Comprehensive Exam Study Guide Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do (2009) by Michael J. Sandel C



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Comprehensive Exam Study Guide

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do (2009) by Michael J. Sandel

Ch. 1: Doing the Right Thing
Issues of price-gouging after a natural disaster, whether psychological wounds deserve a Purple Heart, the economic bailout raise questions about three approaches to justice: welfare, freedom, and virtue.
Should a trolley driver kill five ahead of his runaway car or turn down a sidetrack and kill only one? Do soldiers in Afghanistan kill unarmed goatherds or let them go and risk their being informants (who then bring Taliban forces who do, in fact, kill all the American troops who released them)?
A democratic society is rife with disagreements about right and wrong—with moral dilemmas.
Ch. 2: The Greatest Happiness Principle – Utilitarianism
Should Thomas Dudley’s men in a lifeboat have killed and eaten a cabin boy so that the other three could survive?
Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism holds that the highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness (by “utility” he means whatever produces pleasure or happiness and whatever prevents pain or suffering)

  • What about throwing Christians to lions if it brings ecstasy to the audience?

  • Is torture justified? What about torturing the suspect’s young daughter?

Utilitarianism purports to offer a science of morality, weighing preferences without judging them.

  • Phillip Morris study found that smokers die young, so actually save on health care.

  • Ford engineers knew that the Pinto’s gas tank would explode, but that only 180 would be burned to death.

  • Should the lives of the young be valued at more than the lives of the old?

Edward Thorndike, 1930s social psychologist, felt that any want or satisfaction could be measured and assigned a value.

  • Should Oxford women students be allowed to have “3 overnight male guests per week” as long as each men pay 50 pence?

John Stuart Mill tried to re-cast Utilitarianism more humanely: On Liberty (1859) argues that the only actions for which a person is accountable to society are those that affect others—My independence is absolute, and I am sovereign over my body and mind as long as I am not harming another. Actions are right in proportion as they promote happiness; wrong to the degree that they promote the reverse of happiness.

  • Does The Simpsons or Hamlet produce more pleasure?

Mills states that “It is better to be a human

Ch.3: Do We Own Ourselves: Libertarianism
In the U.S., the richest 1 % of the population possess a third of the nation’s wealth. Issues like this prompt a debate between those who feel an injustice and libertarians.
Libertarians reject 3 types of policies and laws that modern states commonly enact:

1. No Paternalism – laws that protect people from harming themselves

2. No Morals Legislation – laws to promote a notion of virtue

3. No Redistribution of wealth


Libertarian views do not fit neatly onto the liberal vs. conservative or Democrat vs. Republican spectrum.
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) claims that an individual’s rights are so strong, that a question is raised about what, if anything, the State has the right to do.

  • The State has the right only to enforce contracts and protect citizens against force, theft, and fraud

  • People cannot be forced even to help others

  • Unforced economic inequality is not wrong

  • Taxation of earnings is on par with forced labor despite objections that 1. Taxation is not forced labor; 2. The poor need money more than the super-rich; 3. The rich, like Michael Jordan, owe a debt to society for enabling their wealth; 4. Jordan lives in a democracy where he subscribes to rules about taxes; 5. Jordan is lucky

  • Selling one’s organs, assisted suicide, and consensual cannibalism are OK, since we “own ourselves” according to Libertarians


Ch. 4: Hired Help: Markets and Morals
The morality of free markets: paying people to fight wars and to bear children

  • Objections to Military Conscription: 1. for those conscripted, usually poor, the free market is all that free; 2. Civic virtue and common good preclude this type of behavior (Rousseau held enforced labor to be less opposed to liberty than taxes)

  • Mary Beth Whitehead agreed to bear a child for $10,000 but changed her mind and kept the baby: the judge upheld the contract against the objections that Whitehead’s consent was less than voluntary and that the deal was “baby-selling. But the state Supreme Court overturned his decision and she got the baby back (ribs and all). Outsourcing of baby-selling continues to raise moral qualms


Ch. 5: What Matters is the Motive: Immanuel Kant
Kant’s Case for Rights: Groundwork harshly critiques Bentham’s Utilitarianism and offers a basis for the “Rights of Man,” addressing the questions of “What is the supreme principle of morality?” and “What is Freedom?”: Kant rejects the rationale’s of maximizing welfare and of promoting virtue as a basis for moral decisions.

  • Rejection of Utilitarianism: Kant holds that just because something gives us pleasure doesn’t make it right

  • Rejection of Heteronomous Determinism: When we seek pleasure or to avoid pain, we are not really free; when we do anything for the sake of something else, we are instruments rather than authors of the purposes we pursue

  • For Kant, the moral worth of an action consists not of consequences, but intentions that motivate the act: a “good” is good not because of what it effects, but is good in itself or not; it must not only conform to the moral law, but be done for the sake of the moral law

  • “Duty” confers moral worth: A shopkeeper who decides not to cheat a child only because others may find out does not act morally. Doing good deeds out of compassion and altruism lacks moral worth, because it is done for pleasure; but a misanthrope who is kind out of acts with moral worth.

