Reading on the Road: Justice – What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Reading on the Road features books I’ve brought with me on my travels. They’ve gotten me through long waits, idle hours, insomnia episodes and anxiety attacks. They’ve also made me look smarter than I actually am. It’s important not to look like a clueless idiot when you’re traveling solo. Unfortunately, I seem to have “clueless idiot” tattooed on my forehead. Bringing a book is a big help in balancing this out.

When your flight is delayed for seven hours and you’re marooned in a crowded airport on a sleep-deprived state, you tend to become either catatonic or murderous. Or maybe that’s just me.

It was my first trip to Cagayan De Oro and Bukidnon last April. I had been awake for 26 hours and all I wanted was to board the plane so I could finally sleep. After standing in line at the check-in counter for 30 minutes, we were told that our 8:25am AirPhil Express flight would be moved to 2pm due to a vaguely worded “technical problem.” (There more delays afterwards and we ended up leaving Manila at 3:30pm.) The orderly line of passengers turned into a raging lynch mob, ready to rip the airline staff’s heads off. I was one of them.

“What the hell does your ‘technical problem’ mean, exactly? Did your plane burst into flames?” I said, glaring at the supervisor. My fury quickly lost steam, however. I was too exhausted to be angry or to sustain any kind of strong emotion. While most of the passengers continued ranting, I retreated into a corner and tried to sleep.

I dozed off for an hour, was awakened by a screaming baby and couldn’t go back to sleep. The only thing to do to keep myself from going insane was to read a book. For this trip, I brought Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel. Perfect timing. I had to read about political philosophy just when I felt like the world was screwing with me.

The book is based on Sandel’s lectures for an undergraduate course in Harvard. It discusses the different schools of thought in political philosophy starting with Jeremy Bentham’s and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism down to Aristotle’s teleological arguments on justice. It’s not the usual dry academic writing though. Sandel makes the theories come alive with relevant examples on which they can be applied.

In discussing utilitarianism, he brings up the real-life story of four sailors who were lost at sea. Three of the crew killed the cabin boy, who appeared to be dying anyway, and ate his flesh so they could survive. Is the utilitarian principle enough to justify their act? How about torture? Is it justifiable to torture suspected terrorists to protect innocent lives? And why was Jeremy Bentham such an insufferable dick? (Okay, the last one was mine.)

On libertarianism and Robert Nozick’s furious objection to distributive justice, Sandel asks if it is indeed immoral to tax Michael Jordan and Bill Gates in order to provide services for the poor. He also succeeds in elucidating Immanuel Kant’s daunting philosophy on reason, freedom and morality as well as John Rawls’ principles of justice and that pesky “veil of ignorance.” He discusses same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia and how we can debate about these controversial issues through the lens of various philosophies.

In the last chapter, Sandel presents his own views on justice and the foundations of a good society. He talks about the moral limits of markets and market-oriented reasoning. Is it right for people to buy and sell kidneys on the open market as if human organs are mere commodities? Is it okay for parents to outsource pregnancy and child-bearing to paid surrogates?

“Since marketizing social practices may corrupt or degrade the norms that define them, we need to ask what non-market norms we want to protect from market intrusion,” he says.

He also frames the problem of inequality not just in economic or utilitarian terms but also in terms of its civic consequences: social inequality erodes “the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends.” As the rich and poor lead increasingly separate lives, pursuing policies for the so-called common good becomes a farce. Why bother improving public education and healthcare when the wealthy can just sent their kids to exclusive schools and get treatment in private hospitals?

Sandel ends with calling for “a politics of moral engagement” and encourages public debate that allows for people to bring their moral and religious convictions into the floor. He says: “A more robust public engagement with our moral disagreements could provide a stronger, not a weaker, basis for mutual respect. Rather than avoid the moral and religious convictions that our fellow citizens bring to public life, we should attend to them more directly – sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening to and learning from them.”

The book is an excellent review of the college lessons you’ve crammed into learning in time for midterms and have conveniently forgotten afterwards. I only took a couple of social and political science classes in college. It was mostly a haze of blathering about Plato and Machiavelli along with generous rants about the evil that was Ferdinand Marcos.

I’ve had assigned readings that made me want to stab the book in frustration and annoyance. Thank God this is not one of them. Sandel provides a refreshing read that gives you a renewed appreciation for political philosophy. The prose is simple, clear and concise and yet it delivers the crucial points. More importantly, the book induces you to think about how we conduct public discourse and how existing policies and practices reflect what we value us a society. And reading it got me through seven miserable hours of waiting at the airport.

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