A book on political philosophy provides greater perspective to explore civic issues.

Is a business entitled to take advantage of opportunities created by a natural disaster? What is the state’s role in regulating this behaviour? What moral considerations come into play in such a situation?

Michael J. Sandel, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, tackles these questions at the outset in his book titled Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. Chapter 1 begins with a description of the price gouging that occurred in Florida, when it was hit hard by a hurricane in 2004. Some business operators made the most of the situation, hiking up the prices of both commodities (bags of ice needed as a makeshift refrigerant) and home repair services. The media cried foul and there was widespread public outrage. Such opportunism in the face of catastrophe seemed just plain wrong. The attorney general of the state lamented the “level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.”

Florida has a law against price gouging and the government swung into action on this front as more than two thousand related complaints were filed with the attorney general’s office. 

Sandel then goes on to pose the key question at the heart of the situation: should there be laws to protect consumers from price gouging and other seemingly predatory business practices? 

Most people will unhesitatingly support such laws. After all, business greed is something that should be both condemned and curbed even in normal circumstances. When it happens during a hurricane, such behaviour should also be penalized.

Free market proponents, however, disagree with this view. Market prices, in their book, are set by demand and supply. If circumstances following the hurricane dictated that bags of ice be priced at $10 rather than the normal $2, then there was nothing wrong or unethical about it.  It was merely a sign of a healthy functioning market and in the long run, may even prove to be beneficial for the local economy.

As Sandel says, the Hurricane Charley price gouging case “raises hard questions about morality and law”. When you boil them down, however, they are largely “questions about justice [and] to answer them, we have to explore the meaning of justice.” 

Sandel goes on to explore this meaning across many facets and issues in this illuminating and thought-provoking book. From outrage over bank bailouts to public perception of mercenaries in the military, Sandel attempts to show that although we tend to react emotionally to hot button issues, there is plenty of room to examine them in more depth. 

Along the way, Sandel introduces us to many different political philosophies to see how they might be applied to some of the burning social questions of our times. We become familiar with the stark utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham who held that the right thing to do in any situation is to maximize utility, or the overall balance of pleasure over pain. Libertarianism, on the other hand, places a heavy premium on individual freedom and agency to the exclusion of many other considerations. There is a chapter dedicated to the work of the 18th century Prussian German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, whose groundbreaking idea that we are “rational beings, worthy of dignity and respect” has informed current views on universal human rights. Sandel also expounds on the ideas of liberal philosopher John Rawls and Aristotle, among others. 

Sandel’s book is distilled from his research and lectures over the course of a prominent career as a political philosopher. The class he teaches at Harvard (simply titled ‘Justice’) is hugely popular with students and much of this content has also made its way into a TV series and online podcast. The moral and ethical dilemmas he probes from practices such as commercial surrogacy and affirmative action are largely from the American social and political landscape but other topics – economic inequality, the relevance of secularism, questions of national identity – are more universal and particularly applicable to India.

Sandel outlines provocative theories related to these issues and presents them as fodder for intellectual debate without necessarily endorsing them. The book was published in 2009 but has a certain timelessness to it. In an era of increasing polarization, Sandel tries to establish that it is possible for two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum to sit down and discuss issues in a more deliberate way. As the Guardian said in its review of the book: “Justice is a timely plea for us to desist from political bickering and see if we can have a sensible discussion about what sort of society we really want to live in.”

Sangita Srinivasa is a writer and the editor of Viewpoint.