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Sandel’s “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Aug 10th, 2020


The issue of justice is one of the most actively discussed questions in the area of political philosophy. In his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Michael Sandel discusses different theories of justice with reference to real-life examples and controversial questions that can be posed with the focus on this or that theory and their realizations in the fields of politics and social life. Thus, Sandel (2010) concentrates on discussing utilitarianism, libertarianism, and the theory of Immanuel Kant in the first part of the book, and in the second part of his work, the focus is on describing the principles of John Rawls’s vision and Aristotle’s views. The purpose of this review is to discuss Sandel’s ideas presented in the second part of the book and analyze such main points provided by the author as the role of equality, outcomes of affirmative action, loyalty, and the common good.

Background Information

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is the book written by Sandel in order to support his Harvard course. In this work, the author presents the summary and analysis of the most important ideas regarding justice in the context of politics that have been discussed by Sandel for about thirty years. As a result, the book is aimed at providing the author’s clear vision regarding the idea of justice with the focus on the theories that support this concept. From this point, the criteria for judging the book are the following ones: the author’s approach to discussing the theories of justice and attractiveness of the proposed form of narration to the reader.


In the second part of his book, Sandel concentrates on discussing the problem of respecting people’s rights and freedoms with the focus on Rawls’s theory. In the sixth chapter of the book, Sandel (2010) poses the important question regarding individuals’ equality in society and asks: “why are we obligated to obey the law?” (p. 140). The author pays attention to the concepts of ‘consent’ and ‘reciprocity’ in this context. Sandel (2010) concludes that, according to Rawls, “the way to think about justice is to ask what principles we would choose in an original position of equality, behind a veil of ignorance” (p. 151). Thus, it is important for people to determine the principles of justice and equality while accepting the specific position in society, the ‘veil of ignorance’.

In the seventh chapter, the author also discusses the problem of affirmative action in the context of equality and justice. Sandel (2010) states that there are two rationales that determine the development of debates regarding affirmative action, and they are “the compensatory argument and the diversity argument” (p. 170). While following these arguments, the society draws conclusions on whether it is just to compensate the mistakes of the past with the focus on current racial relationships and whether it is just to promote diversity without paying attention to the needs of whites.

The eighth chapter presents the author’s argument regarding Aristotle’s theory. According to Sandel (2010), the society is just if its members are focused on cultivating virtues and following obligations. It is possible to achieve the good life if the society is not only just but also interested in discussing moral issues. Following Aristotle’s ideas, the just society can be developed with the help of actions taken by politicians, and politics is important to achieve the good life (Sandel, 2010). The reason is that politics should promote virtues that are set by the society as important to build the good life.

In the ninth chapter, Sandel continues to discuss the problems of justice, and the author focuses on the problem of loyalty and apologies usually given by authorities for actions or steps that were not committed by them. As a result, the author draws the reader’s attention to the important problem of individuals’ and authorities’ responsibilities in the context of society. Thus, Sandel (2010) asks the question: “Should government be morally neutral?” (p. 215). The final chapter of the book is aimed at summarizing the author’s main idea and his approach to discussing justice with the focus on the theory of cultivating virtues. From this point, according to Sandel, justice is a way to guarantee the common good in society through the ways of promoting virtues.


The goal of the book is to analyze theories of justices with the focus on real-life examples and outcomes that are referred to the field of politics. It is important to note that the author has achieved his goal since the book provides the detailed analysis of the key theories that is supported with evidence and discussions. As a result, the book directly targets its audience that involves students and other people interested in questions of justice in the context of modern society and politics. Furthermore, it is also possible to identify the key lesson of the book. According to Sandel (2010), justice in society should have the goal that is to cultivate virtues to achieve the good for all people. Therefore, politicians and other individuals should concentrate on such issues as affirmative action, equality, and loyalty among others and address them while determining the principles of the just society that can lead people to the common good.

The book’s strengths are in providing not only strong arguments but also thought-provoking questions. Thus, Sandel’s arguments are associated with the theory of justice, and they are supported by real-life examples. In addition, the author involves readers in a discussion of moral and political conflicts and dilemmas with the help of asking controversial questions. As a result, readers receive an opportunity to explore complex theoretical aspects of justice in the context of political philosophy with the focus on detailed but interesting summaries of these theories. However, some readers can argue that the provision of summaries of the theories is a weakness of the book because more aspects of justice can be discussed in the context of the explored issues. Still, it is possible to state that the book is interesting while being presented in that specific form it has because it includes a range of stories, anecdotes, and descriptions of historical events that add to understanding the material and associating it with personal experiences.


In his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Sandel pays much attention to discussing political and moral aspects of the idea of justice through the lenses of theories that exist in the field of philosophy. As a result, his idea that the purpose of justice is to guarantee creating the common good with the help of cultivating virtues by means of politics seems to be convincing. For further research in the field, it is possible to address more theories, including modern ones, in order to receive the complex vision of the problem of justice in the contemporary society. The book is important to be examined by students and other categories of readers because of a clear manner of presenting significant arguments and questions regarding the problems of equality, affirmative action, just actions, and loyalty.


Sandel, M. J. (2010). Justice: What’s the right thing to do? New York, NY: Macmillan.

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