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A Just Society

Posted July. 11, 2010 16:01,   


In 1884, four British sailors were drifting on a lifeboat in the South Atlantic. Their ship was lost in a storm and the four had no drinking water. The youngest among them, a 17-year-old boy, drank seawater due to severe thirst and was dying. Having not eaten for 20 days, the other three sailors killed the boy, ate his flesh, and drank his blood before they were rescued. They were tried and said they did what they did without hesitation. Was it justice to hold them accountable for murder?

The Korean-language edition of the book “Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel has become a bestseller in Korea. The author presents such questionable episodes and dilemmas to readers. Is it bad to torture and get a confession from a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb that can kill thousands? Is it wrong for a parent to sell an organ to pay for his or her child’s tuition? Is it right to forcibly place beggars in a camp to increase the happiness and satisfaction of the majority of the populace? Sandel avoids giving clear-cut answers to these questions, and instead provokes intellectual exploration to seek the essence of justice.

Economic justice is directly linked to government policy or ideology. A common phenomenon around the world is that economic growth intensifies economic polarization. So would that justify the U.S. taking money from Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates for distribution to the poor or levying heavy taxes on sports stars such as Michael Jordan? Left-leaning intellectuals in Korea are reportedly studying hard to find answers to these questions. Whether they intend to use the matter of justice in conjunction with the domestic political situation remains unknown, but they should know defining justice is not that simple.

The reality in Korean society is that even the matter of justice has become an object of populist ideology or one dividing the people. Sandel’s book mentions nothing on left or right-wing ideology. He objectively compares Jerome Bentham’s notion of utilitarianism with the views of proponents of complete freedom, which stress the individual’s right to choose and minimum government. Sandel is persuasive in arguing that a just society is not possible by just maximizing the public interest or the freedom to choose, saying recovery of the common good through a civic mind, volunteerism and sacrifice is also crucial.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)