Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Being Just

I confess, I haven't read a book on such a topic for a long long time. I used to read these category of books when I was much younger, when I had much less commitments, a teenager looking for meaning and devouring ideas that people have taken the time and trouble to pen. Perhaps I was a bit tired of the business and technology and politics/history books that has been my staple for the last 10 to 15 years. So as I nibbled at the book, I was tentative about completing it. Well, the material caught on and I eventually completed the book. This is perhaps a measure of its quality.

In Justice, Michael Sandel discusses the subject of, well, Justice, what doing the right thing means for people past and present. He starts with the Utilitarians, probably best represented by Jeremy Bantam, where the 'right thing' is determined by the weight of alternatives, that that which gives the greatest happiness is the 'right thing'. For example, it is just to tax people and forcibly spread the wealth in a society so that the greatest number attains happiness. The Libertarians differ. Is it not obvious that forcing someone to do something against his will, or on pain of penalty, unjust? They insist that inequality is a fact of life. Whether you are rich or poor, and whether you rise above your poverty, or stay poor, all things being equal, is a matter of personal choice. Thus the libertarians advocate minimal interference from the powers that be in the affairs of men so that freedom prevails. These 2 fundamental philosophies underlie issues of justice and freedom.

Sandel goes on to discuss Immanuel Kant's views on freedom and and introduces morality into the picture. Kant is not easy to understand. I read about him many years ago, and even heard people quote him in public talks, but I have never understood him. Sandel has been able to shed light on Kant's philosophy in this book so I now understand him better. Sandel argues that whether one accepts a particular position on justice, morality and freedom, one cannot ignore one's own context. So the contexts of affirmative action, abortion and the common good, are discussed. Aristotle's thinking on morality and freedom is introduced as a counter-weight against Kant and John Rawl's position. Aristotle insists that one's objectives as opposed to an abstract, in the case of Kant and Rawls, is probably just as important, if not more so, in the final analysis on issues of justice, morality and freedom.

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