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

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What's the Right Thing to Do?

by Michael J. Sandel

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  • First Published:
    Sep 2009, 320 pages
    Aug 2010, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Print Excerpt

As the wider debate about the Purple Heart revealed, the real issue is about the meaning of the medal and the virtues it honors. What, then, are the relevant virtues? Unlike other military medals, the Purple Heart honors sacrifice, not bravery. It requires no heroic act, only an injury inflicted by the enemy. The question is what kind of injury should count.

A veteran’s group called the Military Order of the Purple Heart opposed awarding the medal for psychological injuries, claiming that doing so would “debase” the honor. A spokesman for the group stated that “shedding blood” should be an essential qualification. He didn’t explain why bloodless injuries shouldn’t count.

But Tyler E. Boudreau, a former Marine captain who favors including psychological injuries, offers a compelling analysis of the dispute. He attributes the opposition to a deep-seated attitude in the military that views post-traumatic stress as a kind of weakness. The same culture that demands tough-mindedness also encourages skepticism toward the suggestion that the violence of war can hurt the healthiest of minds . . . Sadly, as long as our military culture bears at least a quiet contempt for the psychological wounds of war, it is unlikely those veterans will ever see a Purple Heart. So the debate over the Purple Heart is more than a medical or clinical dispute about how to determine the veracity of injury. At the heart of the disagreement are rival conceptions of moral character and military valor. Those who insist that only bleeding wounds should count believe that post-traumatic stress reflects a weakness of character unworthy of honor. Those who believe that psychological wounds should qualify argue that veterans suffering long-term trauma and severe depression have sacrificed for their country as surely, and as honorably, as those who’ve lost a limb.

The dispute over the Purple Heart illustrates the moral logic of Aristotle’s theory of justice. We can’t determine who deserves a military medal without asking what virtues the medal properly honors. And to answer that question, we have to assess competing conceptions of character and sacrifice.

It might be argued that military medals are a special case, a throwback to an ancient ethic of honor and virtue. These days, most of our arguments about justice are about how to distribute the fruits of prosperity, or the burdens of hard times, and how to define the basic rights of citizens. In these domains, considerations of welfare and freedom predominate. But arguments about the rights and wrongs of economic arrangements often lead us back to Aristotle’s question of what people morally deserve, and why.

Bailout Outrage

The public furor over the financial crisis of 2008–09 is a case in point. For years, stock prices and real estate values had climbed. The reckoning came when the housing bubble burst. Wall Street banks and financial institutions had made billions of dollars on complex investments backed by mortgages whose value now plunged. Once proud Wall Street firms teetered on the edge of collapse. The stock market tanked, devastating not only big investors but also ordinary Americans, whose retirement accounts lost much of their value. The total wealth of American families fell by $11 trillion in 2008, an amount equal to the combined annual output of Germany, Japan, and the UK.

In October 2008, President George W. Bush asked Congress for $700 billion to bail out the nation’s big banks and financial firms. It didn’t seem fair that Wall Street had enjoyed huge profits during the good times and was now asking taxpayers to foot the bill when things had gone bad. But there seemed no alternative. The banks and financial firms had grown so vast and so entwined with every aspect of the economy that their collapse might bring down the entire financial system. They were “too big to fail.”

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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