Right Left Right Wrong (Michael J. Sandel) - Book Summary

What is justice? How can we act in a fair and ethical manner? By providing numerous examples from everyday life, Michael J. Sandel shows how views of justice can be interpreted differently, for example, by philosophers such as Aristotle and Kant. Throughout the book, he urges us to seriously question individual beliefs and social conventions.

Who should read this book?

  • Those who are interested in ethics and philosophy
  • Those who want to learn more about the concept of justice
  • Those who seek philosophical answers to life's questions

Who is the author?

Michael J. Sandel (born 1953) is an American philosopher. He studied at Oxford and taught political philosophy at Harvard for three decades. His lectures on justice became so popular that tickets to sit in his lecture hall had to be issued in a lottery. In 2009, his lectures were recorded for an American channel and can now be viewed online at  www.justiceharvard.org

One. Our perception of justice is subjective and constantly changing

Justice is both one of the frequently debated topics and one of the most elusive in philosophy, because our perception of it is subjective, changing frequently over the course of history. history.

Is it right to sacrifice one person's life to prevent the death of many people? Is it fair to tax the rich to help the poor? Is abortion a human right, or is it murder?

The answers to these questions vary widely from person to person. People see them from a different perspective, made up of different rules, values, experiences, and unfortunately – different prejudices and resentments. All of them play an important role in determining our judgment.

Moreover, the history of philosophy shows that the answers to questions about justice are always limited by the period in which they are asked.

In theories as ancient as Aristotle's, justice is closely linked to morality and the "good life": a society is only fair when it nurtures and rewards its citizens' morals. So before we question what justice is, we must know what constitutes a good life.

According to a more modern philosophy such as utilitarianism, justice has always revolved around total happiness: justice is about increasing the feeling of happiness for the majority.

Other modern theories such as the Liberal philosophy see that the most important part of a just society is ensuring the freedom for each individual to live life according to their own principles.

Two. We sharpen our sense of justice by exploring different philosophical perspectives

Although it is not possible to arrive at a universal definition of justice, examining various theories of justice throughout the history of philosophy, comparing them, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses relative to other theories Another theory is perfectly reasonable.

We should therefore not think of the great philosophers as outmoded thinkers, but as introducers and mentors to the real questions of our modern society: Are we How should progressive tax be assessed? Am I allowed to promise something that I know I cannot keep? How to get a solid argument for same-sex marriage? Philosophers like Kant, Aristotle, and John Rawls give us answers that can help us find answers for ourselves.

Understanding a variety of theories can help us sharpen our sense of justice, lead us to question our rigid notions, and discover new approaches to complex problems. , and see them in a new light.

By asking the right questions, comparing possible answers, and evaluating them against different standards established by different schools of philosophy, we can develop an idea of ​​justice.

Three. Utilitarians: actions are fair when they promote the common good

The father and also the most representative of utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an ethical philosopher and social reconstructionist. His utilitarian philosophy assumes that all people desire to pursue pleasure and welfare, and avoid pain and unhappiness. This presumption is the foundation of the Utopian moral norm.

According to this philosophy, actions that cause happiness or well-being are moral, while those that cause unhappiness or suffering are wrong. An important postscript: it is not the happiness of one individual that matters, but the happiness of others. An action is truly just when it promotes the happiness of many people, not just one particular individual.

Take for example murder, although it can create a murderer's happiness – it will be the end of all the victim's happiness and cause indescribable pain and suffering for your family and friends. victim friends. According to utilitarian logic, killing would be immoral because it would not promote the greatest possibility of happiness.

But things are different when we talk about the murder of a terrible dictator: according to the principles of utilitarianism, if the assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944 was successful, it would be a moral act. virtue because Hitler's death would have saved many lives.

One of the biggest critics of Utilitarianism concerns its applicability. The more people affected by my actions, the more difficult it is for me to gauge my future sense of pain and happiness. Decisions that affect only a small group (“Should I help an old man cross the street?”) are fairly straightforward to assess with Utilitarianism. However, decisions that affect millions of people (“Which educational policy will promote the greatest likelihood of happiness?”) have far more complex consequences. Because it would be nearly impossible to make a reliable prediction of how a decision will affect the ultimate balance between happiness and pain.

Four. Individual libertarians: justice means the ability to live and act as you see fit

The libertarian philosophy is based on the principle that freedom is the best we have. All rights and obligations are subject to or derived from that principle. Our freedom is limited only if it takes away the freedom of others.

