Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

By Michael J. Sandel


Welcome to the journey through Michael J. Sandel’s captivating book, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” πŸ“šβœ¨ This thought-provoking masterpiece dives into the complex world of moral and ethical philosophy, challenging readers to ponder over some of life’s most difficult questions concerning justice, equality, and our moral compasses.

Published in 2009, this book comes from the mind of Michael J. Sandel, a renowned political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. Sandel is celebrated for his ability to distill complex philosophical concepts into accessible discussions, making philosophy engaging for both students and the general public. “Justice” is not just a book; it’s an exploration of the various theories of justice that have shaped human society and our understanding of right and wrong.

The genre of “Justice” straddles the lines between educational, philosophical, and non-fiction, providing readers with a comprehensive look into the debates that have defined moral philosophy. Through a series of real-world examples and thought experiments, Sandel invites readers into the discussion, making philosophy an active, rather than passive, endeavor.

Join us as we delve into this fascinating exploration of justice, morality, and ethics, guided by one of the most insightful philosophers of our time. Whether you’re a long-time lover of philosophy or new to the subject, “Justice” promises to enlighten, challenge, and inspire. 🌟

Plot Summary

“Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Michael J. Sandel doesn’t follow a traditional narrative plot with characters and story arcs. Instead, it’s a philosophical exploration that examines various theories of justice and moral reasoning. However, for the sake of clarity and to align with the request, let’s structure the exposition of ideas, main discussions, and conclusions in a manner akin to a story’s progression.

Exposition β€” Sandel introduces the concept of justice by presenting the reader with various scenarios and dilemmas that challenge preconceived notions of right and wrong. He sets the stage for a deep dive into the theories that have historically attempted to address these moral questions.

Rising Action β€” The book systematically explores three major approaches to justice: maximizing welfare (utilitarianism), respecting freedom (libertarianism), and promoting virtue (Aristotelianism). Sandel presents arguments and counterarguments, pulling examples from history, politics, and everyday situations to illustrate these theories in action.

Climax β€” The climax of the book occurs as Sandel scrutinizes the limitations and strengths of each theory, pushing the reader to grapple with complex ethical dilemmas. This is where the reader is most challenged to question their own beliefs and consider the values that underlie our society’s laws and norms.

Falling Action β€” After exploring the major theories, Sandel discusses the implications of these theories on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and the role of markets. This section moves towards resolving the tension between competing notions of justice, suggesting that no single theory can comprehensively address all moral questions.

Resolution β€” Sandel concludes by advocating for a reflective equilibrium where individuals and societies strive for a balance among conflicting principles of justice. He emphasizes the importance of civic engagement and moral discourse in navigating the complexities of justice in a pluralistic society.

Through this intellectual journey, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” invites readers to critically engage with philosophical debates that impact our daily lives and societal structures, challenging us to think deeply about the kind of justice we wish to uphold.

Character Analysis

Since “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Michael J. Sandel is a philosophical text rather than a narrative fiction, it doesn’t feature characters in the traditional sense. Instead, the “characters” could be considered the philosophical theories and their proponents that Sandel examines throughout the book. Let’s dive into an analysis of these “characters” by exploring their “personalities” (core principles), “motivations” (underlying assumptions), and how they “develop” (are critiqued and refined) throughout the text.

  • Utilitarianism β€” Utilitarianism is presented as a pragmatic and outcomes-focused “character,” primarily concerned with maximizing happiness or welfare across society. Its motivation lies in the belief that moral actions are those that result in the greatest good for the greatest number. Throughout the book, utilitarianism is both lauded for its straightforward applicability to policy-making and criticized for potentially justifying individual rights violations for the sake of greater overall welfare.
  • Libertarianism β€” Libertarianism values individual freedom and autonomy above all, with a strong emphasis on property rights and minimal state intervention. Its motivation is the belief that individuals are best left to make their own choices, free from coercion. Sandel challenges libertarianism by questioning whether it adequately addresses issues of distributive justice and the social conditions that affect individual liberty.
  • Aristotelianism β€” This theory, inspired by Aristotle, posits that justice is about fostering virtue and enabling individuals to fulfill their potential. It is motivated by the idea that a just society supports the common good and helps individuals lead flourishing lives. Sandel uses Aristotelianism to explore concepts of community and the role of moral education, while also noting its potential to impose a singular view of the good life.
  • Rawlsianism β€” Though not a character per se, John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness plays a pivotal role in the book. It advocates for principles of justice that individuals would choose under a veil of ignorance, where they do not know their place in society. Rawlsianism’s motivation is to ensure impartiality and equality of opportunity, and it is critiqued for its hypothetical nature and assumptions about rationality.

