Justice by Michael Sandel

I saw this book on my friend’s blog and realized it was also a Harvard class. Had I cross-registered, I probably would have seriously considered it. Or maybe that’s only in hindsight. Fairness and ethics didn’t occupy much of my mindshare during college, but more and more I’m learning that life is just the result of countless decisions and policies that all inherently screw over subsets of people. While some of these may have malicious intent, I really believe that by and large there are no right answers – because there is no common definition of “right”. This book talks about the different ways we can go about defining what’s right.

1) In 2009, Pentagon announced that the Purple Heart would only be awarded to soldiers with physical injuries, ruling out PTSD.

This is a great example of how hard it is to be “fair.” Where do you draw the line? What’s considered fair?

2) Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, proposed the idea of the Panopticon – a prison with a central tower where guards can watch over all prisoners without the latter knowing whether they were being watched at any time.

Bentham also suggested that the negative utility of encountering beggars on the street meant that beggars should be brought to workhouses. The author also points out other failures of utilitarianism, such as big tobacco claiming that they are a net gain due to all the taxes they pay. There’s an interesting parallel to the current debates about how Facebook has been a net positive to society despite all the recent scandals.

3) During the oil crisis in 1974, Congress set a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour.

Later on, once the speed limit was lifted, through math magic (faster speed -> time saved -> economic benefit -> tradeoff with # of additional deaths), economists calculated the value of a human life to be $1.54 million. TBT to when there was a chance I’d be an actuary.

4) John Stuart Mill had his own flavor of utilitarianism, which distinguished different levels of pleasures and asserted that we should seek to maximize pleasure.

This form of utilitarianism seems less pure than Bentham’s, but apparently it was on the right side of history, since I’d only ever heard of John Stuart Mill before.

5) The “Cannibal of Rotenburg” ate people who volunteered.

If we valued self-will, is this wrong?

6) The Civil War used a system where those drafted could pay to have other people take their place. This is effectively the same as the volunteer army we have today, where the soldiers are being paid (by taxpayers).

This section comparing different forms of drafts was very interesting. The author lays out the pros and cons of each and points out e.g. that volunteers aren’t really volunteers. It’s a market, and people with less means have fewer alternatives. So is it really fair? Also, should we consider serving a civic duty? If we used a market solution, then why can’t we hire foreigners or private companies? Apparently in 2007, there were more private contractors than U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

7) Kant stressed that we do things as an end in themselves.

It’s a bit hard to describe, but for example, helping others out of compassion is the wrong reason to help others. Helping others is a moral duty and has intrinsic moral value. Also, humanity is an end in itself, so both suicide and murder are wrong.

8) Rawls talked about the societal policies that people would choose behind a veil of ignorance – if no one knew what their place in society would be.

He argues that people would choose a society that tends to redistribute wealth and to enact policies that must somehow benefit the least well off.

9) Aristotle believed that justice is teleological (based on the telos/purpose of the social practice) and honorific (based on the virtues it should honor or award).

It differs from utilitarianism because it focuses instead on the concept of good. It’s also different from Kant/Rawls’ theories that stress intrinsic rights.

10) Justice does not operate at the individual level – every life is in the context of other lives.

This is the author’s final argument, and he cites examples like whether or not modern day Americans need to apologize for slavery, or modern day Germans for the Holocaust. Ultimately, the author says that the only path to justice is to talk and debate publicly.

After reading the book, I watched the first lecture of this class online. It’s laid out almost exactly the same as the first chapter, where the professor asks a series of “would you do a or b given situation x” questions. It looked like a fun class. Sometimes I wish my classes had been like that. The thing about science, or at least college-level science, is that there is nothing to debate.



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