not to, I feel that there were too many missing views if this was meant to be a brief history of moral thinking and political philosophy. There was nothing on the revolutionary, especially Marxist notions of class struggle and the class nature of morality. Nothing or very little on Religion and its views on morality and its role in enforcing it and dispensing Justice. Nothing on anything or anyone outside of what we usually call 'the Western world'. Were/are there any moral thinkers or political philosophers in China? India? I can think of a few. Nothing on nationalism, feminism or ethnocentrism and the way they view Justice.

The cases presented were by and large interesting even though, most of them being recent 'real-life' issues decided and settled by the courts or legislatures, the outcome was not a surprise and some of the arguments should be familiar. Almost with no exception, Sandel appears to be supporting the establishment's view, agreeing with the way all settled cases were settled and disagreeing with those who opposed the settlement and staying neutral and presenting 'both sides' on some issues not yet settled - abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research.

The course ends with the author's expressing a preference for a view of Justice as promoter and perhaps enforcer of the good, virtuous and communal life where the rich are happily sharing their bounty with the less fortunate who, far from resenting them, stay engaged in a civil, open and never-violent debate and dialogue on the good life and how to make it even better. If it sounds as an over-simplification it's probably because it is. We receive very few hints on how we can move from our current litigious, ethnocentric, highly income-polarized, over-materialistic, voluntarily segregated society to the ideal Polis that Plato, Aristotle and, with some adjustments, Sandel dream of.

I found this lecture worth listening to. Since this is only an abbreviation of the original book, it's possible that some of the aspects I found lacking in the audio version may not be so in the book but I am only reviewing the audio. I secretly wished that the professor jumped a little farther out of the academic and establishment-based thinking box and made the discussion a lot more challenging but it's possible that he decided to stay non-controversial, this being only an introductory course. My reservations notwithstanding, I would recommend this 5-CD audio book to anyone who has a few hours available for a little bit of intellectual workout. It's guaranteed not to hurt and it may help here and there.
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Initial post: Oct 24, 2011 5:00:06 AM PDT
any man who selects the good must sacrifice the best.

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