Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Morality and Justice

What is justice? This is a central question in Plato’s Republic, the famous philosophical dialogue where Socrates describes the cave allegory, the Theory of Forms, and his vision for utopia—in Plato’s view the only place where justice can exist. Plato’s Republic involves a class system, a grand lie to maintain the class system, philosophers as kings, equality for women, rigorous education, radical censorship (no plays, no Homer), free sexual relations, and an abolishment of the family. This was Plato’s ideal and just society. In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Michael Sandel, the popular Harvard professor whose classes can be found on DVD and Youtube, doesn’t mention Plato or Socrates but instead turns mostly to 18th, 19th and 20th century philosophers to explore justice. After laying out the ethical divide between utilitarianism, libertarianism, and egalitarianism, Sandel ultimately argues that liberals made a mistake in leaving moral questions out of the political debate and that we should return to a kind of Aristotelian notion of virtue and morality when we or our political leaders make decisions. But what’s most interesting about the book is the wealth of fascinating thought experiments and controversial current events Sandel uses to illustrate the differences between the ethical philosophies and bolster his argument.

One of the most interesting hypotheticals is one that I have heard before. You are at the controls of a train screaming down the tracks, a train with no brakes. Down the line five rail employees busily work on the track. The train will surely kill them shortly, and you have no way to warn them. You notice an alternate track to which you can divert the train, only one man works on that line. You must choose. Will you flip the switch and move to the other track? Will you spare the five and kill the one? Most people would.

Sandel also explains a variation to the train thought experiment. Now you stand on a bridge watching the train barreling toward the five men. Next to you a very fat man leans over railing of the the bridge to watch the train. You realize that you could easily push the man and kill him and his death would spare the five. Will you kill the one and spare the five? Most people wouldn’t. There is something not quite right about our act of pushing, but a justification could be made all the same.

But Sandel takes these interesting experiments beyond the hypothetical. He also explores price gouging after a hurricane in Florida, affirmative action, abortion, and two actual cases of cannibalism. He asks whether maximum collective happiness (utilitarianism), letting the market rule freely (libertarianism), or equal rights for all (egalitarianism) is best in these different situations. Sandel doesn’t ever give his opinion about specific cases (at least initially); instead, he presents the arguments from different points of view, ultimately showing the faults with the three ethical philosophies. And then he presents his solution.  

The section on Kant is the most difficult, but aside from Kant the book is quite readable and engaging. It’s a book I hope our political leaders read and one that everyone could benefit from. We all need to think rationally about justice and morality.

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