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Justice: What’s the right thing to do? By Michael J. Sandel’s - Critical Analysis

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Sandel, M. J. (2015). Justice: What’s the right thing to do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” second half follows the same formula as the first half.After exposing readers to three philosophies regarding the term justice, Sandel moves from introducing readers to the contemporary philosophies of Bentham, Nozick, and Kant to the ideals of John Rawls and Aristotle. In the last half of the book, Sandel explores the following ideas and asks questions about the moral limit of contracts, who deserves what, and what do we owe one another? Sandel builds off the rationals introduced such as utilitarianism and libertarianism. Although they don’t play a primary role. The method of analogy employed by Sandel is consistent throughout the publication. This is evident through the frequent use of real-life events that have occurred in the United States as well as current issues that provoke strong emotion such as the use of border patrols near the cities across the Rio Grande such as El Paso and towns in Arizona such as Tucson. Sandel also mentions abortion rights and whether or not individuals should be held accountable for the actions of their ancestors and or those of the same community who came before them. The purpose of this paper is to further review concepts introduced by Sandel and his contemporaries as well as evaluate its cultural significance and context. Sandel proves to be a very adept and successful writer when expressing his own opinions and offers a very convincing argument to follow through with his beliefs.

Background Information:

Once again, this specific publication by Professor Sandel is meant to serve as a source of supplemental instruction for his world famous “Justice” course at Harvard. Following the same procedure as the previous book review, the criteria for judging the latter half of this novel is based on the author’s intent, content, and how successfully he introduces new concepts as well as tie in current events with the newly introduced philosophies of John Rawls and Aristotle. Although the first half of the book introduced is of disputed nature, Sandel provides even more sensitive information to the readers.

Summary and Evaluation:

Sandel begins chapter six of the book, the case for equality by declaring most Americans never signed a social contract and proceeds to use this claim to introduce readers to the philosophical ideas of 19th century political philosopher John Rawls. While Sandel takes note of Kant’s appeals to hypothetical consent, Sandel asks, “How can a hypothetical agreement do the moral work of a real one?” (Justice p. 76) Sandel, interestingly makes the observation on how individuals in the United States are obligated to follow the law yet these naturalized citizens never explicitly give their consent to follow the law, the opposite is true if the citizen is naturalized In the beginning of the chapter, Sandel introduces Rawl’s idea of a social contract which is what Sandel defines as a conjured agreement in a unique stance of equality. What Rawls means by this is that we as individuals are not all motivated by self-interest in real life and that people are rational. From these two assumptions, Rawls concludes that a hypothetical contract would consist of two principles. The first principle is what is stated in the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment. For those who are a little rusty on their United States history, this basically is the idea of the minimum amount of basic liberties for all citizens detailed as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Rawls holds this ideal above the utilitarian philosophy of prioritizing social utility and the overall general welfare of the people. The second principle unique to Rawl’s philosophy is not the concept of an equal distribution of wealth but the permittance of those who of excess wealth to retain their wealth only if it works to the advantage of the least economically fortunate members of society. Sandel asks “How can principles of justice be derived from an agreement that never actually took place?” (Sandel p.77), although he does not divulge his opinions on the first three philosophical ideas introduced, he later reveals he sides with John Rawls and his beliefs. The most significant concept introduced in A Theory of Justice by Rawls and praised by Sandel is the idea of the way things are aren’t the way they should be. Sandel makes Rawls his clear favorite and later on introduces the flawed philosophies of Aristotle as a form of employing the attraction effect in order to make Rawls look even better.

