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  • Writer's pictureBryan Jun

Justice by Michael Sandel

Disclaimer - I'm exactly halfway through this book, churning through the wisdom of Immanuel Kant and his noble stance that true justice is only exhibited by activity motivated by duty rather than what you gain (utility). For those of you who have never heard of this book, I highly recommend stopping right now and finding a copy as I think it's a must read for anyone living in the 21st century, a time that I feel the meaning of justice, freedom and duty have become concerningly shakey with no form of standardization. This isn't to say there's going to be any crucial spoilers in this post, nor that I'm capable of conveying Sandel's eloquence in a coherent manner, as this book is one of the hardest reads I've had in awhile. Essentially, the Harvard professor uses this book to answer the question on the cover, "what's the right thing to do?" More specifically, the reader is encouraged to constantly question why we should do the right thing through the various perspectives and angles as expressed by the greatest philosophers and thought leaders of humanity.


I do think it's important to note that this isn't going to be a fun read for people that don't take the stressful road to life as many of my peers and I do, where we are constantly questioning our actions, the motivations behind them, and how we can incentivize society as a whole to act "right" or "just" depending on what you find important. I'm always amazed by non-religious people that have a morality-based drive, especially when it comes to doing the so-called "right" thing - I'm genuinely curious how one can have a rule book or "feel" for what is right if they believe that we are here merely as a series of chance, deriving from a single celled organism coming off from an explosive event that somehow created the entire universe. I won't stray away from the main topic at hand, which is justice, but I still struggle to this day to understand why atheists strive for justice and how their inner drive for what is right doesn't lead them to at least explore some form of faith and make them question why they feel such a way. In some ways, this book actually goes out to answer this question, or at least supplement those struggling with it with the right tools to get to a personal answer - but as many philosophers and lawyers do, Sandel focuses on provoking thought rather than giving clear cut solutions to what may be one of the most pressing question of today's day and age.


Aside from giving both a birds eye view as well as a deep dive into the various schools of thought like utilitarianism, libertarianism, Rawls and Kant, Justice also serves as reminder that (at least for me) the day to day of today's fast paced society and shaken up ethical system makes us "jaded" (for a lack of better words) on what actually matters in life. Of course, as a Christian, it's hard for me to look at this world on a purely secular perspective, but for the purposes of this exercise I shall take God out of the equation to evaluate how this book serves to explore what the right thing to do is within the context of worldly rules (by no means am I dismissing my belief system nor am I endorsing what I'm about to say, but I do think it's important to not make arguments from authority, especially when discussing a book about secular morals).


The biggest alerts or thought provoking moments of this book comes from unlikely scenarios that serve as illustrations to (1) describe the school of thought Sandel is introducing and (2) to get us to think about what our own priorities and definitions of justice are. I'm sure if you've sat in on any humanities college class or watched one of those beautifully animated philosophy Youtube videos with 10 million views and a cliche title, you've heard of at least one of these. For example - if you had to push someone off a bridge to save a group of people from being hit by a train, if you had to have one kid suffer in the basement of a house for an entire city to be prosperous and happy, if you had to engage in cannibalism to survive on a stranded boat, and whether or not we should legalize assisted suicide. These are all extreme (and mostly not realistic - the cannibalism and assisted suicide derive from real life situations) cases for illustrative purposes, and Sandel largely uses them to provide a simple view of what he's explaining, but I think it does a wonderful (or cynical) job of getting us to reflect on what values we live by and what we find "right."


Although we've never been in situations where we had to push someone off a bridge to stop a train, I'm sure we've had moments where we had to figuratively "sacrifice" someone else (or their time or the relationship you have with them) for the benefit of others (or yourself). There are statewide issues - the pandemic being a prime modern example - that requires the prioritization of a body of people of another. Without an "ethical code" or some religion that everyone adheres to, it's downright impossible to figure out what is right and to have the masses follow to such definitions of what is "right." In some ways, although most of the progress we made as humanity in recent times should be celebrated, the constant questioning and over access to information as well as this idea that EVERYONE'S ideologies, rules of conduct and ethical compasses should be expressed and discussed may not be the most efficient nor beneficial world to live in - as optionality nor fragmentation is always the solution, especially when it comes to a set of rules or a baseline for the decisions we make so often that leads to a butterfly effect of serious consequences. For society and humanity to make progress, we need to hold on to and emphasize the one thing that sets us apart (at least in my opinion, partly enhanced by Sapiens), which is our ability to act on the intangible, which "definition of justice" falls into.


I don't think it's wrong to question the justice system (not necessarily the legal system, but literally the system that we agree on as human beings as the right things to do) - in fact, this is essential in any society that's "improving." However, constantly questioning what is right without fully diving into how society performs under a set of standards just to be progressive doesn't get you anywhere as there will be no proof of concept (apologies for using these puzzwords here). It takes years, if not centuries to understand whether or not a rulebook for ethics works out for a society or not and my concern is that currently we're coming up with new rules for what is right on the daily and there's no time to discern whether or not something works or not, and furthermore what works for the most people as opposed to just the vocal folks. I'm pretty clear what the right thing to do based on the Bible, but I'm also of the belief that if my faith is as real as I think it is, then it should also be applicable to those that don't believe. I hope finishing this book better equips me to have these conversations and I look forward to recognizing what the right thing to do is.

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