The "Common Reading"

Why have a common reading?

Each summer, incoming freshmen at UC are asked to read a book that raises issues and themes which cut across the various academic disciplines. This 'common reading' provides a context and touchstone for various academic discussions and activities throughout the year. This year's book is "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?" by Michael Sandel. It was selected by a committee of students, staff, and faculty that sought a theme or story tied to the University Community's Bearcat Bond - a pledge to uphold the Just Community principles. See:

Sandel's book doesn't simply point to the Just Community Principle: Promote Justice. 'Justice' asks us to reflect on the ethical principles and values that guide our actions in everyday life and in ethically problematic situations. It prods our gut-instincts about abortion, drug legalization, affirmative action, prostitution, and other hot-button issues. It helps us discover the values and principles on which our gut-instincts are based and helps us learn how to apply those values and principles to cases in which our gut-instincts may pull in opposing directions. This book is as much about how to make your next decision as it is about figuring out what you already believe. Reading and discussing this book as a UC community of freshmen, together with faculty, advisors, peer leaders and other members of the UC community, provides a context for each to reflect, articulate, debate, justify - and perhaps even reevaluate - one's moral and political convictions. This process of prodding our gut-instincts with the hope of developing them further is called 'philosophy'. By practicing moral decision-making (that is, by articulating and defending what you believe), you'll be able to handle more complicated and more weighty decisions in the future, in a more informed way.

Reading Guide

Think of the following questions while reading this book and exercising your moral sense and reasoning:

  • The Overall Good and Utilitarianism: Look at this video: There are times when the only way to prevent harm to a large number of people is to harm a smaller number of people. Is it always permissible to harm a smaller number in order to prevent harm to a large number? Suppose a man has planted a bomb in New York City, and it will explode in twenty-four hours unless the police are able to find it. Should it be legal for the police to use torture to extract information from the suspected bomber? Further, suppose the man who has planted the bomb will not reveal the location unless an innocent member of his family is tortured. Should it be legal for the police to torture innocent people, if that is truly the only way to discover the location of a large bomb? According to the principle of utility, an action is right insofar it tends to increase happiness and wrong insofar as it tends to decrease happiness. In other words, the principle tells us that the right thing to do is always whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness and whatever is necessary to prevent the greatest amount of unhappiness. But what if the majority of the members of a community derive pleasure from being racist? Should we let them be racist, if that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure? Are some pleasures objectionable?
  • Individual Freedom and Libertarianism: Is it unjust for the government to require people to wear seat belts and to prohibit them from engaging in other self-endangering activities? What if we know that many more people will die without such legislation? Should people be free to hurt or kill themselves, provided their actions do not violate anyone's else rights? Libertarians think that we must never violate anyone else's rights—even if doing so would increase overall happiness. Do you think the government can limit individual rights for the overall good? Should it limit drug use? Prostitution?
  • What Can Money Buy? In some developing countries, it is possible to buy a kidney for a few thousand dollars. The seller is often very poor and needs the money to support himself or his family. Is it morally permissible to buy his kidney? Should the sale of organs from living adults be illegal? What do you think about the morality of prostitution? Is it morally wrong to sell (or rent) the use of one's sexual organs? In the American Civil War, men who were drafted for the army had the option of hiring a substitute to take their place, or paying a fee to avoid military service. Are these practices tantamount to selling off one's duty as a citizen, or are they perfectly acceptable market transactions? Does it make a difference whether the transaction takes place during a war or in peacetime?
  • Fairness, Merit, and Affirmative Action: In 1974, Allan Bakke, a white male, applied to medical school at the University of California, Davis. He was rejected, even though his grades and test scores were higher than some of the minority candidates who were admitted. Bakke sued the medical school. Do you think Bakke was treated unfairly? The U.S. Supreme Court decided that he should be let in. Was the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court just? Does he have a right to be considered solely on the basis of his academic and personal merit? His natural talents are a factor over which he had no control, so why is he entitled to be judged only by his personal and academic merit? Here's a similar issue: Often, naturally gifted athletes go to college on scholarship. However, their natural talents are a factor over which they had no control. Is it fair to reward people for factors of their life over which they had no control?
  • Morality and the Law: Modern liberalism maintains that law should try to be neutral on controversial moral and religious questions. According to this view, the law should not promote any particular conception of the best way to live, but let citizens choose for themselves how best to live their lives. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln debated with Stephen Douglas about slavery. Douglas argued that the federal government should not take a stand on the controversial question of slavery. Lincoln thought that the moral question raised by slavery could not be avoided. The government would be taking a stand, one way or the other. Do you agree with Lincoln? Think about this: Some believe that the purpose of marriage is procreation and that, therefore, same-sex marriages should not be permitted. Others believe same-sex marriage should be permitted because the purpose of marriage is to honor and promote loving relationships between committed adults, regardless of their sex. Is it possible to defend a position on same-sex marriage without making a judgment about the purpose and value of marriage?