Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Michael Sandel has produced a brilliant introduction to western theories of justice, but it begs for accompanying analysis from Christian thinkers.

January 8 th 2010
Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?by Michael Sandel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.


Can we stop the steady spread of corruption and injustice in our modern civic life? Michael Sandel argues that we can, and his recent book will no doubt persuade many to join him in his sophisticated yet convincing optimism.

Sandel is one of Harvard's most popular professors, and has written extensively in fields of political philosophy and political morality. Among his many published works are The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, 2009), Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006) and the edited collection Justice: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 2007).

This recent, more popular book is really quite remarkable; I confess that I audibly whispered "brilliant" many times in my reading, leading both family members and fellow airplane travelers to gaze at me in wonder. On the other hand, Sandel's argument rests on some questionable assumptions—humanism and naturalism in particular—that require careful evaluation and critique.

All told, this book deserves more praise than criticism. Sandel's style is energetic, clear and engaging. So is his personal delivery—you can see him at work teaching his very popular justice class at Harvard. Sandel's gentle, Socratic method keeps him from appearing as if he is affirming too much at any point, allowing us the freedom to wrestle with the issues, rather than the author.

His book more than earns its reasonable price for its endless supply of historical case-studies. Price gouging, welfare, redistribution of wealth, surrogacy, military violence, military service, same-sex marriage, social equality, salaries and conduct in professional sports, capitalist economics, patriotism and loyalty, physician-assisted suicide and on and on the list goes. Each case encourages us to sympathize with new perspectives on the nature of justice in question. For example, Sandel ends one section saying,

It is hard to imagine two human activities more dissimilar than bearing children and fighting wars. But the pregnant surrogates in India and the soldier Andrew Carnegie hired to take his place in the Civil War have something in common. Thinking through rights and wrongs of their situations brings us face to face with two of the questions that divide competing conceptions of justice: How free are the choices we make in the free market? And are there certain virtues and higher goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Chapter by chapter, Sandel uses these studies to illumine the history of justice in the western tradition and the historical giants who have carried it along: Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Hume, Locke, Kant and Rawls. I cannot think of a better introduction to these figures in print today. But the book is not just a textbook summary of views; it is a spirited call—to Americans in particular—to rethink their understanding of justice and practices in our morally- and religiously-charged public sphere:

Many of the most hotly contested issues of justice and rights can't be debated without taking up controversial moral and religious questions . . . These are not merely philosophical questions. They lie at the heart of any attempt to reinvigorate political discourse and renew our civic life. (p. 243)

That said, the book must be received critically. The review of the western giants of justice excludes Augustine, Aquinas and Grotius. And, while we will find references to Oprah Winfrey, Monica Lewinsky and Arnold Palmer, no mention is made of the most prominent Christian scholars who have written on justice in our generation, like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Oliver O'Donovan, nor of postmodern scholars, like Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Foucault, who have done their best to muddy the waters.

These omissions are helpful signs of Sandel's own worldview. He clearly wants to work with religious and non-western philosophies, but in no way within them. With no real analysis on the problem of worldview which he raises, Sandel moves quickly to align himself within Alisdair MacIntyre's ethics of "storytelling beings." Our relationship to justice, rights, duties and religions is situated in the storied world into which we are born, and in which we find these terms relevant. The ethical life is one that thinks and acts in harmony with the best (teleological) ends of our particular—that is, western—cultural story. Wolterstorff labels these modern, popular traditions of moral philosophers the "eudemonists" because of the way they build on Aristotle's theory of virtue and the most appropriately or fittingly lived life.

Omitting the Christian, non-western and postmodern traditions greatly simplifies Sandel's task, enabling him to confine justice to three basic options: utilitarianism (maximizing the good), libertarianism (free choices) and liberal egalitarianism (hypothetical choices people would make in an original position of equality). Such simplicity gives his argument a certain magnetic appeal, but it also reveals a conspicuous weakness.

