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Justice: A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century, Reaction Paper Example

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In “Justice: A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century”, philosopher of law Michael Sandel approaches contemporary legal issues from the perspective of the philosophy of law, thus employing various dominant theories and positions within this tradition, such as Bentham’s utilitarianism, the Aristotelian theory of justice and Kantian deontologistics. Arguably what makes this documentary is compelling is not only that it elaborates relevant legal problems that exist in the first decades of this century, but also in the fact that by applying these existing theories to these issues, one can ascertain the continued relevance or shortcomings of these same theories. Hence, the documentary essentially functions as a metaphorical “double-edge” sword: practical concerns regarding issues such as torture are examined, whereas at the same time theoretical premises are tested in this same fire.

Arguably, one of the crucial themes that emerges from this intersection of theory and practice in Sandel’s documentary is that there seems to be an inseparability between the question of legal philosophy and ethics. That is to say that the very existence of legal institutions and the debating over legal normativities implies that we, as private citizens or as academics or as professionals involved in law, care about these same normativities, seeking to constantly improve them. There is not merely a haphazard existence of laws, to which we adhere to in an almost dogmatic and religious matter, but there is also a question about trying to come up with a series of laws that match up to a robust ethical position.

Accordingly, as the documentary demonstrates ethics to a certain extent foregrounds our conceptions of law. For example, when considering torture, in so far as torture is legal under a current legal framework, there would be two ways to criticize it, if one would take this position: firstly, to either show that torture is illegal under this current framework, or secondly, compare torture to an ethical foundation, whereby torture becomes existentially irresponsible. Sandel’s documentary adheres to the second option, using theorists such as Aristotle, Bentham and Kant to show different variations of ethics, and therefore different ways in which we can ethically foreground our legal system.

For example, in the documentary much time is spent discussing Aristotle’s conception of justice and how it may become a paradigm through which we can think about the legal normativities we wish to institute. For Aristotle, as the documentary explains, justice is primarily concerned with cultivating virtue and a good life. Yet phenomena such as torture or the violation of citizen’s rights then have to be viewed in light of virtue and good life: is torture practiced by the State apparatus an instance of cultivating virtue? Is it an ethical practice? Certainly, the arguments in favor of torture seem to suggest yes: torture here serves a Benthamesque utilitarian approach, whereby torture is a means with which to achieve the end of a State free of, for example, terrorism. However, from an Aristotelian perspective, as the documentary intimates, this would seem to be a contradiction: cultivating virtue appears to be untenable from using a violent approach. In this sense, violence begets violence.

Amidst these opposing positions, however, we also get an extreme Kantian version, whereby morality is simply something we must adhere to, what he calls a categorical imperative, which basically exists beyond us: this functions as a normativity which is not produced by us. Kant’s example of the shopkeeper and price setting aims to argue for this point, as only the shopkeeper who sets fair prices can be considered to be acting ethically, not overcharging or undercharging with some selfish aim in mind (i.e., profit).

In so far as Sandel’s documentary emphasizes, in my interpretation, the ethical foreground of law, therefore any theory of law must first rest upon ethics: and it is perhaps in this sense that Aristotle’s theory is the most relevant. This is because the cultivation of justice and the good life recognizes that ethics is a process: we are working towards a good life, and therefore errors will be made in the process. This is an ethical and ultimately legal journey. At the same time, taking this approach we leave the law open to possible changes, making it flexible and trying to improve it. In so far as the law is foregrounded in ethical norms, it appears that what is necessary is a fairly flexible but nonetheless lucid ethical foundation, from which our legal normativities may then be developed.

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