Character Analysis Summary

Philosophical TheoryCore PrinciplesUnderlying AssumptionsCritiques and Refinements
UtilitarianismMaximizing welfareThe greatest good for the greatest numberCan justify rights violations
LibertarianismIndividual freedomIndividuals should be free from coercionMay ignore distributive justice
AristotelianismFostering virtueA just society supports the common goodCould impose a singular good life
RawlsianismJustice as fairnessIndividuals are impartial and equalHypothetical and idealized

In summary, Sandel navigates these theories as if they were characters in a narrative, exploring their virtues and flaws, and engaging the reader in a deeper reflection on the meaning of justice.

Themes and Symbols

“Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” delves into a multitude of themes and symbols that are crucial for understanding the complex landscape of moral and ethical philosophy. Let’s explore the major themes and the symbolic elements Sandel uses to bring these concepts to life.

Major Themes

  • The Meaning of Justice β€” Central to the book is the exploration of what justice truly means. Sandel navigates through various philosophical doctrines to uncover how justice is interpreted differently, whether as promoting the greatest happiness, respecting freedom of choice, or cultivating virtue.
  • Moral Reasoning β€” The process of making ethical decisions, or moral reasoning, is a theme that runs throughout the book. Sandel challenges readers to think critically about the principles that underpin their judgments and to consider the broader implications of their choices.
  • Individual Rights vs. Common Good β€” This theme explores the tension between protecting individual freedoms and promoting the welfare of the community. Sandel examines the balance between self-interest and the needs of others, questioning how society can harmonize these often conflicting priorities.
  • The Role of Government β€” The extent to which government should intervene in the lives of citizens is a recurrent theme. Sandel discusses libertarian, utilitarian, and communitarian perspectives on government’s role in enforcing moral standards and redistributing resources.
  • Meritocracy and Equality β€” Sandel scrutinizes the concept of meritocracy, especially in relation to justice and fairness. This theme addresses the challenges of creating a society where opportunities are equally available, and success is based on merit, not privilege.


  • The Veil of Ignorance β€” Symbolizing objectivity in moral reasoning, the veil of ignorance is a thought experiment introduced by philosopher John Rawls. It represents the idea of designing a just society without knowledge of one’s own position within it, thereby ensuring impartiality.
  • The Trolley Problem β€” Used as a symbol for ethical dilemmas, the trolley problem is a thought experiment that forces individuals to choose between two morally challenging options. It illustrates the complexity of moral decision-making and the difficulty of applying theoretical principles to real-life scenarios.
  • The Ship of Theseus β€” Although more indirectly related, this ancient paradox can symbolize the continuity of identity over time and change, analogous to the evolving nature of justice and moral principles in society.
  • Marketplace β€” Sandel uses the marketplace as a symbol for the commodification of goods and services, including those that traditionally fall outside the market’s realm. It raises questions about the moral limits of markets and the impact of market logic on non-market values.

Through these themes and symbols, Sandel invites readers to reflect deeply on the principles of justice and the ethical considerations that shape human society. The book serves as a bridge between abstract philosophical theory and the tangible moral challenges encountered in everyday life.

Style and Tone

Michael J. Sandel’s writing style in “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” is notable for its clarity, accessibility, and engaging nature. He masterfully simplifies complex philosophical theories and arguments, making them approachable for readers with little to no background in philosophy. Here’s a breakdown of key aspects of Sandel’s style and tone throughout the book:

  • Engaging and Conversational β€” Sandel employs a conversational tone that invites readers into the discussion. This approach makes the book feel like a dialogue between the author and the reader, rather than a lecture, fostering a sense of engagement and curiosity.
  • Use of Real-world Examples β€” One of Sandel’s strengths is his ability to illustrate philosophical concepts with examples from politics, law, and everyday life. This not only makes the book more relatable but also helps readers see the practical implications of theoretical debates.
  • Analytical Yet Accessible β€” While Sandel dives deep into analysis, he remains accessible. He carefully defines terms and concepts, ensuring that readers are not lost in jargon. This balance between depth and accessibility is a hallmark of his style.
  • Ethical Dilemmas and Thought Experiments β€” Sandel frequently employs thought experiments and presents ethical dilemmas to challenge readers’ intuitions and preconceived notions. These scenarios stimulate critical thinking and encourage readers to actively engage with the material.
  • Reflective and Thought-Provoking β€” The tone of the book is reflective, encouraging readers to ponder their own views on justice, morality, and ethics. Sandel does not merely present information; he invites readers to join him in contemplating these profound topics.
  • Balanced and Fair-minded β€” Sandel presents various perspectives on justice with fairness, providing a balanced view that allows readers to form their own opinions. His approach is inclusive, acknowledging the complexity and diversity of moral reasoning.

