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19 October 2009

What is Justice?

Michael Sandel's Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? was treated to a lot of fanfare at the BookExpo this past May. They had a bio video that showed students hanging off the rafters in his lecture hall-- the most popular class at Harvard. And, I heard him speak in person, sort of a mini-lecture, albeit with the same material I had heard from his editor the previous evening at a panel featuring choice editors' picks.

Sandel is certainly an engaging speaker. He seemed a little disconcerted while attempting to interact with the older, more reticent crowd (probably a median age of 45 at the BookExpo versus the more familiar bold & brightest 19-year-olds), but one could tell that he is intelligent and passionate about his subject. He must have charmed those who should have known better within Farrar Straus Giroux, because the book itself is so poorly edited, that it is difficult for me to recommend it without qualification. I would have recommended to the publishers that they bundle the books as a companion to an audio or even a video of his reading the book or lecturing on the topics of Aristotle, utilitarianism, libertarianism, Kant, market theory and much more. With the sheer force of his personality leaping across the audio or visual medium, he might have been able to make this book a decent reading experience, although still a pale shade to live performance, er, I mean class offering.

In an open learning mode, a reader on his own can learn quite a bit and gather ammunition for almost any position. We can almost see the libertarian in each of us, while wanting to be really morally good -- whatever that means. Like a good teacher, Sandel makes every effort to stay objective, not take a stand on one position or another, explain how each situation would have been viewed by expousers of one philosophy of justice (or, what is right, what is fair, what is morally good) versus another's. In that spirit, he manages to confuse, frustrate and bore the reader who has no outlet to air opinions or ask for further clarification. However, I must concede that as a reference from philosophy to real, current world situations, it is more accessible than actually reading and then, interpreting Aristotle, Immanual Kant or John Rawls on one's own. And, I like to recommend anything that might get us all to think about and again yearn for a civil society.

It's on our shelves, so check it out!

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