Justice by Michael Sandel

By Scott Hart,2014-06-26 02:06
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Justice by Michael Sandel

Episode One


    If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save

    the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing even though

    you knew that five people would die right before your eyes

    if you did nothingwhat would you do? What would be

    the right thing to do? That’s the hypothetical scenario

    Professor Michael Sandel uses to launch his course on moral reasoning. After the

    majority of students votes for killing the one person in order to save the lives of five

    others, Sandel presents three similar moral conundrumseach one artfully designed to

    make the decision more difficult. As students stand up to defend their conflicting choices, it becomes clear that the assumptions behind our moral reasoning are often contradictory, and the question of what is right and what is wrong is not always black and



    Sandel introduces the principles of utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, with a famous nineteenth century legal case involving a shipwrecked crew of four. After

    nineteen days lost at sea, the captain decides to kill the weakest amongst them, the young cabin boy, so that the rest can feed on his blood and body to survive. The case sets up a

    classroom debate about the moral validity of utilitarianismand its doctrine that the right

    thing to do is whatever produces "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Episode Two


    Today, companies and governments often use Jeremy

    Bentham’s utilitarian logic under the name of “cost-benefit

    analysis.” Sandel presents some contemporary cases in

    which cost-benefit analysis was used to put a dollar value

    on human life. The cases give rise to several objections to

    the utilitarian logic of seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Should we always give more weight to the happiness of a majority, even if the majority is cruel or ignoble? Is it possible to sum up and compare all values using a common measure like money?


    Sandel introduces J.S. Mill, a utilitarian philosopher who attempts to defend utilitarianism against the objections raised by critics of the doctrine. Mill argues that seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number” is compatible with protecting

    individual rights, and that utilitarianism can make room for a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Mill’s idea is that the higher pleasure is always the pleasure preferred by a well-informed majority. Sandel tests this theory by playing video clips from three very different forms of entertainment: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the reality

    show Fear Factor, and The Simpsons. Students debate which experience provides the

    higher pleasure, and whether Mill’s defense of utilitarianism is successful.

Episode Three


    Sandel introduces the libertarian conception of individual

    rights, according to which only a minimal state is justified.

    Libertarians argue that government shouldn’t have the

    power to enact laws that 1) protect people from themselves,

    such as seat belt laws, 2) impose some people’s moral

    values on society as a whole, or 3) redistribute income from the rich to the poor. Sandel explains the libertarian notion that redistributive taxation is akin to forced labor with references to Bill Gates and Michael Jordan.


    Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick makes the case that taxing the wealthyto pay

    for housing, health care, and education for the pooris a form of coercion. Students first

    discuss the arguments behind redistributive taxation. Don’t most poor people need the social services they receive in order to survive? If you live in a society that has a system

    of progressive taxation, aren’t you obligated to pay your taxes? Don’t many rich people

    often acquire their wealth through sheer luck or family fortune? A group of students

    dubbed “Team Libertarian” volunteers to defend the libertarian philosophy against these objections.

Episode Four


    The philosopher John Locke believes that individuals have

    certain rights so fundamental that no government can ever

    take them away. These rightsto life, liberty and

    propertywere given to us as human beings in the “the

    state of nature,” a time before government and laws were

    created. According to Locke, our natural rights are

    governed by the law of nature, known by reason, which says that we can neither give them up nor take them away from anyone else. Sandel wraps up the lecture by raising a

    question: what happens to our natural rights once we enter society and consent to a system of laws?


    If we all have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, how can a government enforce tax laws passed by the representatives of a mere majority? Doesn’t that amount to taking some people’s property without their consent? Locke’s response is that we give our “tacit consent” to obey the tax laws passed by a majority when we choose to live in a

    society. Therefore, taxation is legitimate and compatible with individual rights, as long as it applies to everyone and does not arbitrarily single anyone out.

Episode Five


    During the Civil War, men drafted into war had the option

    of hiring substitutes to fight in their place. Professor Sandel

    asks students whether they consider this policy just. Many

    do not, arguing that it is unfair to allow the affluent to avoid

    serving and risking their lives by paying less privileged

    citizens to fight in their place. This leads to a classroom debate about war and conscription. Is today’s voluntary army open to the same

    objection? Should military service be allocated by the labor market or by conscription? What role should patriotism play, and what are the obligations of citizenship? Is there a civic duty to serve one’s country? And are utilitarians and

    libertarians able to account for this duty?


    In this lecture, Professor Sandel examines the principle of free-market exchange in light

    of the contemporary controversy over reproductive rights. Sandel begins with a

    humorous discussion of the business of egg and sperm donation. He then describes the

    case of “Baby M"a famous legal battle in the mid-eighties that raised the unsettling

    question, “Who owns a baby?" In 1985, a woman named Mary Beth Whitehead signed a contract with a New Jersey couple, agreeing to be a surrogate mother in exchange for a fee of $10,000. However, after giving birth, Ms. Whitehead decided she wanted to keep the child, and the case went to court. Sandel and students debate the nature of informed

    consent, the morality of selling a human life, and the meaning of maternal rights.

Episode Six


    Professor Sandel introduces Immanuel Kant, a challenging

    but influential philosopher. Kant rejects utilitarianism. He

    argues that each of us has certain fundamental duties and

    rights that take precedence over maximizing utility. Kant

    rejects the notion that morality is about calculating

    consequences. When we act out of dutydoing something

    simply because it is rightonly then do our actions have moral worth. Kant gives the

    example of a shopkeeper who passes up the chance to shortchange a customer only

    because his business might suffer if other customers found out. According to Kant, the

    shopkeeper’s action has no moral worth, because he did the right thing for the wrong reason.


