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Ethical View of Justice

Aristotelian theory of justice, Bentham’s utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology are the three main ideas and views that philosopher of law Michael Sandel draws on in his documentary “Justice: A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century” while addressing current legal concerns. This documentary is compelling because it focuses on significant legal challenges of the early decades of this Century and because it applies these ideas to these situations to determine whether or not these theories are still relevant. Therefore, the documentary serves as a symbolic “double-edged sword”: it examines real difficulties like torture while theoretical ideas are tested in the same fire.

The compelling view is Kantian deontology which argues that individuals should adhere to their commitments and responsibilities while making ethical decisions. One of the most important themes that emerge from Sandel’s documentary’s confluence of practice and theory is that the topic of legal ethics and philosophy seems to be inseparable. As private individuals or academics, or professionals interested in law, we care about and want to enhance legal normativity because they exist and are debated in the context of legal institutions (Michael, 2012). Even if laws exist at random and are followed virtually dogmatically and religiously, there is still an issue of whether or not laws can be created that are consistent with a strong ethical perspective.

As the documentary shows, our perceptions of law are shaped in part by our ethical values. There are two methods to critique torture if one takes this position: firstly, to establish that torture is prohibited within the existing legal system; secondly, to compare torturing people to an ethical basis, wherein torturing people becomes existentially irresponsible. Aristotle, Kant, and Bentham are used in Sandel’s documentary to explain how we might morally foreground our legal system in various ways based on various theories of ethics.

In a dialogue with a friend, we spend a lot of time in the video talking about Aristotle’s idea of justice and how it may be used to think about the kinds of legal norms we want to establish. According to Aristotle, justice is largely concerned with growing virtue and living a decent life, as the documentary shows. It means that things like state-sanctioned torture and other abuses of civil liberties must be judged against the standards of morality and a decent life. Is this a moral act? According to Bentham’s utilitarian view, torture is a means to an end. As the video implies, this seems to be a paradox from an Aristotelian perspective: fostering virtue seems unachievable while utilizing a violent technique. Thus, violence feeds on itself.

On top of this, there is an extreme Kantian interpretation of morality that states that we must conform to a “categorical imperative,” which he refers to as “normativity that is not formed by ourselves,” to live a morally acceptable life. For this reason, Kant uses the example of the shopkeepers and price set to argue for this point, since only the shopkeepers who set fair pricing is ethically behaving, neither overcharging nor undercharging with some self-serving motive in mind.

What challenges me most is how people ignore ethical rules and live in a world of injustices. Insofar as Sandel’s documentary highlights law’s ethical importance, any theory of law must first depend on ethics: and Aristotle’s theory may be most pertinent. The development of justice and the good life acknowledges ethics as a process: we are attempting to live a decent life and hence will make mistakes along the way. It is a moral and, eventually, a legal quest. Simultaneously, using this method leaves the legislation susceptible to change, making it more adaptable and attempting to enhance it. Since the law is rooted in ethical standards, it seems that what is required is a somewhat malleable but still clear ethical basis upon which our legal normativity might be built.


Michael Sandel, 2012. Justice: A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century.


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