Reading guide for Justice by Michael J. Sandel

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What's the Right Thing to Do?

by Michael J. Sandel

Justice by Michael J. Sandel X
Justice 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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About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

Below is part of the very extensive reading guide for Justice. Click here to download it in full as a PDF.

About This Guide

The topics and questions that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Justice. The first part of this guide contains questions for those who are just starting to think in terms of what the right thing to do is. The second part of this guide contains questions that are more advanced.


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?

These questions are at the core of our public life today—and at the heart of Justice, in which Michael J. Sandel shows how a surer grasp of philosophy can help us to make sense of politics, morality, and our own convictions as well.

Sandel's legendary “Justice” course is one of the most popular and influential at Harvard. Up to a thousand students pack the campus theater to hear Sandel relate the big questions of political philosophy to the most vexing issues of the day.

Justice offers readers the same exhilarating journey that captivates Harvard students—the challenge of thinking our way through the hard moral challenges we confront as citizens. It is a searching, lyrical exploration of the meaning of justice, a book that invites readers of all political persuasions to consider familiar controversies in fresh and illuminating ways. Affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service, the moral limits of markets, patriotism and dissent—Sandel shows how even the most hotly contested issues can be illuminated by reasoned moral argument.

is lively, thought-provoking, and wise—an essential new addition to the small shelf of books that speak convincingly to the big questions of our civic life.

Beginner Questions for Discussion

Let's start with utilitarianism. According to the principle of utility, we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness and whatever is necessary to prevent the greatest amount of unhappiness. But is that right? Should you always try to maximize happiness? Should you always do whatever is necessary to minimize unhappiness?

1. There are times when the only way to prevent harm to a large number of people is to harm a smaller number of people. Is it always permissible to harm a smaller number in order to prevent harm to a large number?

2. Suppose you are driving through a narrow tunnel and a worker falls onto the road in front of you. There is not enough time for you to stop. If you keep going straight, you will hit the worker and kill him, but if you swerve left into oncoming traffic, you will collide with a school bus and kill at least five children. What's the right thing to do? Does utilitarianism have the right answer?

3. Suppose ten thousand innocent civilians live next to a munitions factory in a country at war. If you bomb the factory, all of them will die. If you don't bomb the factory, it will be used to produce bombs that will be dropped on fifty thousand innocent civilians in another country. What's the right thing to do?

4. Suppose a man has planted a bomb in New York City, and it will explode in twenty-four hours unless the police are able to find it. Should it be legal for the police to use torture to extract information from the suspected bomber? Should it be legal to torture his innocent friends and family if that is the only way to make the man reveal where the bomb is hidden?

5. Now suppose the man who has planted the bomb will reveal the location only under the threat that an innocent member of his family will be tortured. Should it be legal for the police to torture innocent people if that is truly the only way to discover the location of a large bomb?

Let's continue the discussion of utilitarianism. According to Jeremy Bentham's principle of utility, we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness. Is that right? Consider the following questions, and ask yourself whether they point to a defect in the doctrine of utilitarianism.

6. Suppose we have to choose between building a new sports stadium and building a new hospital. Should we build the stadium if there are many more sports fans than sick people? What about the sick people? Aren't we sacrificing their interests?

7. Suppose we have $1 million of government money. We can use it to either build a new school for one thousand children or buy one million ice cream cones for one million children. Should we buy the ice cream cones if that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure? Are all pleasures created equal?

8. What if the majority of the members of a community derive pleasure from being racist? Should we let them be racist if that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure? Are some pleasures objectionable?

9. Suppose you have to move to Boston or to Las Vegas. If you move to Boston, you'll fall in love and get married. If you move to Vegas, you'll get rich but stay single.Should you move to Vegas if being rich gives you more pleasure? Are all pleasures commensurable?

10. John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian, says that we should protect individual rights because, in the long run, that is the best way to increase the sum of happiness. Is that true? Is that really why you shouldn't imprison and torture innocent people?

Utilitarians think that the right thing to do is whatever produces the greatest amount of happiness. Libertarians disagree. They think that we must never violate anyone's rights—even if doing so would increase overall happiness.

According to libertarians, the greatest threat to individual rights comes from the government. You should be able to drive without a seat belt if you want. The government
has no business giving you a ticket. That's unacceptably paternalist. And if you want to use drugs or engage in deviant sexual practices, you should be free to do so, provided you don't violate anyone else's rights in the process. The government has no business passing moralistic legislation. It shouldn't tell you how to live your life. Most important, the government should never tax for redistributive purposes. Redistributive taxation is theft. Taking your earnings and giving it to other people is like forcing you to work for those people. Libertarians say it's almost like slavery.

