The Four Principles of Justice by Michael Sandel

Subject: Philosophy
Pages: 8
Words: 2053
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: College

The United States is experiencing a social crisis. The problem is characterized by young students armed with handguns, corporate greed, and families caving in because of financial difficulties. Sandel a legal expert asserted that the American public must reinterpret concepts of liberty, prosperity, equality, and human rights. He said that it is not enough to simply develop a framework that will protect the welfare of the majority. There is a desperate need for people of diverse backgrounds to work together. Sandel said that American citizens must learn to sacrifice to achieve true equality.

Before going any further it must be understood that the present is a mere byproduct of the decisions and actions made in the past. The current state of the social and moral landscape of the United States of America can be understood through the study of American history. By doing so, one can understand the meaning and value of liberty, prosperity, equality, and human rights. It is also important to point out that the belief system used to interpret these concepts is the result of nation-building. This is the process that came about after the dramatic transformation of the United States from a former colony to an independent nation.

It is therefore important to point out the circumstances that led to the creation of the U.S. political system that incorporated the principles of utilitarianism and libertarianism. In other words, it is not enough to simply view these concepts as a means to develop a framework for creating laws and political decisions. These concepts must be understood in their proper context. Therefore, liberty must be understood about the experience of the Americans living in the colonies as they asserted their independence against the British Empire. Equality and human rights must be understood in the context of the national struggle to break free from tyranny. Prosperity must be understood in the pursuit of the American Dream.


It is now time to figure out the basis for the policies enacted to promote liberty, equality, human rights, and prosperity. There are two major frameworks used by lawmakers and political leaders. The first one is utilitarianism and the second one is libertarianism. John Stuart Mill’s interpretation of utilitarianism contributed greatly to the discussion on how to develop the correct framework for policymaking purposes. He pointed out, that there is a much better way to develop guidelines that can help society deal with social issues. John Stuart Mill said that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill 1). This theory is generally known in legal circles as utilitarianism.

In the utilitarian framework, a correct decision can be achieved if the end goal is the creation of happiness. It must not be interpreted as a self-indulgent mindset even if it seeks to eliminate pain, discomfort, and other negative feelings. It must be understood from John Stuart Mill. He clarified that there must be a standard and this standard:

is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world, in general, is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character (Mill 7).

Sandel understood the core principle of utilitarianism and made the remarks: “One way of thinking about the right thing to do, perhaps the most natural and familiar way, is to ask what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” (Sandel 9). But this legal expert was quick to make a counter-argument “that maximizing utility, or collective happiness, may come at the expense of individual rights” (Sandel 9). This assertion is a valid point especially if one considers the tendency of the majority to create laws that ignore the welfare of the minority.


Utilitarianism provided a clear goal and that is the pursuit of happiness for the greatest number of people. However, one can find several weaknesses in this argument. It is therefore important to address a problematic issue of utilitarianism which is the creation of a standard that oversimplifies social issues. Thus, the concept of libertarianism was introduced as an alternative view. Libertarianism addresses the need to clarify the importance of human rights. According to Sandel:

Libertarians are best known as advocates of free markets and critics of government regulation. Underlying their laissez-faire stance is the idea that each of us has a fundamental right to liberty – a right to do whatever we want with the things we own, provided we do not violate other people’s rights to do the same (Sandel 49).

The high value given to liberty explains the reason why clarification was made regarding the source of these ideas. It must be pointed out that the libertarian’s point of view was heavily influenced by historical events. Libertarianism is the assurance that the tyranny of the elite can no longer be repeated in the future. But in the 21st century, the fear of oppression from a monarchy is no longer a relevant issue.

Liberty is now seen as an indirect cause of some of the problems faced by many Americans today. This negative consequence is the result of the misuse of liberty, especially if viewed from the clause stating that every American citizen has the right to do whatever he wants to do. It is easy to abuse liberty, even if one adds limitations, such as the idea that everything is feasible as long as the person does not violate the rights of others.

Citizenship, Sacrifice, and Service

Liberty is important, especially when viewed in countries where a dictator rules. Liberty is precious especially after a recent declaration of independence. But liberty can be counter-productive if citizens of the State have become self-centered in their pursuit of happiness. The best example is the use of liberty to exploit legal loopholes. The damaging effect of liberty can be seen in the way it was used to bend rules to exploit people.

