Should we torture one person to save many? What is fairness? To accompany BBC4's justice season, philosopher Michael Sandel explains why justice is at the heart of contemporary political debateby Nigel Warburton / January 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nigel Warburton: For me the word justice seems to imply that there is some injustice in the world—it seems to be something like a legal term almost, that you want to set things to rights. Is that how you understand the word?
Michael Sandel: Well the simplest way of understanding justice is giving people what they deserve. This idea goes back to Aristotle. The real difficulty begins with figuring out who deserves what and why.
Broadly speaking I think there are three answers to the question ‘What is justice?’ There’s the utilitarian answer which says justice means maximising happiness. Answer number two, given by Immanuel Kant, which says that justice is a matter of respecting human dignity, certain categorical duties and rights. And the third answer is the answer that Aristotle gave: justice means giving people what they deserve, where what they deserve depends on their virtue and depends on sorting out hard questions about the good life.
NW: Let’s take Bentham and utilitarianism first. Jeremy Bentham is famous as a major proponent of perhaps the most straightforward kind of utilitarianism.
MS: Bentham said we are governed by two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain. So he thought that morality and legislation should all be about maximising the balance of pleasure over pain.
NW: Why is that relevant to questions of justice?
MS: Take this example. Suppose the majority has a very intense dislike of a minority religion and wants to ban it. In principle, follow Bentham. If the majority is big enough and if their hatred of the religious group is strong enough, then the “happiness principle” says the right thing to do is to ban the religion. Or, to take a contemporary example, to ban the wearing of burqas.
If huge majorities dislike seeing women wearing burqas on the street, does that justify banning the wearing of the burqa? It’s true that those who would like to wear it would suffer some unhappiness according to the utilitarian calculus, but it’s outweighed by the greater happiness of the majority. I think that’s an example of what goes wrong with the utilitarian calculus. The problem is precisely its failure to judge the quality and the moral significance of the preferences.