By Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, N.Y. 308 pages, $25.00
Harvard students crowd the auditorium where Professor Michael J. Sandel delivers his lectures on political philosophy. Small wonder, then, that his latest book, a treatise on public morality, has made best-seller lists. Its subject matter, presented with depth of thought and clarity of expression, gives “Justice” a special appeal for lawyers.
It takes but a page or two for the book to clarify a title that may mislead prospective readers. The author deals with justice not in its jurisprudential sense but in the sense of a just society, which he calls “the good life.”
Most of us, lawyers included, feel no discomfort in reaching positions on public issues in relatively casual fashion, sometimes on little more than instinct or hunch. This book shows that the process can be and should be a more complex one. It may not change the habits of every reader, but it can be counted on to raise the discomfort level for many.
To set the terms of his thesis, Sandel lists three possible approaches to the good life. First comes welfare, by which he means the maximization of good for the greatest number of people. Second he lists freedom, that is, securing the greatest possible liberty for the individual. His third possible approach he calls virtue, that is, behavior following moral principles guided by humanitarian concern for the happiness and well-being of fellow mortals. Not until the end of the book does he reveal which of the three he favors, but his preference has by then become evident.
To explain these three approaches, Sandel sets forth in detail the philosophical basis for each. For the first of the three choices, he goes into the thinking of the British utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. As for freedom, the second choice, he summarizes the views of today’s libertarians, whose spokesperson he might have identified as Ayn Rand. Turning to the third possibility, Sandel sets forth the theories of Immanuel Kant and the 20th-century American philosopher John Rawls.
Taking it from there, the author brings out developments in the three outlooks that have taken place with the passage of time. He also goes back, again in detail, to the teleological theorizing of Aristotle. As he proceeds, he helps the reader grasp concepts often abstruse by applying them to real-life contemporary political and social problems. They include abortion, affirmative action in college admissions, same-sex marriage, price gouging in times of natural disaster, immigration, waging war with a volunteer rather than a conscripted army, assisted suicide and others. No reader can complain that Sandel deals solely in abstractions.
In the course of all this, the book upsets some intellectual and political apple carts. Take, for example, what the author calls “meritocracy.” Conventional wisdom holds that those who achieve success through their own ability, effort and dedication deserve the economic and other rewards that result. Yet, Sandel suggests, the qualities thus prized come to a considerable extent from factors such as family background and educational opportunity for which the successful person cannot justly claim credit. Quoting Rawls, he asks whether rewarding those qualities is not just as unfair as rewarding persons on the basis of race, nobility of birth or other arbitrary standards.
The book’s principal conclusion is that divorcing politics from religious and moral considerations, the prevailing practice today, does more harm than good. One cannot, for example, his argument goes, sensibly debate the issue of abortion without expressing the acceptance or rejection of the religious position that human life begins at conception. Failure to articulate such aspects of public questions, he contends, often “means suppressing moral disagreement rather than actually avoiding it.”
One socioeconomic problem concerns the author with special gravity. He cites more than once the increasing disparity between the wealth of those at the upper and lower rungs of the American economic ladder. “Too great a gap between rich and poor,” he maintains, “undermines the solidarity that democratic society requires.” He specifies the evils that he sees as resulting from the problem. As a remedy, he recommends more than the redistribution of income. Quoting at one point from a 1968 speech of Robert F. Kennedy, he suggests a reordering of the framework of political debate so as to bring into play elements other than the economic.
Not every reader will agree with this or with all of the other points that Professor Sandel makes. Yet few will disagree that they deserve public attention. Alas, the success of the book in sales does not assure the introduction of its ideas into the political forum, where this reviewer believes they belong.
Walter Barthold has retired from the Practice of law in New York City.