JUSTIN IDE/HARVARD NEWS OFFICE
Every fall they pack Sanders Theatre to the rafters. A spellbinding philosopher takes the stage before a rapt crowd of Harvard students, and soon enough the cavernous space becomes a classroom where the bright shades of Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls are summoned to have their say on the enduring questions. What is the good life? Is pleasure the highest end, or is something else? Are acts moral because they lead to good consequences, or because they are done on principle? To keep the discussion grounded, the class–called simply “Justice,” it now regularly enrolls more than 1,000 undergraduates–is asked to confront these quandaries in the context of hard cases brought to life by the philosopher’s trademark hypothetical situations or policy dilemmas culled from newspaper articles.
For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport–at least not in Sanders Theatre, where he expects engagement from the first. He asks a question, and an answer is voiced by an anonymous face in the crowd. Even students too shy to raise their hands are drawn into testing their moral intuitions against prominent theories. The exposure to classic texts at leading universities usually succeeds in giving students the ability to drop canonical names–the sort of cultural distinction elite institutions provide in their continuing role as glorified finishing schools. That Sandel has managed to elevate the conversation is a miraculous accomplishment. Over the years, more than 14,000 Harvard students have participated in it, and now Sandel is trying to broaden the audience. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, a new book closely based on his course, comes on the heels of the publication of his Justice: A Reader, a selection of essential primary texts. Together with a PBS series based on the course airing this fall, the books allow anyone to follow Sandel’s commentary at home and enjoy a close approximation of a signature Harvard course (without the sticker shock).
Since Socrates argued that philosophy must concern itself with human affairs and not just heavenly things, inquiries into abstract justice have revealed as much about their place and time as anything else. (The same is true of the actual pursuit of justice, ever since the Hebrew Bible enjoined it.) As it happens, the publication of Sandel’s Justice coincides with the release of a very different kind of book on the subject–The Idea of Justice–written by his Harvard colleague Amartya Sen, an accident that calls for more than a philosophical discussion. Although Justice doesn’t fully succeed in bottling the formula of Sandel’s class–how could it?–it is easily the most accessible primer on the topic now available. But Sandel aspires to do more than merely vulgarize the available positions in political theory and explore them through contemporary examples: he is calling, as he long has, for nothing less than a reinvigoration of citizenship. As for Sen, his pressing concern is not the lifting of a nationwide malaise but the alleviation of global immiseration, and it drives him to propose a radically different approach to justice. Notwithstanding these discrepancies of interest and scope, however, the two men converge in a striking omission. To make sense of it, one must ask how their theories of justice reflect not just the universal and eternal but also the here and now–most notably, the cold war’s lingering hold on liberal philosophy.