Kant distinguished 3 sets of oppositions:



  • Morality: duty (moral) vs. inclination (not moral)

  • Freedom: autonomy (internal) vs. heteronomy (external)

  • Reason: categorical (independent and non-contingent, so moral) vs. hypothetical (contingent and conditional, so not moral):

  • Standpoints; intelligible (independent of natural laws) vs. sensible (subject to nature)

For Kant, a categorical imperative involves something that “by itself commands absolutely and without any further motives”: Only when I act within a categorical imperative do I behave morally.



  • Categorical Imperative 1 – Universalize your Maxim (act only by a maxim that you can will would be a universal law)

  • Categorical Imperative 2 – Treat persons as ends in themselves (so that suicide is wrong, b/c I would be treating myself as a means to end pain)

Link between Morality and Freedom: I can be free only when acting autonomously, unconditioned by desires; I can be moral only under the same conditions. So freedom and morality are, essentially, one and the same.


Questions for Kant:

1. Isn’t the Categorical Imperative to treat others as ends the same as the Golden Rule?

No, since the Golden Rule is based on the contingency of how others want to be treated, according to which I might even lie to spare someone a harsh truth, if that’s how “I’d want to be treated in the same circumstance.”

2. If duty means subservience to a law, how can I be free when I must behave out of duty?

My freedom comes only if I am the author of the law to which I bind myself in duty.

3. If the categorical imperative is a product of my own will, wouldn’t different individuals come up with different categorical imperatives?



No, since we “choose” not as individuals but as rational beings, all of whom would choose the same, according to what Kant calls pure practical reason. It is only from the standpoint of the intelligible realm that I can regard myself as free, not as I am subject to physiology, biology, nature. The categorical imperatives are possible, only because the idea of freedom makes me a member of the intelligible world.
Kant’s Case against Casual Sex (...had to be a catch…): it treats others as ends in themselves: but if a murderer at the door want a friend hiding in the close, it is not moral to lie outright to the murderer, but it IS morally permissible to offer a true but misleading statement
Kant believes in a social contract by which governments get the right to govern, but unlike Locke (who believed citizens gave tacit consent to an actual social contract), Kant believes the contract to be not actual, but imaginary—it is based on the idea of reason that has practical reality, since the ruler adopts reasonable laws that could have been produced by the will of the whole nation and obligate each citizen as though he had formally consented to the law.
--See, you CAN understand Kant--

Ch. 6: John Rawls: the Case for Equality and the Difference Principle
Rawls, an American 20th century political philosopher, view of social contract: it is a hypothetical agreement that people choose as if from behind a “veil of ignorance” that temporarily veils us from knowing anything about who we are—our class, gender, race, religion, etc.—so no one has a superior position and the principles we choose are just. The contract must be based on the principles we would choose from “an original position of equality.”

  • Two principles would emerge from this contract: basic liberties for all (like freedom of speech and religion) and social/economic equality.

  • Autonomy, and Reciprocity: contracts receive their moral force from these, but in actual contracts, the two parties are not usually equal in autonomy and reciprocity. Rawls’ hypothetical social contract is the ideal, in which the two parties are completely equal in every way, with no chance of deception or fraud.

  • For Rawls, from behind the veil of ignorance, we would not choose utilitarianism since we don’t know and agree to a principle where ALL are treated with respect; we would, however, adopt the difference principle, allowing only for differences in equality that work for the benefit of society’s most disadvantaged (such as higher pay for doctors).

  • Rawls believes that meritocracy is not just, since some are born into society with inherent advantages; talents and advantages, as well as the free market, are morally arbitrary

  • Objections to the Difference Principle: 1. What would be the incentive to work if we are simply all equal and wealth is allowed to be distributed equally? (Rawls would allow income differences for the sake of incentive to share talents); 2. Why shouldn’t an individual benefit from his own effort? (Rawls argues that even the impulse to exert effort stems from inherent advantages in upbringing).

  • Rawls rejects “Moral Desert”: he believes that distributive justice is not a matter of rewarding moral desert, since according to him, we do not “deserve” our place in society but depend on our family background and the advantages/disadvantages it brings: he rejects moral desert on two grounds, that, 1. I do not “deserve” necessarily what my talents bring to me, and, 2. the qualities that a society happens to value at any given time are arbitrary.


Ch. 7: Arguing Affirmative Action
Cheryl Hopwood, a white woman denied acceptance into the University of Texas Law School, challenged affirmative action (since her qualifications were higher than some minority candidates accepted) and lost.


  • To correct the testing gap, to compensate for past wrongs, to promote diversity are reasons given to justify affirmative action

  • Do racial preferences violate rights?: Universities, it is argued, accept candidates b/c of many non-objective, even non-academic criteria. Ronald Dworkin argues that race as a basis for affirmative action violates no one’s rights, since most factors that get me into schools are beyond my control.

  • Affirmative action for Whites?

Can justice be detached from moral desert or should it be the basis for distributive justice?



