Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a book by Michael Sandel. It deals with some of the philosophical thoughts on justice, such as utilitarianism and libertarianism, and links them to real life issues (mostly American).

As with my other Book Reviews, this is partly a guide to what is in the book, and a reminder and reference for me. I also discuss my opinions on some of the issues are relate them to some other articles. As Ethics is one of key tools which help us decide what we should do, it features in How do we decide.

This is a work in progress, published in incomplete form to enable it to be linked to from other places.


Doing the Right Thing

I am a Debian developer, and the concept of Doing the Right Thing is so embedded into the Free Software movement that it is often abbreviated to DTRT. The desire to do the right thing does not prevent discussions becoming heated and sometimes breaking down. At least internally Debian has a code of conduct which helps keep discussions civilised.

The foregoing has taken me beyond the scope of the book, which begins with a description of the impact of Hurricane Charley on prices of goods and services in Florida in its wake.

The Runaway Trolley

This introduces the Trolley Problem – in which, hypothetically you are standing by a switch next to a railway line, down which a runaway trolley car is hurtling, and after it passes you will run over and kill 5 people. If you pull the switch you can divert it to another track, which will result in the death of 1 person instead. The situation allows for exploration of plenty of options, and often crops up in discussions of autonomous vehicles.

The Afghan Goatherds

This section introduces the moral dilemma faced by Marcus Luttrell in Afghanistan, where a small team of 4 US Navy SEALs on a reconnaissance mission encountered a group of 3 unarmed Afghan goatherds, including a boy. They let the goatherds go on their way, and are subsequently attacked by Taliban fighters, who kill all but one of them, and shoot down one of the helicopters sent to rescue them. Marcus is left as the Lone Survivor. Michael Sandel compares this to the Trolley Problem from the previous chapter, posing the question as whether it would have been justifiable to kill 3 Afghan civilians to save the 3 SEAL team members who did not survive and the 16 US servicemen in the helicopter.

Reading Farewell Kabul, by Christina Lamb has given me more perspective on the situation, and like the Trolley problem, gives scope for reflection. In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – would we come to the same conclusions about what was right if the military personnel were Russian and the civilians, and native guerrilla force were Ukrainian, and if not, what distinguishes the cases ? In fact, although ‘Justice‘, and ‘Lone Survivor‘ describe a discussion as to whether to shoot the goatherds, Navy Special Warfare Command spokesman Lieutenant Steve Ruh said that this would not have even been considered as the Rules of Engagement clearly prohibit killing the civilians.

The operation within a framework of rules, agreed in advance, and openly and collaboratively created seems to me to be the key thing. Organisations or countries who want to be trusted need to follow these rules, and where they break them, the should have systems to investigate in a transparent way.

This links into my themes of The reasoned feedback loop, and Transparency and Trust.

The Greatest Happiness Principle / Utilitarianism

Do we own ourselves ? / Libertarianism

Hired Help / Markets and Morals

Discusses free markets, from an ethics, rather than economics perspective. The book Good Economics for Hard Times also discusses free markets, from the economics side.

What’s Just – Drafting Soldiers or Hiring Them ?

What matters is the Motive / Immanuel Kant

Points out that universal Human Rights are not compatible with strict Utilitarianism, as there can be cases where the collective happiness is maximised at a cost of creating substantial misery in a smaller number.

Kant’s case for rights

Kant’s first major work, the Critique of Pure Reason, describes a framework for morality which depends on the idea that we are rational beings, worthy of dignity and respect.

The case for equality / John Rawls

Arguing Affirmative Action

Who deserves what ? / Aristotle

What do we owe one another / Dilemmas of loyalty

Justice and the Common Good

A discussion of the interaction of religious belief and politics, beginning with John F Kennedy‘s 1960 speech on the role of religion in politics, where he promises his political decisions will not be influenced by his Catholic beliefs. This is followed by an introduction to Barak Obama‘s views on the subject.

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