And so libertarians see justice as respecting and defending human freedom. This doctrine has far-reaching political and economic implications: for example, people cannot be prevented from freely managing their personal finances. Laws that interfere with free markets violate individual liberties and are therefore unfair. As a result, libertarians have spoken out against taxes, social security contributions, and public insurance—what they see as strangulation or theft.

However, they also represent a few radicals: for example, they support same-sex marriage, abortion, and the separation of church from state, and all of that goes hand in hand with freedom. individual.

The libertarian stance is united on the point, that if I don't do anything to harm others, no one can tell me what to believe, who to love, or how to do business. A society is just only when individuals are guaranteed complete freedom to live and act according to their point of view.

Economists Friedrich A. von Hayek (1899–1992) and Milton Friedman (1912–2006) are the most famous thinkers of libertarianism. Their theory was very popular in the 1980s, being applied, for example, to the professional market, the free-market policy of Reagan and Thatcher.

Five. Kant I: we must do the right thing for the right reason

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that the moral value of an action is based on the motive that precedes it. He considers an action to be ethical when one does the right thing for the right reason.

Kant uses the following example to explain the question of fair and ethical behavior.

A child goes into the grocery store and wants to buy a loaf of bread. The salesman could sell the boy expensively without the boy even knowing it. But he didn't – for the sole reason that it could worsen his business if people found out he had tricked a child.

Is the salesperson acting in an ethical manner?

Kant would say no, because the salesman is acting only out of self-interest. As a result, his actions lacked moral value. An ethical behavior is not just about what is beneficial or typical.

In this way, Kant rejected the philosophy of utilitarianism because it was based on human calculation. In utilitarianism, it is not important whether the action comes from the right motive, but in the right result of the action. According to Kant, this teaches us to always try to do the best we can for ourselves. However, the ability to distinguish right from wrong plays only a small role.

So what does Kant's objection mean to our salesmen?

Roughly speaking, his actions would have been moral if he had decided to sell the boy a loaf of bread at a normal price, simply because it was wrong to sell at a high price.

Six. Kant II: Ethical behavior means acting according to absolute orders

What is the difference between a billiard ball and a human?

Of course there are millions of different answers to the above question. But according to Kant, the most important answer is this: the billiard ball only obeys the laws of physics. When we act on it, it moves forward, if we let it fall, it will fall.

Naturally, we are subject to the laws of nature: if someone pushes us hard, we react – for example, falling to the floor. But unlike the billiard ball, we can make proactive decisions and choose our way – independent of all outside influences. The billiard ball only obeys the laws of physics, but we humans can make our own rules and obey them.

Like Kant's famous absolute imperative: "Act only when your maxim may become a Universal Law." In other words: act only on the principles that you think others should follow.

Here's an example: Should I make a promise I can't keep? Or take out a loan even though I know I can't pay it back?

By absolute imperative, the answer is no. Because if everyone who needs money makes empty promises, no one will believe that other people can keep their promises.

According to Kant, the absolute imperative is a test that helps us act in an ethical way, and ultimately, in a fair way. If we cannot reconcile our actions with absolute imperatives, then it is immoral.

Seven. Rawls I: Only when the original state of equality lies behind a veil of ignorance do we know what is fair.

To understand the universal pillar of justice, American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) suggests that we do the following thought experiment: We should ask ourselves which social principle we would choose if we exist in a state of pure fictitious equality, behind a “veil of ignorance.”

By the veil of ignorance and natural equality, Rawls meant that there would be no social class, gender, race, political opinion or religious conviction. We will all be equal: no one will know where they come from or their role in an unexplored social order.

What social principle would we choose under such conditions?

To begin with, we will dismiss utilitarianism as it can lead to oppression. According to utilitarian logic, throwing a man into the lions would be permissible as long as the majority could derive pleasure from it.

To protect us from discrimination or persecution in our thought experiments, we will choose basic universal freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

We will also discard libertarianism. Because the fear of falling into the street begging, in a system of endless freedom, where no one is obligated to take care of us, is more genuine than the hope of becoming rich. have like Bill Gates.

Instead, we tend to favor an even distribution of income and affluence. With a limit: if inequality benefits the community, it must also be allowed. For example, it makes sense to say that a doctor makes more money than a bus driver. Even Bill Gates' multibillion-dollar fortune becomes relevant in this context – for example by integrating it into a progressive tax system used to pay for people's health, education and welfare.

