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What's the Right Thing to Do?

By Michael J. Sandel
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Justice by Michael J. Sandel

What is justice? How can we act in a just and morally correct way? Drawing on various examples from everyday life, Michael J. Sandel illustrates how differently the idea of justice can be interpreted, for example, by philosophers like Aristotle and Kant. Over the course of Justice (2009), he urges us to critically question our own convictions and societal conventions.

Key idea 1 of 12

Our understanding of justice is subjective and changing constantly.

Justice is both one of the most frequently debated and most difficult topics to grasp in philosophy, because our understanding of it is subjective, changing constantly over the course of history.

Is it right to sacrifice one person’s life to prevent the death of many others? Is it fair to tax rich people to help the poor? Is abortion a human right – or murder?

The answers to these questions differ depending on the individual. Everyone views them from a unique perspective that’s made up of different norms, values, experiences, and unfortunately also prejudices and resentments, all of which play a crucial role in determining our judgments.

Moreover, the history of philosophy shows us that the answers to questions of justice are always bound to the era in which they were asked.

In ancient theories such as Aristotle’s, justice was closely linked to virtue and the “good life”: a society is only just when it fosters and rewards the virtues of its citizens. So before we ask what is just, we have to know what constitutes a good life.

According to a more modern philosophy like Utilitarianism, justice always revolves around general well-being: justice is what increases the sense of happiness among the majority.

Other modern theories like the Libertarian philosophy see the most important part of a just society as the guarantee of freedom to every individual to live their lives according to their own rules.

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