  • Advocates of meritocracy argue that people “deserve’ the good that comes to them

  • Rawls argues that no one “deserves” the natural capacity or life advantages that come to them by birth and position in society.

Why not “auction” college admission? Why shouldn’t colleges decide any means of admission?



  • For Dworkin, fairness requires only that no one be rejected out of prejudice or contempt.

Much modern political philosophy ties debates about justice to arguments of honor, virtue, and the meaning of “good” that people disagree about. Is the situation hopeless?


Ch. 8: Who Deserves What? Aristotle
Callie, a freshman girl with cerebral palsy, is kicked off the cheerleading squad at the end of the year and told that she’d have to try out like everyone else: the move was spearheaded by the father of the head cheerleader, whom some felt was jealous of her acclaim on the team.

  • Fairness: Should Callie be required to do the gymnastics of the other students to qualify? (Does she perform her role well as is, or is gymnastics a prerequisite for good cheerleading?)

  • Resentment: What kind of resentment might motivate the head cheerleader’s father? (That Callie doesn’t deserve the acclaim that his own daughter works so hard for?)

Aristotle’s Theory of Justice



  • Justice is teleological: it requires us to discern the telos (purpose, end, essential nature) of the action or social practice

  • Justice is honorific: to argue about telos is to argue about what honor or virtue the telos the action or practice should reward.

  • Justice means giving people what they deserve, but involves two factors: “things and the persons to whom the things are assigned”

Who gets the best tennis courts at a college: a poor-playing Nobel scientist or an expert varsity player who will make better use of it? Who gets the Stradivarius?: a collector who wants to display it or a virtuoso who will make great use of it?


We reject teleological arguments in science; to describe nature in terms of “purposes” seems naïve. Yet we continue to consider teleology in morality and ethics.
The Role of Politics and Happiness:

  • What is the “purpose” of a university? Of politics? Aristotle holds that the teleology of politics is “the good life” and he rejects both oligarch and democracy, since politics is not about protecting the rights of the powerful or of the majority. It is about enabling people to develop their human capacities and virtue. He felt that only in politics (polis) can we exercise our distinctly human capacity for language, debate about justice and the nature of good.




  • Happiness is not a state of mind, but a way of being, an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue: We become virtuous by practicing virtue, and we become happy be becoming virtuous. It starts with habit and then becomes what we want. “Being steeped in virtuous behavior helps us acquire the disposition to act virtuously” (p. 198).

Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery



  • Aristotle’s notion of citizenship excluded women and slaves, since their “natures” did not suit them to be citizens.

  • For slavery to be just, it must be both necessary and natural: it is necessary b/c someone must look after the household, and it is natural, b/c slaves by their very nature were different from other people and suited for slavery

*This all relates back to the notion of telos
Casey Martin’s Golf Cart: Martin was denied a golf cart by the PGA despite a circulatory disorder; he argued that the ADA of 1990 gave him the right to reasonable accommodations.

  • The court had to consider “telos,” the essential nature of the golf game: was walking essential to golf?’

  • The court ruled in Martin’s favor – he had a right to use a cart, b/c the use of carts was not inconsistent with the fundamental character of the game

  • Judge Scalia dissented: he argued that the Court had no way of determining the essential nature of golf, since the rules of games are essentially arbitrary and if they have and “end,” it is simply amusement.


Ch. 9: What do We Owe One Another? Dilemmas of Loyalty
Should we make reparations and apologize/atone for the sins of our predecessors?

  • Moral Individualism: The principled objection says that we are not responsible for others’ past wrongs.

Should government be morally neutral?

  • For Aristotle, no. For Kant and Rawls, yes, since the notion of a government that should produce the “good” life would be at odds with freedom and that justice cannot be derived from some idea about “good.”

  • Libertarians like Nozick argue that governments must be scrupulously neutral.

  • Other, like Sandel, reject the claim of “the right over the good” because of the belief that one is never completely free in choosing; justice can never be abstracted from our attachments and aims in a completely neutral way.

  • Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) holds that as storytellers, humans can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” by answering “Of what story/stories do I find myself a part?”

Three Categories of Moral Responsibility



  • Natural Duties – universal, do not require consent (e.g. the duty to treat others with respect)

  • Voluntary Obligations – particular, require consent (e.g. If I agreed to paint your house…)

  • Obligations of Solidarity – particular, don’t require consent (our family, town, those with whom we share a certain history)

Is Patriotism a Virtue?



  • For Rousseau, yes: communal attachments are supplements to our universal humanity

  • What about border patrols? Buying American?

Is Solidarity a Prejudice?



  • Where does loyalty to family and clan end?

Can loyalty Override Universal Moral Principles?



  • Robert E. Lee chooses his state of Virginia and the South over allegiance to Union.

  • The Bulgur Brothers: one a successful college grad remains loyal to the other, an organized crime boss on the lam for murdering 19 people.

  • The Unabomber’s brother is the one who turned him in

*How does Justice relate to “the good life”?



  • Kant and Rawls hold that the “right” is prior to the “good”

  • For Aristotle, the “good” is fundamental





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