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improving the status of Malay people and of Malaysia itself. This Mahathir transformed Malaysia into a modern, industrialised economy, lifting millions of its citizens out of poverty in the process. But he is simultaneously an unflinching authoritarian, who brazenly undermined democratic institutions and wilfully allowed corruption to flourish to hold onto absolute power. This Mahathir needlessly squandered much of Malaysia’s wealth, polarised its people, and restricted their freedoms. Wain’s book has not yet been approved for sale in Malaysia, a somewhat ironic reflection of the fact that much of Mahathir’s antidemocratic legacy lives on. But in nearby Singapore, copies are walking off the shelf. Reviewed by Jessica Brown
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? By Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009 US $16.50, 320 pages ISBN 9780374180652
hen can you eat the cabin boy? This and many other questions are at the heart of Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel’s most recent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. Sandel has a reputation for being a master of philosophical pedagogy, which he has developed over the last two decades teaching one of Harvard University’s most popular courses, also called Justice.
Thousands of students have taken Justice in the classroom, and now the rest of the world can take a free online course sans Harvard’s astronomical fees. Justice, is in effect, the companion textbook to the online course. Sandel covers the major moral theories of Western civilisation— Bentham’s utilitarianism, Robert Nozick’s libertarianism, Aristotle’s virtue theory, Kant’s categorical imperative, and John Rawls’ veil of ignorance—and presents case studies relating to patriotism and affirmative action. Other philosophical writers can get bogged down in boring, theoretical detail and turgid writing. Not Sandel. He uses appropriate real world examples that ground the theory in the present day, giving otherwise dry theories contemporary importance. Consider, for example, the well-known theoretical case study of the runaway trolley—which examines some of the problems with utilitarianism and the value of life. The scenario has many variations but it involves the choice between the death of one person (who is usually innocent) and the deaths of many more (who may be less innocent). The runaway trolley scenario challenges utilitarianism and the notion that all lives are worth the same. It also helps explore the difference between killing someone and letting someone die. Sandel gives the runaway trolley scenario a real world edge with the case of the Afghan goatherds. In June 2005, a group of four US Navy SEALs on secret patrol
in Afghanistan were found by two unarmed Afghan goat herders and a boy. Sandel succinctly describes the SEAL’s ethical dilemma: On the one hand the goatherds appeared to be unarmed civilians. On the other hand, letting them go would run the risk that they would inform the Taliban of the presence of the U.S. soldiers. As the four soldiers contemplated their options, they realized that they didn’t have any rope, so tying up the Afghans to allow time to find a new hideout was not feasible. The only choice was to kill them or let them go free. The SEALs let the goat herders go free. An hour and a half later the SEALs were surrounded by around one hundred Taliban fighters. Three of the four SEALs were killed and a U.S. rescue helicopter carrying sixteen soldiers was shot down as well. In short, freeing the goat herders led to the deaths of nineteen U.S. soldiers. This example, and others, gives the book a grounded feel and practical edge lacking in other works of philosophy. Robert Nozick’s libertarianism gets a fair treatment by outlining a number of key arguments for and against libertarian positions on self-ownership. Perhaps the most interesting example used to illustrate one of the dilemmas with libertarianism, which Sandel claims is the
Policy • Vol. 26 No. 2 • Winter 2010
Some parts of the final chapter are overt attacks on Republicans and George W. By the end of the chapter. Brandes killed and butchered Meiwes and placed the edible parts in the freezer. Sandel has produced an easy to understand introduction into the key contributors to moral philosophy. and Barack Obama.BOOK reVIeWs ‘ultimate test for the libertarian principle of self-ownership. Kennedy.justiceharvard. Bush’s administration. the Critique of Practical Reason. Sandel discusses Kant’s core ideas with a clarity hard to find elsewhere. the reader should be left with a solid understanding of Kant’s moral philosophy. following from the principle of self-ownership. they should not be dissuaded from reading it as a refresher course or at the very least watching the online lectures at www. Sandel. or the Metaphysics of Morals will know that it is hard slog through dense prose. which he uses to make interesting points regarding philosophy’s impact on modern political problems like gay marriage. Similarly. Few philosophers can use an advertising slogan like Sprite’s ‘Obey your thirst’ to illustrate Kant’s idea of freedom and its relation to morality. 26 No. The exception is the final chapter in which Sandel’s own views come to the fore with references to John F.’ It is the story of a Bernd-Jurgen Brandes. Meiwes met with Brandes and gave his consent to be eaten. Robert F. a 43-year-old software engineer who responded to online ad from a 42-year-old computer technician Armin Meiwes seeking someone willing to be killed and eaten. Reviewed by Andrew Baker Policy • Vol. John Rawls and in particular his masterpiece A Theory of Justice. Brandes had consumed 40 pounds of Meiwes. He also gives a brief overview of Aristotle’s theory of justice and his teleological arguments. Although Justice is no substitute for reading the works themselves. The partisanship in the final chapter is not enough to diminish the book as a whole. abortion and the stem cell debate. gives Rawls’ liberalism a thorough going over in Justice. Sandel has done a lot of the hard work for you. Most of the book is an exercise in intellectual balance—it is virtually impossible to discern Sandel’s own views of morality when reading any of the chapters. Kennedy. By the time he was caught. Sandel manages to successfully digest for the lay reader the basic ideas behind both Kant and Rawls into a chapter each. Sandel gives a good overview of perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the latter half of the twentieth century. Although anyone who has studied moral or political philosophy at the undergraduate level will be familiar with the contents of Justice. and the broader problem of inequality.org/. would hold that preventing the transaction between Brandes and Meiwes would be unjust— presenting perhaps the most challenging problem facing libertarians. it seems more like a call to arms for American liberals to engage in moral debate with their conservative opponents. Libertarians. He treats each philosophy with respect and in a good light. While the references are useful in illustrating the evolution of liberal thought in America from the liberal neutrality of JFK to the more faith-inclusive Obama. who had made his name in philosophy with his thorough critique of Rawls’ work in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Those wanting an introduction to moral philosophy should devour this book. diminishes the even-handed tone of the preceding chapters.’ is the case of the ‘Cannibal of Rotenburg. the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. 2 • Winter 2010 61 . The brief diversion into Sandel’s politics. which Sandel does successfully. Anyone who has read (or tried to read) Kant’s classic works such as the Critique of Pure Reason. but not without criticism.
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