What's the Right Thing to Do?

Michael Sandel, the wildly popular Harvard professor whose courses on justice have drawn SRO crowds for two decades, is the subject of a PBS series called "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?," which is also available for online viewing.  (His book, of the same title, has just been published and was recently reviewed in the magazine by John Coleman, S.J.)  Now, as part of our online Culture page, visiting editor Thomas J. Massaro, S.J., professor of social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, wonders whether Catholic social teaching could teach the great teacher's students something more about justice.  Massaro asks:

What principles could an astute Catholic add to the discussions of justice in Sandel’s classroom?


1. Some things are simply not for sale.
2. Some actions are simply not permissible, regardless of material gains that might accrue from them.
3. Concern for the desperately poor should take priority over further privileges for the wealthy.
4. Notions of consent, merit and autonomy (which dominate standard philosophical accounts of the meaning of justice) do not exhaust the whole human story.

In short, without certain themes featured in Catholic theology, no account of justice will be satisfying or fully adequate. Pope Benedict’s treatment of “the experience of gift” in his July 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate is the most recent reminder in church documents of certain requirements of human relationships that are surely part of what we mean by justice, but which come to be airbrushed out of Sandel’s syllabus.

Read the rest of Fr. Massaro's take on the Sandel series here in our Culture section online, and, then, listen to a podcast interview by Tim Reidy with Fr. Massaro on Sandel, justice and Catholic social teaching.

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8 years 3 months ago
I've been following Michael Sandel's video classes on Justice - I'm up to episode #7 now.  I like them a lot.  They remind me of philosophy classes at college.  I think all  of those principles that Fr. Massaro mentions from Catholic teaching are also met by Kant's philosophy, except perhaps the preferential option for the poor.  Most European philosophers were also Christian and Kant was a big inspiration for Protestant theology. 
Liam Richardson
8 years 3 months ago
Another thought: that ownership philosophies of property (capitalism, socialism and communism) do not exhaust the gamut of philosophies of property. Catholicism's emphasis on the teology of property being ordered to the common good puts it more in alignment with might be anachronistically called stewardship philosophy of property that one finds in other cultures.
Liam Richardson
8 years 3 months ago
Sorry, I meant to type "teleology" not "teology"


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