• Elizabeth S

Book Review: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel


As law students, many of us went into our degrees with idealistic beliefs about justice, and how we could uphold it once we entered the legal profession. However, for most, if not all of us, these thoughts were pushed from our minds once we realised that the law bears little resemblance to the ideas of justice and fairness we previously held.

My Civil Litigation teacher made a point to end each lecture with a slide that said, “Never confuse justice with the law”, and since reading Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, I have a greater appreciation of why she did so.

His book is based on his Harvard course of the same name, which canvasses the prevailing philosophical viewpoints of centuries past, and applies them to issues so fervently contested in society today.

Affirmative action, abortion, war, same-sex marriage, justified killings, limiting personal freedoms, free market trade, slavery and politics are all discussed from different perspectives, offering a starting point to facilitate some really interesting discussions on what limits people are willing to place on such things, and why.

Consider this question that Sandel asks: can the killing of a few justify the saving of many? Your answer would probably depend on context. If it were a matter of allowing one to die to save 10 others from certain death by doing nothing, then perhaps you would say that the consequence of the death justified it. If it meant killing one to save the 10, then perhaps you would be more inclined to look to that person’s individual rights, and be less comfortable with their death. Unfortunately, the law cannot allow for all contextual possibilities. Murder is murder whether or not you subscribe to a consequentialist moral theory.

Realising just how far removed justice is from the law that many of us will practice in the coming years is somewhat disheartening. But from Sandel’s discussions not only of the countless number of moral dilemmas we may encounter in our profession, but the multitude of philosophical and moral standpoints each issue carries, it is not difficult to see why this is so. It makes me wonder how the law could ever possibly reflect true ‘justice’ when there are no moral absolutes. He illustrates beautifully in each chapter how a decision that represents justice for some might embody wickedness and immorality for others.

Aside from asking these more personally challenging questions, Sandel discusses the purpose of law from a number of philosophical perspectives. He examines Aristotle’s theory that one becomes just by performing just acts and that this is the primary purpose laws serve: to cultivate good habits and learn good character. However, many would argue that there is, and should be, a more significant punitive element than that theory suggests.

This book is a wonderful compilation of philosophical theories of law complemented by relevant examples, and offered me a refreshing balance of affirmation of my beliefs, and challenges to my morality and views on justice.

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