Libertarians make strong claims. But are they right about rights?

11. Is it unjust for the government to require people to wear seat belts and to prohibit them from engaging in other self-endangering activities? What if we know that many more people will die without such legislation? Should people be free to hurt or kill themselves, provided their actions do not violate anyone's else rights?

12. Should the government legalize narcotics? After all, some adults want to use drugs privately.

13. Should the government legalize prostitution? After all, some adults want to buy and sell sex.

14. Should there be a minimum wage? What if employers want to pay people $1.25 per hour and some desperately poor people would work for that wage? Is the government being unjust by requiring employers to pay them at least $7.25 per hour?

15. Should the government impose occupational safety standards? What if employers refuse to spend money on safety measures and some desperately poor people would agree to work in dangerous conditions? Should the government prohibit certain contracts that some workers and employers would be willing to make, and insist on safe working conditions?
16. Is it just to tax the rich to pay for public services? Should the government tax Bill Gates and other wealthy people and use the money to pay for public schools, hospitals, roads, parks, fire departments, and police departments, or would doing so be unjust?

17. Is it just to tax the rich to give to the poor? Should the government tax Bill Gates and other wealthy people and use the money to supplement the income of unemployed people, single mothers with low incomes, or other poor people? Should the government tax rich people and loan the money, interest-free, to poor kids so that they can go to college? Would all of that be unjust? Why or why not?

Freedom, equality, property rights, and government by consent—each of these ideas figures prominently in contemporary political thought. And each idea was central to the political thought of John Locke.

Locke thought that people have certain unalienable rights, which can never be taken away. He thought that people were by nature free and equal, that private property was the extension of a man's labor, and that government must be limited and founded on consent. Did Locke get it right? Did he come to the right answer for the right reasons?

18. Locke thought that people had come to have rights to private property even before the institution of government. Is this possible? What is a right to private property anyway? Isn't property a legal convention?

19. According to Locke, an unowned thing becomes your property if you “mix your labor” with it. Is that right? If you pick some flowers in an open field, do you have a claim to them? What if you build a fence around the open ocean? Does the ocean become your property? If not, what is the connection between property and labor?

20. Is labor necessary for someone to have a claim to private property? What if a disabled person needs a wheelchair but can't buy or build one herself? Does she have a right to the wheelchair anyway? If so, what is the basis of this right? If not, what should happen to her?

21. Money allows people to accumulate great wealth and thereby creates inequality. Is Locke right to think that people “consent” to the use of money when they accept it as payment?

22. Locke thinks that, to be legitimate, government must be by consent. But what counts as consent? Must every single person agree to be governed? What if some people hold out unreasonably?

23. Locke also suggests that a government is legitimate if everyone could agree to it without making his own condition worse. Is that right? Is a government legitimate if everyone could agree to it? What if you never in fact agreed to it, but just happened to find yourself living there? Does merely living somewhere count as (tacit) consent? What if you have nowhere else to go?

24. For Locke, to be legitimate, government must protect your rights. Is that enough? What if you never get to have a say in what government does?

25. According to Locke, your natural right to life is “unalienable”: you must never give it up, and therefore you must never commit suicide. Is he right? Is it morally wrong to commit suicide, even if one is terminally ill and in endless pain?

26. According to Locke, we are born with an “unalienable right” to life, which no government may take away arbitrarily. However, for Locke, the existence of this right does not mean that the death penalty is always impermissible. Is Locke correct to think that the unalienable right to life is compatible with some types of capital punishment?

27. According to Locke, we are born with an “unalienable right” to liberty, which no government may take away arbitrarily. However, for Locke, the existence of this right does not mean that military conscription is always impermissible. Is Locke correct to think that the unalienable right to liberty is compatible with some kinds of conscription?

28. You are free by nature, thinks Locke, but there is a difference between freedom and “license.” Is Locke right to argue that it is possible to abuse a freedom that one has a right to?

29. Locke thinks that government should be guided by majority rule. He also thinks that government exists to protect the unalienable right to property. Are these ideas in conflict? What if a poor majority wants to tax a rich minority?

Continued.... This guide is too long to display in full. Click here to download it as a PDF.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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