(audio) book review: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, by Michael Sandel

intriguing moral quandaries tossed with, well, something of a moral philosopher snooze-fest

For several years, I had the opportunity to work with Harvard University undergraduates, and many nights I would wander through the dining hall and see students working hard writing papers.  What are you writing on?  The ethics of dwarf-tossing, they’d say (or some other quandary).  For Michael Sandel’s course on Justice!  Now, finally, I get to experience the course first-hand through Sandel’s book.  The audiobook is narrated by the professor himself.  (Amazon tells me the audiobook is abridged, which is too bad except that the book got boring, so maybe not too bad.)

Sandel starts out strong, with an ethical puzzle about street car about hit 5 workers – but if you flip a switch you could change tracks and just kill 1 worker.  Then he introduces basic principles (freedom, welfare, virtue) to evaluate the ethics of these questions.  He goes on to use real-life examples of ethical quandaries.  All fascinating so far!  Then he tells us a bit about some of the moral philosophies (and their proponents) used to think about the answers to these quandaries.  Mill’s utilitarianism (still fascinating), John Rawls’s veil of ignorance (still interesting), Kant’s this and Aristotle’s that (okay, at this point I felt like giving up).  I wish he had woven the moral philosophy a little more tightly with the practical examples (and maybe this is more true in the unabridged print book).  As it is, some of the philosophers – particularly Aristotle – feel like they got a lot of space just for their inherent interest, which – for certain readers who needn’t be named – just isn’t that inherent.  (I started getting bored in Disc 3 of 5 of the audiobook, and stayed bored through Disc 4.  My wife tried the book and didn’t get that far.)

In the last 20% the audiobook rallies, bringing back the three main approaches to justice:  (1) maximizing utility or welfare, (2) respecting freedom of choice (whether actual choice – libertarianism – or hypothetical choice behind a veil of ignorance – liberal egalitarianism), and (3) cultivating virture and reasoning about the common good.  Sandel prefers the third (although his argument basically amounts to, Because I think it’s the best).  Still, he illuminates how Robert Kennedy argued for this approach to public life and how Barack Obama has argued along the same lines (although it remains to be seen if anything will actually happen).

On the whole, I enjoyed the audiobook, but I wish it had been unabridged (looking at the Table of Contents, I think some interesting, non-theoretical content got cut); Sandel isn’t the most entertaining reader ever (he’s not Jim Dale), but it’s nice to hear the book from his lips and get his emphasis.

Seattle Times: “a witty road map for negotiating modern moral dilemmas” “Sandel is at his best in weaving modern-day problems into convincing applications of competing theories of justice. He loses his footing, though, when he detours into the jargon of moral philosophy, at times testing a reader’s patience (at least those not compelled to take notes or face end-of-semester consequences).”

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