Sunday, October 25, 2009


What's the Right Thing to Do?

By Michael J. Sandel

Farrar Straus Giroux. 308 pp. $25

The philosophy prof as TV star: Not many thinkers can pull that off, but Michael Sandel has taken his courses on political philosophy from the halls of Harvard to the nation's small screens, courtesy of PBS. Sandel's appeal lies partly in the striking hypotheticals he throws out, such as whether it's okay to kill one person directly (on an overloaded lifeboat, for example) to save three others; and partly in the way he makes good use of even rambling responses by the students he calls upon.

He also discusses thorny issues with clarity, insight and a broad range of references -- traits on display in his new book. In a chapter on equality, Sandel addresses a question raised by the philosopher John Rawls: whether we should settle for a system in which "the average schoolteacher . . . makes about $43,000 a year [while] David Letterman . . . earns $31 million a year." After summarizing Rawls's observations about the many contingencies affecting how one's talents match (or do not) the needs of the society in which one lives, Sandel brings the discussion down to Earth by quoting from Woody Allen's movie "Stardust Memories." The much wealthier and more famous character played by Allen defends his celebrityhood to an old friend, now a cabbie, by saying: "If I had been an Apache Indian, those guys didn't need comedians at all, right? So I'd be out of work." The cabbie, however, gets the last word: "Oh, come on, that doesn't help me feel any better."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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