Through this distinctive style and tone, Michael J. Sandel achieves the remarkable feat of making philosophical inquiry not only intellectually stimulating but also deeply personal and relevant to a broad audience.

Literary Devices used in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

In “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”, Michael J. Sandel utilizes a range of literary devices to enhance his exploration of philosophical concepts and engage the reader. Here are the top 10 literary devices employed in the book:

  1. Analogies β€” Sandel uses analogies to draw comparisons between complex philosophical theories and everyday situations, making abstract ideas more tangible and understandable.
  2. Hypothetical Scenarios β€” These are extensively used to challenge the reader’s moral intuitions and to illustrate the practical implications of various theories of justice.
  3. Narratives β€” Sandel incorporates narratives from history, politics, and law to contextualize philosophical debates, thereby grounding them in real-world situations.
  4. Rhetorical Questions β€” By posing questions directly to the reader, Sandel encourages engagement and reflection, making the reading experience interactive.
  5. Counterarguments β€” Presenting and then addressing counterarguments strengthens Sandel’s discussions, demonstrating the complexity of moral and ethical reasoning.
  6. Paradoxes β€” The use of paradoxes highlights the contradictions and challenges within moral philosophy, prompting readers to think critically about their own beliefs.
  7. Metaphors β€” Sandel’s use of metaphors enriches his explanations of philosophical concepts, helping readers visualize and better grasp the material.
  8. Exemplification β€” Through specific examples, Sandel illustrates broader principles, making his arguments more concrete and relatable.
  9. Parallelism β€” The use of parallel structures in arguments provides clarity and emphasizes the connections between different ideas.
  10. Allusions β€” Sandel alludes to historical figures, events, and texts, enriching the narrative with a depth of cultural and intellectual context.

These literary devices play a crucial role in making “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” both an informative and compelling read, bridging the gap between complex theoretical discussions and the reader’s everyday experiences and intuitions.

Literary Devices Examples

In “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Michael J. Sandel, various literary devices are employed to deepen the discussion on moral and ethical issues. Below are examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices identified earlier.


  • Example: Comparing the social contract theory to agreeing to the rules of a game before playing.
  • Explanation: This analogy helps readers understand the concept of a social contract by relating it to the familiar experience of agreeing to rules before participating in a game, highlighting the importance of mutual consent in establishing fair rules for society.

Hypothetical Scenarios

  • Example: The trolley dilemma where one must choose between diverting a trolley to kill one person instead of five.
  • Explanation: This scenario forces readers to confront difficult moral choices, illustrating the complexity of utilitarian ethics and the challenge of making decisions that result in the least harm.


  • Example: The story of Antigone, who defies Creon’s law to bury her brother according to divine law.
  • Explanation: This narrative is used to discuss the conflict between divine law and human law, illustrating the ancient roots of ethical dilemmas and the personal consequences of moral decisions.

Rhetorical Questions

  • Example: “Is it just to tax the rich to help the poor?”
  • Explanation: Such questions engage the reader in the discussion, encouraging them to consider their own values and perspectives on justice and fairness.


  • Example: After presenting Rawls’s theory of justice, Sandel introduces objections from libertarian perspectives.
  • Explanation: This approach demonstrates the diversity of thought in moral philosophy and encourages readers to critically evaluate different arguments.


  • Example: The paradox of hedonism, which suggests that happiness cannot be pursued directly.
  • Explanation: This paradox is used to question the utilitarian emphasis on happiness as the ultimate moral good, highlighting the complexities of human motivation and satisfaction.


  • Example: Referring to society as a “moral landscape”.
  • Explanation: This metaphor helps readers visualize society’s ethical foundations as a terrain with highs and lows, emphasizing that moral decisions shape the social fabric.


  • Example: Using real-world cases like the debate over same-sex marriage to illustrate broader principles of equality and rights.
  • Explanation: Such examples connect philosophical theories to ongoing social issues, demonstrating the practical implications of ethical reasoning.