    Immanuel Kant says that insofar as our actions have moral worth, what confers moral worth is our capacity to rise above self-interest and inclination and to act out of

    duty. Sandel tells the true story of a thirteen-year old boy who won a spelling bee

    contest, but then admitted to the judges that he had, in fact, misspelled the final word. Using this story and others, Sandel explains Kant’s test for determining whether an action is morally right: to identify the principle expressed in our action and then ask whether that principle could ever become a universal law that every other human being could act on.

Episode Seven


    Immanuel Kant’s stringent theory of morality allows for no

    exceptions. Kant believed that telling a lie, even a white

    lie, is a violation of one’s own dignity. Professor Sandel

    asks students to test Kant’s theory with this hypothetical

    case: if your friend were hiding inside your home, and a

    person intent on killing your friend came to your door and asked you where he was, would it be wrong to tell a lie? If so, would it be moral to try to

    mislead the murderer without actually lying? This leads to a discussion of the morality of

    “misleading truths.” Sandel wraps up the lecture with a video clip of one of the most famous, recent examples of dodging the truth: President Clinton talking about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.


    Sandel introduces the modern philosopher John Rawls and his theory of a “hypothetical social contract.” Rawls argues that principles of justice are the outcome of a special kind of agreement. They are the principles we would all agree to if we had to choose rules for

    our society and no one had any unfair bargaining power. According to Rawls, the only way to ensure that no one has more power than anyone else is to imagine a scenario where no one knows his or her age, sex, race, intelligence, strength, social position,

    family wealth, religion, or even his or her goals in life. Rawls calls this hypothetical

    situation a “veil of ignorance.” What principles would we agree to behind this “veil of ignorance”? And would these principles be fair? Professor Sandel explains the idea of a

    fair agreement with some humorous examples of actual contracts that produce unfair results.

Episode Eight


    Is it just to tax the rich to help the poor? John Rawls says

    we should answer this question by asking what principles

    you would choose to govern the distribution of income and

    wealth if you did not know who you were, whether you

    grew up in privilege or in poverty. Wouldn’t you want an

    equal distribution of wealth, or one that maximally benefits whomever happens to be the least advantaged? After all, that might be you. Rawls argues that even meritocracya distributive system that rewards effortdoesn’t go far enough

    in leveling the playing field because those who are naturally gifted will always get ahead. Furthermore, says Rawls, the naturally gifted can’t claim much credit because their success often depends on factors as arbitrary as birth order. Sandel makes Rawls’s point when he asks the students who were first born in their family to raise their hands.


    Professor Sandel recaps how income, wealth, and opportunities in life should be

    distributed, according to the three different theories raised so far in class. He summarizes libertarianism, the meritocratic system, and John Rawls’s egalitarian theory. Sandel then launches a discussion of the fairness of pay differentials in modern society. He compares

    the salary of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,000) with the salary of television’s Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? According to John Rawls, it is not. Rawls argues that an individual’s personal success is often a

    function of morally arbitrary factsluck, genes, and family circumstancesfor which he

    or she can claim no credit. Those at the bottom are no less worthy simply because they weren’t born with the talents a particular society rewards, Rawls argues, and the only just

    way to deal with society’s inequalities is for the naturally advantaged to share their wealth with those less fortunate.

Episode Nine


    Sandel describes the 1996 court case of a white woman

    named Cheryl Hopwood who was denied admission to a

    Texas law school, even though she had higher grades and

    test scores than some of the minority applicants who were

    admitted. Hopwood took her case to court, arguing the

    school’s affirmative action program violated her rights.

    Students discuss the pros and cons of affirmative action. Should we try to correct for inequality in educational backgrounds by taking race into consideration? Should we compensate for historical injustices such as slavery and segregation? Is the argument in favor of promoting diversity a valid one? How does it size up against the argument that a

    student’s efforts and achievements should carry more weight than factors that are out of his or her control and therefore arbitrary? When a university’s stated mission is to increase diversity, is it a violation of rights to deny a white person admission?


    Sandel introduces Aristotle and his theory of justice. Aristotle disagrees with Rawls and Kant. He believes that justice is about giving people their due, what they deserve. When considering matters of distribution, Aristotle argues one must consider the goal, the end,

    the purpose of what is being distributed. The best flutes, for example, should go to the best flute players. And the highest political offices should go to those with the best judgment and the greatest civic virtue. For Aristotle, justice is a matter of fitting a

    person’s virtues with an appropriate role.

Episode Ten


    Aristotle believes the purpose of politics is to promote and

    cultivate the virtue of its citizens. The telos or goal of the

    state and political community is the “good life”. And those

    citizens who contribute most to the purpose of the

    community are the ones who should be most rewarded. But

    how do we know the purpose of a community or a practice?

    Aristotle’s theory of justice leads to a contemporary debate about golf. Sandel describes the case of Casey Martin, a disabled golfer, who sued the PGA after it declined his

    request to use a golf cart on the PGA Tour. The case leads to a debate about the purpose of golf and whether a player’s ability to “walk the course” is essential to the game.


    How does Aristotle address the issue of individual rights and the freedom to choose? If our place in society is determined by where we best fit, doesn’t that eliminate personal choice? What if I am best suited to do one kind of work, but I want to do another? In this lecture, Sandel addresses one of the most glaring objections to Aristotle’s views on freedomhis defense of slavery as a fitting social role for certain human beings. Students discuss other objections to Aristotle’s theories and debate whether his philosophy overly restricts the freedom of individuals.

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