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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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Esperanza Reynolds (11/13/09)

Justice, a subject that inspires reason
On Tuesday, October 27th, 2009, Lisa Moreno, Pablo Carvallo and I attended a book review at Books & Books, Coral Gables, Florida. This book store chain has a calendar of events filled with exciting opportunities to get to know authors of books that will someday change our present day reality.

Always go early enough to acquire the book to be reviewed and to enjoy the culinary expertise of the resident staff; for they have healthy choices for a quick dinner and or dessert.

While we wait for the food, we read about the author and a few chapters of the book to get into the world offered by the author's experience and perspective. Professor Michael J. Sandel attracted a rather large audience, standing room only, with people willing to stand in the hallways or the courtyard to listen to his presentation because the room where he spoke was filled to capacity.

The owner of Books & Books, Mitch Kaplan, opened by telling us how honored he was to have the opportunity to present a Harvard professor whose work is known the world over. Ex-Senator Bob Graham and his wife followed to introduce Mr. Sandel and to give testimony to his work for they both have attended Mr. Sandel's course on Justice at Harvard University.

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University where he has taught since 1980 and the author of many books. At present, he resides in Brookline, Massachusetts.

In a highly Socratian approach, Mr. Sandel poses questions such as: What are our obligations to others as people in a free society? Should government tax the rich to help the poor? Is the free market fair? Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth? Is killing sometimes morally required? Is it possible, or desirable, to legislate morality? Do individual rights and the common good conflict?

Seeing Professor Sandel in action answers why his Justice course is one of the most popular and influential at Harvard, for he engages the audience by seeking answers to interesting issues, addressing each individual by his or her name, repeating their statements and posing opposing views to make us ponder on all angles of an issue.

Last night the three questions that delved on the right thing to do were:

If we had a limited number of flutes, who is justified in getting the best flutes to play? Are the best players supposed to get the best flutes? Why?

The style of deliberative reasoning proposed by Aristotle guided the debate, highlighting that the distribution of the best flutes to the best players was correct based on the purpose of the flutes themselves, created to achieve musical excellence. Aristotle proposed that "we should consider actions within one's power to perform, the extent to which each of them would contribute to the achievement of the appropriate goal or end, making a deliberate choice to act in the way that best fits that end, and then voluntarily engaging in the action itself." Thus, since the purpose of a flute is defined as trying to achieve excellent music, the best players will achieve the goal by possessing the best instruments.

We were then challenged to consider a federal court decision related to the use of golf carts in professional competition. The case involved Casey Martin, diagnosed with a degenerative circulatory disorder of his right leg, and questioned whether be should be allowed to use a golf cart on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour: Case Number 98-35309.

Professor Sandel questioned the audience as to how we would rule in the case, then proceeded to tell us the outcome of the Court's decision to give Mr. Martin the right to use a golf cart because "a highly skilled golfer, plays with a severe degenerative condition, significantly impairing his ability to walk and there was no dispute that Martin had a profound disability, therefore, Mr. Martin was protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court ruled that "providing Casey Martin the use of a golf cart is reasonable and that walking was not essential to the generalized game of golf."

Finally, Professor Sandel posed the following questions: "If principles of justice depend on the moral or intrinsic worth of the ends that rights serve; how should we deal with the fact that people hold different ideas and conceptions of what is good? We addressed this question in a heated debate about same-sex marriage. Should same-sex marriage be legal? Can we settle the matter without discussing the moral permissibility of homosexuality or the purpose of marriage?

To close, Professor Sandel said that every issue, every argument, every political or social challenge poses choices, to avoid the issue and attempt to continue to live in peace or to engage in a healthy discourse that will result in argumentativeness but result in recognition of our differences in beliefs and ideas, providing a forum where to learn from one another as we continue to shape the history of humanity.

By the lengthy round of applause, the long line to get our books autographed and the heated conversations that ensued, Mr. Michael J. Sandel has tapped on a unique market... our brains! Don't miss reading this book, visiting the following links and if you are ever given the chance, attending one of Mr. Sandel's lectures.

Came home and have not been able to put the book down, an excellent choice!
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