Sandel argued that the citizens of this nation must have a strong sense of community. It must incorporate the highest ideals of utilitarianism and libertarianism. In other words, this country must work towards policies that will benefit the greatest number of people without trampling individual rights. It is not as improbable as one would think but it would require a change in mindset concerning the importance of liberty, prosperity, equality, and human rights.

Sandel made an important observation when it comes to the pursuit of the good life. He was correct to assert that there is nothing wrong with the need to create a good life. But the disturbing development in 21st century America can be traced to the lack of a sense of community. Thus, individuals tend to work on their own without regard to others.

The inability to form meaningful relationships with diverse groups of people intensified the development of elitist thinking. Furthermore, there is also an increasing addiction to the idea of privatization. The idea of private property is one of the most enduring and important legacies of the founding fathers. They strived hard to provide individual citizens the right to have their property. Therefore, they can live like kings in their domain. However, there are many instances when privatization can lead to selfish behavior.

It is high time to understand that privatization has limits. A person must not build his kingdom and create a barrier that separates him from the rest of the community. It will not take long before that person experiences the sting of isolation. This person may succeed in creating an oasis in a city torn by violence and poverty. But what will be the effect the moment he steps out of his cocoon? There are many incidents wherein rich people get killed by mugging and other violent acts. In other words, this person has to work hard to create a slice of heaven on Earth, to insulate himself from the outside world.

The unintended consequence is the need for the ordinary person to work as a slave to achieve happiness. In the past children were happy with toys that they can make on their own. Today, a typical American child cannot be happy unless his parents bring him to a toy store selling expensive items. When he grows up and becomes a teenager, his appetite for expensive toys remains the same. He will then pressure his parents to buy video games and other items that can cost hundreds of dollars

The desperate desire to acquire more wealth to buy things that they do not need has driven men and women to do things that they would regret later in life. In many cases, business leaders are forced to bend the rules to increase the profit margins of their respective companies. The best examples were the erring companies that went bankrupt after the government indicted them because of irregularities. The story of Enron and WorldCom is a reminder that America requires a transformation from within (Fusaro & Miller 10).

Inequality and Solidarity

Sandel also made an important contribution when he said that it is not only important to respect individual human rights and support the desire of people to pursue happiness. He said that it is also important to work together as one people. Sandel circles back to his original position that people need to have a sense of community. It is an important ingredient to attain sustainable economic growth.

Sandel also said that it is of critical importance to eradicate inequality. However, Sandel proposed that it is not enough to simply create laws that free them from the bondage of slavery and segregation. It is not enough to uphold the law. People of all race, creed, and color must come together in solidarity. Sandel said that if society cannot solve the problem of inequality then the gap between rich and poor widens.

Sandel made an effective argument regarding the evils of inequality. He said that if the gap widens between rich and poor, then, there is no hope to rehabilitate broken institutions like the public school system. It is interesting to note the rapid decline of what was once considered as a bastion of quality education was not caused by a weak economy but the result of neglect. It is a direct result when influential people stopped sending their children to private schools.

At first glance, the decision of the rich to send their children to private schools is a mere expression of their right to choose. They believe that sending their children to private schools ensures a bright future. Using principles gleaned from utilitarianism and libertarianism, this decision is perfectly within their rights. But upon closer examination, it will be revealed that the self-imposed isolation by the country’s elite resulted in the overall decline of social institutions.

The explanation is so simple but requires the brilliance of Sandel’s mind to make it obvious to the general public. The failure to interact with other members of society based on social status prevents influential people to see the problems that plague society. More importantly, the barrier that exists between social classes prevents the rich and powerful to help those who are in need because they are unaware of their plight.


Sandel made a convincing argument regarding the need to go beyond the principles of utilitarianism and libertarianism. He said that even if one combines the best ideas from both schools of thought, it is not enough to deal with the problems that have caused the deterioration of American society. Sandel’s proposal is so simple but it is highly unlikely that Americans will embrace it. Sandel said that people must have a sense of community.

According to him, it is not enough to know liberty, prosperity, equality, and human rights. Sandel said that people of diverse social backgrounds must come together. This proposition can be achieved if the rich and poor continue to find ways to interact with each other. In this way, the general public becomes aware of the problems that affect everyone and they can work together to find a solution to a particular need.

Works Cited

Fusaro, Peter, and Ross Miller. What Went Wrong at Enron: Everyone’s Guide to the Largets Bankruptcy in U.S. History. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism. 2011. Web.

Sandel, Michael. Justice: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.