Emotional Control   /   Spring 2010   /    Book Reviews

Michael J. Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Amitai Etzioni

The first thing that must be said about Michael Sandel’s book, Justice, is that it is a remarkable educational achievement. The book is a distillation of a course Sandel has taught at Harvard for thirty years—one of the most popular courses ever taught at the college.

At his Socratic best when in dialogue with a theater full of students, Sandel has a knack, which comes so naturally to him that one tends to forget how rarely others succeed when they set out on the same pedagogical path, for finding ways to illustrate his points with perfectly chosen examples—some hypothetical, some taken from everyday life. Thus, to make the point that moral decisions must often be made under conditions of uncertainty, he tells students about a U.S. military unit, behind the lines in Afghanistan, searching for a Taliban stronghold in 2005. They are discovered by unarmed goat herders, including a boy. After deliberating about whether to kill the goat herders to prevent them from giving away their position, the Americans decide to let them go. The goat herders alert the Taliban, who kill all the Americans but one, who is severely wounded but lives to tell (24–7). Sandel asks: what would you have done under the same circumstances—and what reasoning would you apply to justify your decision?

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