I love books like this: they challenge the mind and lead to great discussions.
Michael Sandel teaches a very popular course at Harvard entitled “Justice.” It’s available in video through the iTunes University (a phenomenal resource, I might add.) Sandel uses a series of hypothetical situations to focus the class on the different ways philosophers would have analyzed and puzzled out solutions to the problems raised in the hypotheticals. (This somewhat Socratic method is also used very effectively in several magnificent series created by Fred Friendly: The Constitution: That Delicate Balance and Ethics in America I & II - both available for free and I cannot recommend them too highly.)*
Sandel, reprises some of the major themes of that course in this fascinating book. I listened to this book as an audiobook and it’s read by Sandel who does an excellent narration. He again begins by posing several moral dilemmas and uses those as jumping off points for a discussion of the three philosophical theories and asking how they might help us decide what constitutes justice: that which provides the maximum good to the largest possible number of people; individual freedoms as opposed to collective virtues; or that which promotes the development of harmonious communities.
One example of a moral dilemma is taken from a true story. A platoon sergeant in Afghanistan was behind Taliban lines with three other soldiers on patrol when they came across two goat herders with their flock. Knowing that if they released the goat herders their position might be revealed they had to make a decision: whether to kill the goat herders and possibly save themselves, or whether to let them go and assume they were innocent civilians. They had no way to simply disable the man and boy and leave them. The sergeant polled his men and the vote was to kill them, but, examining his “Christian conscience” the sergeant decided to let them live. They were later ambushed by the Taliban and all of his men were killed and he barely escaped having been severely injured. In fact the rescue chopper sent to rescue them was shot down killing those on board. The sergeant later said he had made the wrong decision and should have killed the goat herders. Thank goodness I have never been faced with such a dilemma.
A really intriguing case was that of how we view our bodies. The Libertarian argues we own our bodies and therefore can do whatever we want with them. Can we then sell our body parts? Let’s envision the poor Indian who desperately wants to send his children to college. He sells one kidney. Problems yet? Now along comes a second child and the man is willing to sell his second kidney for his child even knowing that he cannot survive. How many of us would approve of his decision? Is he despicable? or a hero? So if he is despicable, how about the man who throws himself in front of the train to push his child out of the way who wandered on to the tracks. I suspect most people would consider him a hero, yet he is deliberately sacrificing his life for that of the child? How is that different from the Indian? A real case involved a prisoner in the Califonia prison system (LINK) who wanted to donate his remaining kidney to his daughter (the first donation had failed to take.) How is his willingness to self-sacrifice his life for his child different from the fellow with the fellow who saves his daughter from the train? The UC Ethics board denied his request. So does their decision mean that the state owns his body and can determine what to do with it? And what if a pregnant woman decided to sell (does it make a difference if it’s a donation as opposed to a sale?) her fetus? What are the rights of the state?
Sandel uses the last couple of chapters to state his own preference of what constitutes Justice. I found these the least interesting of the book. The best part if his weaving of the hypotheticals with a deep understanding of the historical and philosophical viewpoints.
Listening to this book, I was reminded of a talk I heard given by Rushworth Kidder whose point was that deciding between good and evil is easy; the hard decisions are those that require choosing between two goods each of which may have a different outcome.
My wife and I listened to this book on a trip and the dilemmas posed some very lively discussions.
* http://www.learner.org/resources/series72.html and http://www.learner.org/resources/series81.html