In terms of how Sandel writes, his motives are made clear by the end of the novel as there is really no real way to proceed about Justice rather it is how we engage our peers in conversation when in conflict and debate. Additionally, to define how Sandel succeeds in making Rawls’ philosophy look so appealing is the use of the attraction effect. Often used as a ploy in marketing, Sandel reveals that he not only introduces the three former ideas to expose readers and open them to engage in the term justice but rather increase the attractiveness of picking Rawls’ philosophy. The attraction effect used in the novel essentially the attractiveness of Rawls’ ideas when compared to the cold calculating philosophy of utilitarianism, libertarianism without its bounds, and the rigid staunch moral stance of Immanuel Kant, and eventually the incorrect misguided ideas of Aristotle who believed some people were just meant to be slaves. Referring back to Rawls’ philosophy, Sandel offers numerous examples to further the claim that consent isn’t enough to create a morally binding obligation and proceeds to state that it many not even be a requirement of a fair and moral agreement. Like in the first half of the novel, Sandel provides many examples to demonstrate this fact. To illustrate that consent isn’t enough to create an obligation, he offers an anecdote of when his two sons were young, where the older son would take advantage of his younger brother by making deals where he was well off much to the lack of benefit to his brother. Sandel had to intervene illustrating voluntary exchanges may be unfair. Moreover demonstrating the lack of consent was Sandel’s other anecdote in which an automobile repair happened about Sandel when his car broke down and evoked the moral obligation of benefit without consent. Sandel’s anecdotes cause him to imagine the perfect contract where he comes to the conclusion that people are situated differently and this means that differences in bargaining power and knowledge are always possible.

Chapter seven deals with distribution justice, here Sandel provides examples that deal with this sort of justice such as racial preferences, affirmative action, and college admissions. The key takeaway from chapter six is that distributive justice is not a matter of rewarding moral desert. To be brief, Sandel evokes Kant and Rawls when describing these matters, their ideas that desirable ends must not override individual rights. From the examples Sandel introduces, he concludes that the mission defines the relevant merits and not the other way around. This way of thinking is similar to Rawl’s interpretation of justice in income distribution; once again it is not a matter of moral desert. In summary, these two chapters serve as a catalyst to end the publication and places Rawls’ philosophy in a position to outshine the rest of the other philosophies in the book.

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Chapter eight who deserves what opens with an analogy concerning Callie Smartt, a popular freshman cheerleader in West Texas. Sandel’s example is described as follows, “If Callie should be a cheerleader because she displays, despite her disability, the virtues appropriate to the role, her claim does pose a certain threat to the honor accorded the other cheerleaders. The gymnastic skills they display no longer appear essential to excellence in cheerleading, only one way among others of rousing the crowd. Ungenerous though he was, the father of the head cheerleader correctly grasped what was at stake. A social practice once taken as fixed in its purpose and in the honors it bestowed was now, thanks to Callie, redefined. She had shown that there’s more than one way to be a cheerleader.” (Justice p.98) This example exhibits the question of virtue, honor, and Aristotle’s Telos as seen in the analogies explained throughout the chapter. People have expectations about the individuals who participate in social events such as cheerleading and golf. The dispute that Sandel describes in West Texas is analogous to the conflict that occurs when people who don’t honor traditional virtues of their predecessors.

Following suite, Sandel proceeds to define Aristotle’s political philosophy which is split into two ideas which are described as such, “1. Justice is teleological. Defining rights requires us to figure out the telos (the purpose, end, or essential nature) of the social practice in question. 2. Justice is honorific. To reason about the telos of a practice—or to argue about it—is, at least in part, to reason or argue about what virtues it should honor and reward” (Justice p. 99). Aristotle believes that the definition of justice is to give people what they deserve but then Sandel intervenes and asks, “what is a person due, what are the relevant grounds of merit or desert?” To this end, Aristotle bases his moral philosophy on teleological reasoning. The prefix of the word telos obviously comes from greek and is defined as purpose, end, or goal. Sandel notes while Aristotle is somewhat correct in deciding that the just distribution of a good depends on its telos, this ancient form of thinking does not translate well into the physical sciences such as physics, chemistry, or biology. Prior to my exposition of Aristotle’s teleological reasoning, I would like to note that Sandel makes clear that Aristotle’s form of thinking is weakest when compared to the political philosophies of more contemporary philosophers and it seems like Sandel does this on purpose. I mean Aristotle believed that some people were meant to be slaves and does that not ignore some of the basic fundamental rights we have come to expect as we have grown? Cracks are evident in Aristotle’s reasoning as for Aristotle, the polis or city requires a division of labor, some people are just born to be slaves. This is unacceptable in modern liberal political theory. Slavery is unjust as it is coervice even in teleological terms. It is unfair and unjust because it is contrary to our nature and inhibits human nature. However, although Aristotle supported slavery, teleological reasoning can still be applied well in distributive justice in terms of political office. Aristotle’s distributive philosophy rests on an intrinsic mindset, he believes that the purpose of politics isn’t in order to set up a framework rights but serves to form good citizens as well as cultivate equally good character. Politics is a form of transcendance for this cornerstone of Greek philosophy, Aristotle deliberates that politics is about something higher. To participate in politics is to learn how to live a good life as well as allow individuals to develop unique social capacities and virtues as well as debate the common good. The reason why I emphasize Aristotle’s justification of slavery is to highlight how it makes his political philosophy pale compared to Rawl’s claim of just because things are the way they are, doesn’t make it correct.