  • Example: The structure of presenting three major theories of justice (utilitarianism, libertarianism, Aristotelianism) in a parallel format.
  • Explanation: This parallelism helps readers compare and contrast the core principles and implications of each theory systematically.


  • Example: References to Plato’s Republic in the discussion of justice and the good life.
  • Explanation: Allusions to classical texts provide a historical context for modern debates, showing the continuity of philosophical inquiry over time.

These examples illustrate how Sandel’s use of literary devices enriches the text, making complex philosophical concepts more engaging and accessible to readers.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? – FAQs

Q: What is the main argument of Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”?
A: The main argument of Sandel’s book is not a single thesis but a presentation of various philosophical perspectives on justice. Sandel explores utilitarianism, libertarianism, and communitarianism, among others, to discuss how society can and should determine what is morally right and just. He encourages readers to engage with these theories critically and reflect on their own views about justice.

Q: Can “Justice” be considered an easy read for those new to philosophy?
A: Yes, “Justice” is designed to be accessible to those without a background in philosophy. Sandel uses clear language, real-world examples, and thought experiments to explain complex theories, making the book engaging and understandable for a broad audience.

Q: How does Sandel approach the topic of moral dilemmas?
A: Sandel approaches moral dilemmas by presenting them through real-life scenarios and hypothetical situations that challenge the reader to consider various ethical principles and their implications. He examines these dilemmas from multiple philosophical viewpoints, inviting readers to reflect on their own moral reasoning.

Q: Does Sandel propose a definitive answer to what justice is?
A: Rather than proposing a definitive answer, Sandel presents a range of theories and encourages dialogue and debate. He suggests that understanding justice requires considering different perspectives and wrestling with difficult moral questions, emphasizing the importance of continuous reflection and discussion in democratic societies.

Q: How is “Justice” relevant to contemporary social issues?
A: “Justice” is highly relevant to contemporary social issues as it addresses topics like income distribution, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and the moral limits of markets. Sandel applies philosophical theories to these issues, providing readers with tools to think critically about the ethical dimensions of current debates.

Q: What makes “Justice” different from other books on moral philosophy?
A: “Justice” stands out for its engaging writing style, use of concrete examples, and broad appeal. Sandel’s ability to make complex ideas accessible and relevant to everyday life, combined with his emphasis on the importance of public discourse, distinguishes the book in the field of moral philosophy.


Which philosophical theory does Sandel discuss that focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number?UtilitarianismLibertarianismAristotelianismRawlsianism
Sandel uses a famous thought experiment involving a trolley to discuss:The limits of government interventionThe dilemmas of distributive justiceMoral decision-making under pressureThe principles of market dynamics
According to Sandel, what plays a crucial role in achieving a just society?Technological advancementEconomic efficiencyCivic engagementGenetic engineering
Which of the following is NOT one of the three main approaches to justice Sandel examines?Maximizing welfareEnsuring absolute freedomRespecting freedom of choicePromoting virtue
Sandel argues that discussing and debating moral issues is important for:Only philosophersPolitical leaders exclusivelyEveryone in societyOnly students of philosophy
The ‘veil of ignorance’ is a concept introduced by which philosopher, discussed by Sandel?PlatoJohn RawlsAristotleFriedrich Nietzsche
Sandel critiques which aspect of libertarianism?Its emphasis on communal livingIts focus on individual rights without considering distributive justiceIts disregard for moral virtuesIts rejection of free markets


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Michael J. Sandel. Provide your answers below the line.

“In a society governed by the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, we find ourselves on a slippery slope. The moment we begin to quantify happiness and weigh it against societal costs, we embark on a journey where the value of individual experiences can be overshadowed by the cold calculus of utilitarian arithmetic. This path leads us to question: At what cost does this ‘greatest happiness’ come? And who decides what counts as happiness, anyway?”


  1. Metaphor – “slippery slope” suggests a situation that could lead to difficult or irreversible consequences, likening the progression of utilitarian logic to a physical decline that’s hard to stop once started.
  2. Rhetorical Question – “At what cost does this ‘greatest happiness’ come? And who decides what counts as happiness, anyway?” These questions are used not to seek direct answers but to provoke thought and reflection on the implications of utilitarianism.
  3. Personification – “the cold calculus of utilitarian arithmetic” gives the abstract concept of utilitarian calculation human-like characteristics, implying it lacks empathy or understanding of human complexity.
  4. Allusion – While not explicitly named, this passage alludes to the broader debate in moral philosophy about the merits and pitfalls of utilitarianism, inviting readers with some background knowledge to connect these concepts to historical discussions.