Review of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?


Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do by Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel‘s book Justice, is a worthwhile read for anarcho-capitalists who have already read the greats in their own tradition: Murray Rothbard, David D. Friedman, Hans Hoppe, etc., and are ready to hone their thinking by exploring some different viewpoints. Sandel’s book is especially good for this purpose because he tries to find a theory of justice by contrasting three different perspectives: libertarianism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. Not only does libertarianism feature prominently in the book, it is portrayed in a reasonable way.

Sandel also makes good use of both hypotheticals and real-life examples to explore the idea of justice. Familiar ones like the Trolley Problem get a standard treatment, but less common examples like invitro fertilization and surrogacy are also explored. The real world problems are taken from present day as well as centuries ago when, for example, people who were drafted into the military could hire someone to take their place. These analyses are deep enough to be interesting, but do not drag on so long that they become a waste of time.

Although Sandel’s approach is good, he ends up with a rather confused notion of justice. This is partially due to the fact that he conflates ethics with morality. He is not simply trying to define justice as a core ethical concept, but also bolt on moral ideas about how a person should live their life. This leads him to choose virtue ethics from the three options he explores. Thus the ideas of honor and living a good life get mixed up with his view of justice, when a more focused approach would have served better.

So what is justice? Libertarians think of it like this. If someone commits a crime, the world is altered from what it would have been if everyone had lived together peacefully. Justice is getting the world back to what it would have been, had no aggression occurred. If a thief steals your money, part of justice is returning the money. Part of justice is also getting extra money from the thief that would have been earned if the money were never stolen, but instead placed in a bank account (or whatever the money would have been used for). Part of justice is making sure that the victim does not have to live in fear of being robbed again. And so on.

So justice is simple idea. When aggression pulls the world away from the libertarian ideal, justice is bringing it back in whatever way necessary. Other moral notions are important as well, but should be explored on their own, lest young, impressionable people get the wrong idea.

A book that confuses ethics and morality, but contains interesting ethical problems and a good discussion of different alternatives, including libertarianism. Three Murrays.

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