• Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Justice




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Reviews and Profiles

Publishers Weekly-8/31/2009

Harvard government professor Sandel (Public Philosophy) dazzles in this sweeping survey of hot topics—the recent government bailouts, the draft, surrogate pregnancies, same-sex marriage, immigration reform and reparations for slavery—that situates various sides in the debates in the context of timeless philosophical questions and movements. Sandel takes utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative and Rawls's theory of justice out of the classroom, dusts them off and reveals how crucial these theories have been in the construction of Western societies—and how they inform almost every issue at the center of our modern-day polis. The content is dense but elegantly presented, and Sandel has a rare gift for making complex issues comprehensible, even entertaining (see his sections entitled “Shakespeare versus the Simpsons and “What Ethics Can Learn from Jack Benny and Miss Manners”), without compromising their gravity. With exegeses of Winnie the Pooh, transcripts of Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing and the works of almost every major political philosopher, Sandel reveals how even our most knee-jerk responses bespeak our personal conceptions of the rights and obligations of the individual and society at large. Erudite, conversational and deeply humane, this is truly transformative reading. (Oct.)

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The New York Times--9/25/2009

Many of the 14,000 or so students who have taken Harvard’s wildly popular course “Justice” with Michael J. Sandel over the years have heard the rumor that their professor has a television avatar: Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s soulless ghoul of a boss at Springfield’s nuclear power plant.

The joke, of course, is that Mr. Sandel — who at one time or another taught several future writers for Fox’s “Simpsons” and shares a receding hairline with the evil-minded cartoon character — is the anti-Burns, a moral philosopher who has devoted his life to pondering what is the right thing to do.--Patricia Cohen

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The Seattle Times--9/27/2009

Imagine that you are the driver of an out-of-control trolley hurtling at 60 miles per hour down the tracks toward a group of five workers who cannot get out of the way. You notice a side track onto which you can divert the trolley, which would save the lives of those standing on the tracks.

Unfortunately, though, if diverted onto the side track, the trolley will just as certainly kill a lone worker standing on the sidetracks and he will die solely on account of your actions. Should you turn the trolley? Is that a moral choice even though it certainly means that, through your actions, you will have directly caused the death of the individual on the side track?--Kevin J. Hamilton

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Chronicle of Higher Education--9/28/2009

Michael Sandel, a 56-year-old political scientist who teaches one of Harvard's most popular courses, "Justice," shrinks that university's cavernous Sanders Theatre down to a seminar room. An exaggeration, yes, but not by much. Sandel handles 1,000 students more adroitly than most teachers can a tenth, a fiftieth, that number.

Watch him present the infamous 19th-century law case The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, a staple of the literature but new to these students. From the lectern, the elegant Sandel—lean, white hair, three-button suit—tells the grim story, and he tells it hushed and urgent. In 1884 the British ship Mignonette foundered in the South Atlantic. The four crewmen, including the captain, escaped in a lifeboat, with only two cans of turnips for sustenance. One of the survivors was the cabin boy, 17, an orphan, who soon took sick after drinking seawater.--Christopher Shea

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The Wall Street Journal--10/28/2009

There have been various attempts over the decades to bury moral philosophy -- to dismiss convictions about right and wrong as cultural prejudices, or secretions of the brain, or matters so personal they shouldn't even affect our private lives.

But moral questions always return, as puzzles and as tragedies. Would we push a hefty man onto a railroad track to save the lives of five others? Should Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, in June of 2005, have executed a group of Afghan goatherds who, having stumbled on his position, might inform the enemy about his unit? (Luttrell let them go, the Taliban attacked, and three of his comrades died.)

These examples and others -- price-gouging after Hurricane Katrina, affirmative action, gay marriage -- are all grist for the teaching of Michael Sandel, perhaps the most prominent college professor in America. His popular class at Harvard -- Moral Reasoning 22: Justice -- attracts about a sixth of all undergraduates. For those lacking $49,000 a year in tuition and board, he has written "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?" which has been further translated into a PBS series and a Web site, JusticeHarvard.org.--Michael Gerson

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The New York Times Book Review--11/27/2009

Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University, seeks to bring implicit arguments over justice into the open, and to persuade liberals that there is nothing wrong with being judgmental. In debates ranging from affirmative action and surrogate parenting to abortion and same-sex marriage, we must talk, he says, about virtue and desert, not just compassion and choice. “Justice is inescapably judgmental,” he writes. “A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.”

“Justice,” the book, is based on a course Sandel teaches at Harvard, which is one of the most popular classes on campus and has been made into a 12-part PBS series. To undergraduates suckled on open-­mindedness at any cost, the repudiation of value-­free politics may seem surprising, but it is hardly new territory. Almost 20 years ago, in his 1991 book “Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State,” William A. Galston — a center-left political theorist and strategist who later served in the Clinton administration — argued, more probingly than Sandel does here, that modern liberalism cannot and should not fix upon neutrality as its pole star. “Like every other political community,” Galston wrote, the liberal state “embraces a view of the human good that favors certain ways of life and tilts against others.” Partly at the urging of Galston and other “new Democrats,” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have brought values, and specifically the notion that some values are better than others, back into the mainstream of progressive politics.

What “Justice” does, and does very well, is teach. Sandel explains theories of justice based on utilitarianism (minimize social harm), libertarianism (maximize personal freedom) and communitarianism (cultivate civic virtue) with clarity and immediacy honed by years of classroom presentation; the ideas of Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Robert Nozick and John Rawls have rarely, if ever, been set out as accessibly. Sandel’s virtuosic untangling of Kant’s notorious knots, in under 40 pages, is worth the price of admission by itself. If “Justice” breaks no new philosophical ground, it succeeds at something perhaps no less important: in terms we can all understand, it confronts us with the concepts that lurk, so often unacknowledged, beneath our conflicts.--Jonathan Rauch

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