By Tom Goulding
A trolley is hurtling down a track and there are five people tied to the track in its path. You know the trolley will kill them if it is not stopped, but your only available course of action is to divert it down another track, which has only one person tied down to it. Do you divert the trolley to save five lives instead of one? What if you are looking at the trolley from a bridge above, and your only way of stopping the trolley hitting the five people is to push a heavy man over the bridge and onto the tracks? Should you still save the five people instead of one? If not, what is the difference between the two scenarios? Would it make a difference if there was simply a lever by which you could make the heavy man fall from the bridge onto the tracks?
In the summer of 1884, four English sailors from the sunken Mignonette ship were stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. After eight days, it was clear that one of the sailors, a cabin boy called Richard Parker, was dying. One of the other sailors warned Parker what must be done and suddenly killed him with a penknife. For four days the other three sailors fed on Parker’s body to survive. Then another ship appeared and they were rescued, taken back to England and put on trial. Were their actions justified, given the fact that they probably would all have died if they had not sacrificed Parker? Is it wrong because it exploits the vulnerable and takes his life without consent?
If enough Romans filled the Coliseum, were they justified in throwing Christian slaves into the pit to fight and inevitably be mauled by lions, given the large quantity of entertainment it provided to the thousands of Romans? Are you justified in torturing a terror suspect given there is information at stake as to a possible bomb on a London train? What is you know that train only has one or two people on it? What if the only way to extract this information is to torture the terror suspect’s daughter?
William and Elizabeth Stern were a happily married couple from Tenafly, New Jersey who wanted a child but couldn’t have one. They signed a contract with Mary Beth Whitehead for Ms Whitehead to bear the Stern’s child over nine months, after the artificial insemination of William Stern’s sperm, for a fee of $10,000. Having given birth to a baby girl, Ms Whitehead fled to Florida with the child, refusing to give it up. After Florida police found her, the custody fight went to court. Should Ms Whitehead honour the contract and give up baby Marissa, given she freely chose to engage in said contract? Or should she be allowed to keep the baby given her decision to agree the contract was not fully informed of the emotional commitment the deal would involve? Indeed, are there some things a market should not decide, such as the raising of a child?
Clare Hopwood was a white Californian who applied to Texas Law School. She scored well on the admissions tests but was not accepted to the school, despite having, on the face of it, a stronger application than various African American and Hispanic students. The university explained that part of its mission was to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the legal profession, and so her rejection was justified despite her having a stronger application in academic terms. Was this affirmative action policy justified, given several admitted students were deemed more valuable than Hopwood only on the basis of their heritage? Is there any difference between this and the racial exclusion and anti-semitism of earl 20th century academic institutions? Should public institutions such as universities be free to set their missions and goals?
Michael Sandell addresses questions such as these with the balance of lucidity and complexity most academics can only dream of. Justice goes on a journey through the most influential theories in the history of political thought; the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the freedom based-theories of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, and the virtue theory of Aristotle. Through these thinkers, Sandell considers the three main conceptions of justice – justice as welfare, justice as freedom and justice as virtue. He uses everyday and real life examples to illuminate thinkers’, whose language and context might otherwise be lazily resisted. Sandell assumes nothing and holds no dogma while addressing these issues, making the reader question every prejudice and moral paradigm he might hold when trying to think of answers.
To conclude the work, Sandell puts forward a stronger argument for an evolution in citizenship than modern-day politician’s rhetoric ever could, based on civic virtue and a common good which doesn’t intrude on universal rights of freedom and choice. In today’s media, the majority of debate can often feel no more than an ideological food fight, a slanging match where the only moves seem to be “Boo your opinion!” or “Hurray for mine!”. But with a presidential election to come next year in America, Justice gives you the intellectual tools to see what is really at stake with each issue, whether that be same-sex marriage, abortion or public spending.
As the professor of Government at Harvard University, Sandell gives us an accessible anthology in political philosophy for anyone who wants to think clearly and confidently about morality and citizenship.