Lastly, regarding Aristotle’s beliefs on virtue, Sandel makes an analogy so readers can easily understand what he means. Becoming virtuous is like playing the flute. Returning to distribution justice, one could argue on both sides of the hypothetical argument. In these cases, Aristotle would say that goods were meant to be enjoyed by those who would most appreciate its worth while Sandel claims that that is subjective. The conclusion comes down to the debate of the essential nature of whatever is being debated of. Like other examples in the novel, Sandel doesn’t offer a clear choice but makes a favorite evident. Arguments over rights and justice are conflicts of interpretation about the purpose of social constructs, goods that are distributed, and what these virtues stand for. There are many stances on these issues but Sandel makes apparent that it doesn’t matter about who is right and who is wrong but how we come to a productive discussion and take perspective.

Chapter nine primarily deals with the moral weight of community and whether or not those of this current generation are responsible for the actions of their predecessors. The examples Sandel presents usually occupy the bulk of the paper however in this case the arguments of moral individualism take priority. The real world application of this concept that Sandel brings is the apologies and reparations delivered by these four countries: Germany, Japan, Australia, and finally the United States. For Germany and Japan, their war crimes in World War II, Australia’s successful elimination of the original indigenous people by assimulation, and the United States with slavery. The answer Sandel provides is that individuals of a community are only responsible for what they do not the actions of others in the community not even their parents or compatriots. In actuality this makes sense, why would you be punished for the actions of someone you barely know or isn’t even alive anymore. To make readers question this assumption, Sandel evokes the ideas of Kant and Rawls that the choices we make often reflect random contingencies and hypothetical agreements. Say, a Caucasian American may feel some moral guilt over slavery otherwise known as white guilt when confronting African-Americans. Furthermore, Sandel seems to reject Aristotle’s teleology in this chapter as it seems to not leave enough room for people to choose for themselves.

To begin the ending of his novel, Sandel opens chapter ten with a comment said by then U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, “He began by recalling the way he had dealt with the religious issue in his U.S. Senate campaign two years earlier. Obama’s opponent, a rather strident religious conservative, had attacked Obama’s support for gay rights and abortion rights by claiming he was not a good Christian, and that Jesus Christ would not have voted for him. “I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates,” Obama said, looking back. “I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can’t impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois” (Justice p.128) This remark not only displays Obama’s quick wit and deeply missed eloquence but the conclusion that Sandel has been building for the past ten chapters. This theme is that we must be able to not separate our views into absolutes such as libertarianism or utilitarianism but take ideals from both and apply them. One answer is not correct par say yet it only matters how we proceed to make discussion about whatever is being debated about. Obama looking back on hindsight acknowledges that although the response was hilarious and awesome, it was wrong of him to insist that moral and religious convictions play no part in politics and law. Sandel’s most instrumental call to action is the aspiration to be neutral which is a subheading in chapter ten. This aspiration calls for a philosophy that holds government to be neutral on moral and religious ideas for this allows individuals the freedom of choice that John Rawls and Immanuel Kant rave over. Endeavours to remove faith-friendly forms of public reason is misguided according to Obama and apparently Sandel. This is due to two reasons, it may not be wise and it isn’t always possible to resolve questions of justice and rights without answering evident moral questions. Ultimately, Sandel attempts to promote the cultivation of virtue and reasoning.

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Justice: What’s the right thing to do? By Michael J. Sandel’s – Critical Analysis. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from
“Justice: What’s the right thing to do? By Michael J. Sandel’s – Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
Justice: What’s the right thing to do? By Michael J. Sandel’s – Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2022].
Justice: What’s the right thing to do? By Michael J. Sandel’s – Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 17 [cited 2022 Sept 24]. Available from:
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