Justice by Michael J. Sandel

Justice by Michael J. Sandel


Author: Michael J. Sandel
Date read: April 2018
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10

Read more on Amazon

Summary & High Level Thoughts

Michael Sandel is an american political philosophist who, for the better part of two decades, taught a Hardvard course exploring the different notions of justice and what's the right thing to do.

After 14,000 students went through his lessons, he transformed them into a book. The result, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? is a fantastic introduction to three different concepts of justice – utilitarianism, libertarianism and virtue.

If you are struggling with understanding what's just and what isn't, what's the right thing to do, and what YOU should do, then this book is for you.

I don't necesarilly agree with his final assessement, but it's a fantastic read nonetheless.


Close your eyes.

Imagine you are the driver of a trolley cart advancing down the track at 100 kilometers an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track. You try to stop buy tou can't. The breaks don't work.

If you crash, they'll all die.

Suddenly, you notice a side track. There is a worker there, but just one. Now you have an option: you can turn the trolley and kill just one person.

What would you do?

Most people would pull the lever and turn the trolley, reducing the fatalities to just one.

Now imagine you aren't driving but rather an onlooker. You are standing on the side of the tracks and you see the train coming at full speed. Right next to you is a huge man. You have the chance to push the person next to you and stop the trolley.

What would you do?

Most people would argue that pushing the man over is wrong.

Why does the principle – kill one person to save five – seems right in the first case but not the second one?

If you've struggled to answer the question, then this book is for you.

There are three different ways to think about justice.


Utilitarianism sustains that only pain and pleasure exist, and justice means the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

As a result, decisions and legislation should be guided by weighing cost/benefit for the social good.

Let's look at taxation. Utilitarianism suggests that we should maximize the utility of wealth. The benefit of $1,000,000 to Jeff Bezos is only marginal. But split it into 20 pieces of $50,000 and you are changing the lives of 20 families.

So a progressive tax system that heavily taxes the rich to provide services to the less afluent sounds like a good idea.

Sounds good, right?

Now imagine a country suffering from a lack of organ donors. Utilitarian ethics would show us murdering the homeless provides us a steady stream of donor organs. The homeless were miserable anyway so the 8 lives saved for each murder more than makes up the utility.

Utilitarianism doesn't sound so good now, right?

There are two big issues with utilitarianism. First, there's no real, practical way to accurately measure the cost/benefit of something. The ramifications of a decision like progressive taxing are enormous.

Our capitalist system of wealth creation is based on incentives. If those incentives disappear people might work less and there would be less wealth to go around. This would cause net utility to go down.

Second, when the social good is the main progress indicator, individual rights aren't respected.

Utilitarianism makes justice a matter of calculation and treats everyone, qualitatively flat.


Libertarianism sustains that justice means respecting freedom of choice, as long as those choices don't harm or affect your peers – either the free choices someone would do in a market (called libertarianisms) or the hypothetical choices someone would do from a position of equality (called the liberal egalitarian view).

Let's look at the organ donors market again.

Under a libertarian view, people own themselves. Any alternative would involve some form of slavery. Part of that is being able to sell, give away or exchange your own organs for whatever reason you choose.

The ramifications of that (an organ's black market, wrong incentives) don't matter, since the number priority is freedom.

Stephen G Post, of the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine’s Center for Biomedical Ethics sustains that in India, where a huge black market in nonvital body parts provide kidneys for the wealthy, it is the poor who sell.

Now something to think about – is this truly freedom, as the libertarian proclaims?

Virtue and common good

The third idea of justice, which I'm referring to as virtue involves cultivating virtue and reasoning over the common good.

Sandel sustains that he prefers the third approach. In an interview, he suggests that justice means giving people what they deserve, "where what they deserve depends on their virtue and depends on sorting out hard questions about the good life."

He sustains that justice in a good society can't be just about securing freedom of choice but us, as a society, have the obligastion to reason about justice and the meaning of the good life and foster a culture that support the disagreements.

The real difficulty begins with figuring out who deserves what and why.


Most of our debates today involve a fight between the first two approaches: the utilitarian idea and the libertarian idea. Sandel suggest we think about torture as a means of showing that neither are correct.

Take the torture debate. Some would say on utilitarian grounds that you should torture the terrorist suspect if you need the information desperately and you can’t get it any other way and many lives are at stake. But then put to the utilitarian this question: suppose the only way to get the information from the terrorist suspect is not to torture him but to torture his innocent 14 year old daughter. Would you do it? Even most utilitarians would hesitate. Why? Not because they don’t care about numbers, but because there’s a deep moral intuition that the girl is innocent, she doesn’t deserve to be tortured. Whereas a lot of people who would say torture in the original ticking time bomb situation is justified—many of them are resting that thought on the idea that ‘Well he’s a pretty bad guy anyhow, he desrrves rough treatment, he’s a terrorist.’ So this idea of who deserves what and why, and what does this have to do with the virtue of persons is at play often without our realising it, in many of the arguments we have. So what I’m trying to do is to show that in many of the debates we have about justice, not only utility and rights but also questions of desert, virtue and the common good as Aristotle understood them, are in play and indispensable today.
Gonz Sanchez

About Gonz Sanchez

Argentinean in Paris. I read, fly, speak 4 languages, and lift heavy things. I don't mind the occasional burger or ramen. My body is not symmetrical, which led me to stoicism and writing.