Excerpt from Justice by Michael J. Sandel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Justice

What's the Right Thing to Do?

by Michael J. Sandel

Justice by Michael J. Sandel
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2009, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2010, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Print Excerpt


This dilemma points to one of the great questions of political philosophy: Does a just society seek to promote the virtue of its citizens? Or should law be neutral toward competing conceptions of virtue, so that citizens can be free to choose for themselves the best way to live?

According to the textbook account, this question divides ancient and modern political thought. In one important respect, the textbook is right. Aristotle teaches that justice means giving people what they deserve. And in order to determine who deserves what, we have to determine what virtues are worthy of honor and reward. Aristotle maintains that we can’t figure out what a just constitution is without first reflecting on the most desirable way of life. For him, law can’t be neutral on questions of the good life.

By contrast, modern political philosophers—from Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century to John Rawls in the twentieth century— argue that the principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of virtue, or of the best way to live. Instead, a just society respects each person’s freedom to choose his or her own conception of the good life.

So you might say that ancient theories of justice start with virtue, while modern theories start with freedom. And in the chapters to come, we explore the strengths and weaknesses of each. But it’s worth noticing at the outset that this contrast can mislead.

For if we turn our gaze to the arguments about justice that animate contemporary politics—not among philosophers but among ordinary men and women—we find a more complicated picture. It’s true that most of our arguments are about promoting prosperity and respecting individual freedom, at least on the surface. But underlying these arguments, and sometimes contending with them, we can often glimpse another set of convictions—about what virtues are worthy of honor and reward, and what way of life a good society should promote. Devoted though we are to prosperity and freedom, we can’t quite shake off the judgmental strand of justice. The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep. Thinking about justice seems inescapably to engage us in thinking about the best way to live.

What Wounds Deserve the Purple Heart?

On some issues, questions of virtue and honor are too obvious to deny. Consider the recent debate over who should qualify for the Purple Heart. Since 1932, the U.S. military has awarded the medal to soldiers wounded or killed in battle by enemy action. In addition to the honor, the medal entitles recipients to special privileges in veterans’ hospitals.

Since the beginning of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, growing numbers of veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and treated for the condition. Symptoms include recurring nightmares, severe depression, and suicide. At least three hundred thousand veterans reportedly suffer from traumatic stress or major depression. Advocates for these veterans have proposed that they, too, should qualify for the Purple Heart. Since psychological injuries can be at least as debilitating as physical ones, they argue, soldiers who suffer these wounds should receive the medal.

After a Pentagon advisory group studied the question, the Pentagon announced, in 2009, that the Purple Heart would be reserved for soldiers with physical injuries. Veterans suffering from mental disorders and psychological trauma would not be eligible, even though they qualify for government-supported medical treatment and disability payments. The Pentagon offered two reasons for its decision: traumatic stress disorders are not intentionally caused by enemy action, and they are difficult to diagnose objectively.

Did the Pentagon make the right decision? Taken by themselves, its reasons are unconvincing. In the Iraq War, one of the most common injuries recognized with the Purple Heart has been a punctured eardrum, caused by explosions at close range. But unlike bullets and bombs, such explosions are not a deliberate enemy tactic intended to injure or kill; they are (like traumatic stress) a damaging side effect of battlefield action. And while traumatic disorders may be more difficult to diagnose than a broken limb, the injury they inflict can be more severe and long-lasting.

Excerpted from Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do by Michael J. Sandel. Published in September 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Michael J. Sandel. All rights reserved.

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