Many cultures and philosophical traditions have a far more nuanced and arguably far more satisfying approaches to understanding justice. I am disappointed, therefore, that Sandel fails to acknowledge pre-classical and non-western notions of justice, whether in Israel, Egypt, Asia or Africa. Sandel's justice remains bound to a disenchanted view of the world with autonomous human beings at its centre (humanism) and an epistemology which goes about acquiring knowledge through non-religious, rational and scientific method (naturalism).

Postmodernism gains its fame for pointing out the vicious circularity of this scientific naturalism. Yet it gladly accepts Sandel's humanism. And, in all of its trenchant critique, postmodernism offers us little upon which to build just civilizations. We must look elsewhere, and in doing so, go beyond Sandel's work in search of answers to the problems of modern humanism and postmodern irrationalism.

Sensing this problem, Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2008), seeks to locate right and wrong first within God's divine nature and then subsequently in human nature as made in the image of God (Genesis 1). His rigorous and sophisticated philosophy gives Christians a confident footing to begin answering the questions justice poses today. Yet I have never fully understood why Wolterstorff is so reluctant to ground his philosophy and his understanding of justice in the created order of the world, especially when the biblical text he alludes to so often is part of a highly structured chapter about the order and fittingness of humans in the creation itself (Genesis 1:1-2:4).

Put another way, when the psalmist says that "the Lord loves righteousness and justice" (33:5), what exactly does he have in mind? Rights and equality? Perhaps, but is there more to it than that? The psalms are prayers, not theoretical treatises aimed at answering these questions directly. Significantly, though, Psalm 33 does juxtapose the praise of God's love for justice with an even longer praise of God's works in creation (verses 6-9). It is only natural to conclude that God's justice is grounded in the way he made the world.

Other non-western views of human culture and justice offer a similar perspective: justice is a matter of relating life to the norms and grooves in the creation itself. Ancient Egypt's Ma'at and the Mesopotamian notions of misharum, andurarum and nigsisa, which are usually paired with "wisdom," imagine justice as a matter of harmony and balance in the religious world order. So too Proverbs, whose authors are keenly aware of these traditions, orients wisdom to the created order in the world (3:19-20). Proverbs' view of justice is thus a matter of applying wisdom properly to the natural, social and cultural structures of that same world (1:1-3).

This helps us appreciate why Oliver O'Donovan's work on justice is so indispensable. In The Ways Of Judgment (Eerdmans, 2005), O'Donovan uses the principle of the created order to help us think not only of justice as an application of God's divine nature to the world, or even to human creatures made in his image, but more specifically in relation to the grooves and structures of the whole world that God made by wisdom. Judgment, or just actions, are those with correspond rightly to the norms and patterns God has woven into the world. Wisdom, which also figures so powerfully in O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order (Eerdmans, 1986), is our means to make just judgments which are properly attuned to the immense variety and historical developments of the creation. A theology of creation must undergird and inform our philosophy of human nature and divine justice.

Surely much more needs to be said about how this is done, and to my mind, Christians need to produce a range of introductory new resources on these subjects. Sandel's book can play an important role in this Christian task, both because it helps us communicate the contours of the western historical theory of justice, and because of its brilliant ability to tune our ears to the great complexity and diversity of life in God's world.

Topics: Justice
 

Ryan O'Dowd is Senior Visiting Lecturer at Cornell University where he also serves on the board of Chesterton House Christian study center. He is the former chair of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar (SAHS) and has taught biblical studies, religion, and social justice at Briercrest College, Redeemer University College, and the Paideia Centre for Public Theology. His books include The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom Literature (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2009) and, with Craig Bartholomew, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (InterVarsity, 2011). He and his wife Amy have four children and live in Ithaca, N.Y., where, in addition to his work teaching at Cornell, he is the pastor of Bread of Life Anglican Church (www.breadoflifeithaca.org).

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