The Limits of Neutrality

What’s the Right Thing to Do?
Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 320 pp.

Academically inclined readers familiar with Michael J. Sandel’s work will find little new in his latest book. But that’s not the point. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a work of public philosophy, in two senses of the term. First, Sandel endeavors, with considerable success, to explain three different approaches to justice—utility-based, freedom-based, and virtue-based—not to fellow academics, but to a lay audience. His ability to find the broad issues at the heart of everyday concerns verges on the uncanny, and his lucid expositions of classic figures such as Mill, Kant, and Aristotle are worth the price of admission.

Second, Sandel links the individualized examples characteristic of moral philosophy to the principles on which he believes republican self-government should be based. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with his previous writings that he argues for propositions such as the following: We cannot detach arguments about justice and rights from arguments about the good. We cannot remain neutral on the substantive moral questions that propositions about justice usually embody. We are encumbered selves with morally significant loyalties reflecting relationships we have not willed. We should not try to exclude faith-based arguments from public deliberations concerning justice. When justice pertains to social institutions, we cannot proceed very far in our inquiry without asking quasi-...

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About the Author

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.