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[Kim Seong-kon] Sandel’s book on justice offers little for Koreans

Michael Sandel’s book, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” has been on the nation’s bestseller list ever since it was translated and introduced to Korean readers in May 2010. According to a newspaper report, 650,000 copies of “Justice” have sold in Korea within six months, with a record-breaking 72 prints by Nov. 8. 

What, then, is the reason for the extraordinary popularity of a Harvard Law professor’s book in Korea? Some reviewers point out that Sandel’s book arrived at the perfect time, when President Lee Myung-bak proclaimed that he would bring justice to Korea after the “unjust” and scandalous hiring of the minister’s daughter in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Others argued that the book piqued the curiosity of the Korean people, who are eager for social justice.

Did Sandel’s book, then, quench the Korean reader’s thirst? Not likely. First, “Justice” is a book neither about the American justice system nor about justice in American society per se. Rather, it is an intellectual quest to explore and define “justice” in our complex, illusive, postmodern reality. Second, the author seldom provides a crystal-clear answer to the questions he raises. Instead, he takes an example, introduces two contrasting perspectives, and presents the rationales and problems behind each perspective. Then Prof. Sandel makes his reader contemplate the case in light of “justice,” while he maintains a neutral stance.

Korean readers may also not have been satisfied by the book due to the fundamental differences between the Korean and American concepts of “justice.” Many Koreans tend to believe that “justice” primarily means equal distribution of wealth and privileges. As long as there are rich and privileged people, therefore, Koreans would think there is no justice in their society. Some time ago, Korean newspaper reporters dug into data on freshmen students at Seoul National University and conjured up sensational headlines, as if they had found some serious “social injustice.” The article, “More than 40 percent of SNU Freshmen Are from Gangnam or the Upper Class” was instantly picked up by indignant readers who condemned SNU. But what’s wrong with upper-class students entering Seoul National University? As long as they’ve taken honest and fair steps to enter college, they have every right to be at SNU.

To Korean reader’s disappointment, Sandel’s book mainly deals with moral and philosophical issues of justice, such as affirmative action, military drafts, taxation, and surrogate mothers. One anecdote is about the four U.S. SEAL scouts in Afghanistan who encountered three goat herders including a teenage boy. The American reconnaissance team was supposed to kill the goat herders to prevent them from informing the Taliban of their location, and yet they let them go because it would be morally wrong to kill innocent people. Their decision, however, turned out to be a fatal mistake which resulted in a tragic massacre; three SEAL scouts were killed by the Taliban, one seriously wounded. A U.S. rescue helicopter arrived, but the Taliban shot it down, killing all 16 American soldiers on board. What was the “just” choice? Should the American team have killed the goat herders or let them go? It is hard to tell.

Another example is the case of surrogate mothers. Some people contest that having a baby through a surrogate mother is “unjust.” But Sandel introduces such a scenario: suppose the sterile parents rejoice because they can now fulfill their once impossible dream of having a baby, and the poor surrogate mother receives enough money to buy a house and support her children, enabling her to lead a happy life. Is surrogacy really “social injustice”? Once again, it is difficult to tell.

During the Civil War in America, people were allowed to avoid the draft by hiring a substitute and sending him to the army. A host of celebrities took advantage of the policy: Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and the fathers of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. Even future presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland sent substitutes. Most Koreans would criticize them, arguing that it is unjust to pay others to go to the battlefield. If the above-mentioned people had been drafted and killed during the Civil War, however, American history would have been quite different and may have gone down the wrong direction. What, then, is social justice? We do not know.

Sandel points out that in the United States, the top 1 percent owns one third of the whole wealth of America. People may claim that this is surely social injustice. At the same time, however, Sandel introduces another opinion: The government cannot take their wealth and redistribute it to the poor, because such a move would be unjust as well.

In his seminal book, Sandel tells us that justice should be based on ethics and morality, rather than on legality. His book enables us to see things from different angles before drawing conclusions on an egotistic basis. We cannot pin down “justice” easily. Perhaps that is the most valuable lesson we Koreans can learn from his book.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.
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