Eight. Rawls II: justice means not giving chance and welfare to fortune

The core of John Rawls' philosophy of justice constitutes an argument that the distribution of income and opportunity should not be based solely on random factors.

Think of a picture of a race to visualize this thought specifically.

In  the feudal aristocratic society , only the nobles were allowed to participate in the race, when everyone else had been excluded from the start. Competence, aptitude, ability, and ambition all mean nothing: the only determining factor is the chance of being born into a noble family.

However, a  free market economy , supported by individual Liberals, has a few improvements: here, everyone is allowed to participate in the race, even athletes from wealthy families. Having a good education has an almost indisputable advantage over the uneducated, the disabled, who do not have those advantages.

In contrast, a fair meritocracy can bring other improvements: it opens up, for example, educational opportunities for everyone and opportunities for athletes from poorer families, even if they had less preparation and less quality “equipment” – to start at the same line. Even though meritocracy has provided far fairer conditions, we can still, even in this race, predict with confidence who will win: the fastest runner. The factors that helped them win – talent, luck, timing – were decided at random. Therefore, their fairness was as random as whether they were born into a noble family or a rich family.

So should we eliminate the race? Or do we tie lead shoes to the fastest runners?

No and no: Rawls proposes an alternative that could correct the unequal distribution of talent and conditions without having to limit the most talented. He calls this  alternative the principle of difference. That means the fastest runners get support and training, but they have to share their glory with those who aren't as well trained as they are.

Ripe. Aristotle: to know what justice is, we need to know its intentions and goals

As the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, justice is the highest goal we can aim for: "Not even the morning and evening stars can compare."

But how can we achieve that good goal?

Aristotle believed that there is no permanent rule that defines what is justice and what is unjust. Instead he suggests that we approach specific questions about the purpose of justice. That is, before we judge what is right or wrong, we must first question the purpose behind the subject of an ethical issue.

How do you think Aristotle would evaluate the following “cheerleader paradox”?

Callie, despite being confined to a wheelchair, is still a cheerleader known for setting fire to crowds. But one day she was thrown out of the team. Reason? All cheerleaders are required to take physical education classes – and Callie can't because she has a disability.

Most of us have no problem making a point here: It was unfair to remove Callie from the team. Even though she can't study gymnastics, she can still do a good job as a cheerleader.

Aristotle will not agree or disagree with us, but instead encourages us to consider a deeper question: what is the purpose of the cheerleaders? Is the purpose of cheering to stir up people's excitement? In recognition of certain virtues of which teamwork is an example? Or does it revolve around abilities like organization, synchronicity, and physicality?

We can only judge what is fair and what is unfair in this case when we have answered those questions clearly, without prejudice.

Ten. Justice is built on policies of the common good

Is it fair that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry?

Aristotle taught us that we would better answer that question by first considering the purpose of marriage as a social institution.

So is the goal of marriage to perpetuate the species or is it a separate commitment of love between two people?

There is, however, a problem with this approach: even when it can be convincingly explained that the purpose of marriage is to secure commitment between two people, regardless of their gender. , we have included our own moral perspective: we believe that same-sex relationships are as worthwhile as heterosexual relationships.

But what about those who represent other moral views and don't believe that same-sex relationships are equally worthwhile?

Ultimately, the question of justice is always a question of morality, standards of judgment, and personal notions of a "moral life." Since there are always opposing beliefs about living ethically in a pluralistic, democratic society, it would be impossible to find a single, universal answer.

How can we deal with the difference in opinion? And what can we do to reduce the number of people acting on prejudice and fear?

The answer is through a policy of the common good from which a richer intellectual, moral and spiritual life can be established in our society. It needs efforts to help citizens better understand commitment to the common good; it must protect social practices, such as teaching, learning and immigration, from a market-centric mindset; it must keep financial inequality within limits and tax the rich at a higher rate; and finally, it must shift the public's focus toward difficult ethical questions and debate them in an educated and unbiased manner.

Final summary

The main message of this book is:

Humanity has pondered the question of justice for thousands of years, and the answers are as varied as the number of thinkers who answer them. Reason? Justice means more than judging right from wrong. When we talk about justice, we have to argue about how we want to live, what price we must pay in exchange for our freedom, and whether these moral values ​​are more valuable than moral values. is different.