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Friday, April 15, 2011

When CTR Gets Complicated

by MAB (bio)

I recently finished a New York Times bestseller “Justice, What is the Right Thing To Do?” a book by Michael J. Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard University. My wife saw it at the library and checked it out thinking one of us might have the time to read it. I saw that it covered some aspects of philosophy, which is a recent and probably short-term interest of mine, so I dug right in. It’s brief at approximately 275 pages but it took me about a month to read because I continued to read other books and also started to learn Dutch. I add those details to help provide context to this post, the context being that I didn’t pay too close attention to what I was reading. You now have every right to roll your eyes, but before you move on to something else let me say that the book was quite interesting and I’m certain I can pull some concepts out that will make this worth your while.

In the beginning Sandel gently exposes the reader to basic philosophy and poses some of the classic conundrums for consideration. In the rest of the book he does two important things: first he gives the reader a framework of philosophical perspectives upon which modern day moral questions can be considered, then he analyzes current moral debates through one or all of the perspectives.

The first perspective is Utilitarianism (Bentham), which states that to determine the right thing to do you calculate how to achieve the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. This however could lead to the unfortunate hypothetical situation where one person in a city is tortured for no other reason than to make everyone else happy. Which leads us to the next perspective.

Libertarianism attempts to predict the right thing to do based on whether or not it infringes on personal freedoms. Sandel thinks this perspective falls short because it accepts our various preferences as they are without questioning how a society could nurture a just and noble life.

Liberal egalitarianism is similar to Libertarianism according to Sandel at least in terms of doling out justice and teaching morals. To understand the liberal view, consider a thought experiment by John Rawls. Imagine everyone is in state of equality but is about to be sent to a place where some will have health and wealth but others will not be so lucky. What would we all choose in that imaginary state of equality? Rawls believed we would all choose a very equitable allocation of resources and capabilities. He comes to this conclusion by assuming that the majority of us would not want to end up unloved, incapable or otherwise destitute all of which would be possibilities in an unjust system.

The last perspective presented by Sandel is one that was explored by non other than Aristotle. It surprised me that the author wrote mostly about modern philosophers before reaching way back to one of the ancients. Even more surprising, at least initially, was that this is the viewpoint that Sandel promotes as the best way to achieve a just and moral society. Loosely speaking, Sandel’s interpretation of Aristotle is that a society should be set up such that there is ongoing, open and respectful debate about the morals that a government should promote. This differs from Utilitarianism because it removes the potentially misguided calculus that ignores qualitative differences between various means of achieving happiness. It differs from the Libertarian and Liberal view by implying that a government can and should get involved in defining how a society can nurture a moral and noble life.
As he sets forth those perspectives Sandel manages to keep the reader’s interest by covering the other major component of the book. This involves intriguing accounts of a wide variety of actual modern day philosophical debates. The perspectives referenced above are frequently applied to the questions of our day, generally with the objective of showing how they fall short.

Take for instance the price gouging that occurred immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Hoteliers and gas station owners charged exorbitant amounts to the people trying to get away from the impending disaster. A utilitarian would likely not approve since the money ended up in just a few greedy hands. Libertarians who favor laissez faire economics or unfettered markets would conceivably approve. Liberals would likely not approve in part because only the rich could afford the higher prices. Sandel would argue that those viewpoints don't get to the heart of the matter. In a just society where morals are constantly debated, refined and even engrained in its members the gouging would either not occur or everyone would immediately see it for what it is and collectively do something about it before it takes hold.

In another example Sandel discusses the moral issues surrounding surrogate motherhood and organ donation. Where these two issues get very interesting in my opinion is when off-shoring comes into play. Believing it is moral to donate a kidney to a brother in need is one thing but it is quite another for a subsistence farmer in a poor country to donate his/her kidney to an unknown wealthy (by comparison) American. The same goes for surrogate mothers who in India charge half the going rate of a surrogate mother in the US. These people risk their lives in circumstances and procedures that would otherwise be unavailable if the technology, market pressures, and legal structures did not exist. Again, there are several ways to analyze this issue then come to your own conclusion as to whether it is moral and just.

Overall I enjoyed the book but at times felt like I was being led somewhat unwilling down a path, a path I wouldn’t necessarily go down if I had more training in philosophy and politics. I would only recommend it to people interested in the topics Sandel writes about.

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