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I recently read (listened to? What's the right way to say that for an audio book?) "Justice: What's the right thing to do?" by Michael J. Sandel. It's an interesting book, though rather heavier going than Nate Silver's breezy book on prediction. The basic question it addresses is, how do you decide what's right? Not just what's legal — you need some basis for deciding which laws are just. He talks through several approaches, including some ideas of his own. While he talks about several currently-debated topics, he refrains from stating his position on any of them, instead pointing out what the conflicting ideas of justice are that motivate the two sides.

The book kind of answers a question I've been thinking about. Traditionally, the question of what was right or wrong was settled by what God said was right or wrong. If God was vague on an issue, Jewish tradition provides several thousand years' worth of textual analysis and debate to draw on, Catholic tradition provides the Pope to hand down the word of God, and so on. But what if you don't want to base your morality on God's will? What if you want a purely secular humanistic notion of right and wrong? Where does it come from?

Fortunately, I'm far from the first person to ask this; arguably it's what Enlightenment philosophy was about. And it's the point of view this book takes. Sandel talks through several approaches. The utilitarian approach says that what is right is what brings the greatest good to the greatest number. The libertarian approach says that what is right is what respects an individual's absolute right to do what they want with the things they own, up to and including themselves. Kant's approach — the chapter was rather heavy going, particularly at a breezy audio book clip, but I'll try to summarize — says that what is right is what respects our free will as rational beings. Rawls elaborates on this to point out that a social contract should be built as if through a veil or ignorance, in which no one knows where they will wind up in the society, so they will build a contract that protects everyone. Aristotle, a little startling as an inclusion, thinks "right" is what respects our essential nature. And the author elaborates on some more recent ideas of humans as "narrative beings" that value our position in family and culture when deciding what is right.

This last bit, the author's ideas, are a little vague in my mind as ways to tell what is right, but he does point out that they're kind of needed to understand (for example) loyalty to one's family as a moral imperative. The others are pretty well-established — if ever I need to bore someone at a dinner party (and the astronomy isn't working) I can now start talking about Kant's categorical imperative. But I found it interesting that all of these kind of start from a native feeling about what's right and wrong and try to assemble a logical framework to support that. And sure enough, many contentious issues are contentious exactly because these theories disagree on what's right.

I didn't really expect to be this interested in a book about philosophy — to be honest I've never been entirely clear on what philosophy is — but this book was quite engaging. Interestingly, the course at Harvard Sandel teaches, that this book is based on, has an online version.

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