Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do? 12x53
Justice is one of the most popular courses in Harvard University’s history. Nearly one thousand students pack Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre to hear Professor Michael Sandel talk about justice, equality, democracy, and citizenship. This course aims to help viewers become more critically minded thinkers about the moral decisions we all face in our everyday lives. PBS International opens the door to this classroom that has captivated more than 14,000 students.
In this 12-part series, Sandel challenges us with difficult moral dilemmas and asks our opinion about the right thing to do. He then asks us to examine our answers in the light of new scenarios. The result is often surprising, revealing that important moral questions are never black and white. Sorting out these contradictions sharpens our own moral convictions and gives us the moral clarity to better understand the opposing views we confront in a democracy.
Episode 01: The Moral Side of Murder / The Case for Cannibalism
If you had to choose between killing one person or five, what would you do? What’s the right thing to do? Professor Michael Sandel launches into his lecture series by presenting students with a hypothetical scenario that has the majority of students voting for killing one person in order to save the lives of five others. But then Sandel presents three similar moral conundrums—each one artfully designed to make the decision increasingly complex. As students stand up to defend their conflicting choices, Sandel’s point is made. 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 white.
Sandel introduces the principles of Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, with a famous 19th century law case involving a shipwrecked crew of four. After 19 days lost at sea, the captain decides to kill the cabin boy, the weakest amongst them, so they can feed on his blood and body to survive. The case leads to a debate among students about the moral validity of the Utilitarian theory of maximizing overall happiness—often summed up with the slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Episode 02: Putting a Price Tag on Life / How to Measure Pleasure
Jeremy Bentham’s late 18th century Utilitarian theory—summed up as “the greatest good for the greatest number”—is often used today under the name of “cost-benefit analysis.” Sandel presents some contemporary examples where corporations used this theory—which required assigning a dollar value on human lives—to make important business decisions. This leads to a discussion about the objections to Utilitarianism: is it fair to give more weight to the values of a majority, even when the values of the majority may be ignoble or inhumane?
Sandel introduces J.S. Mill, another Utilitarian philosopher, who argues that all human experience can be quantifiable, and that some kinds of pleasures are more desirable and more valuable than others. Mill argues that if society values the higher pleasures, and values justice, then society as a whole will be better off in the long run. Sandel tests this theory by showing the class three video clips—from The Simpsons, the reality show Fear Factor and Shakespeare’s Hamlet—then asks students to debate which of the three experiences qualifies as the “highest” pleasure.
Episode 03: Freedom to Choose / Who Owns Me?
Libertarians believe the ideal state is a society with minimal governmental interference. Sandel introduces Robert Nozick, a libertarian philosopher, who argues that individuals have the fundamental right to choose how they want to live their own lives. Government shouldn’t have the power to enact laws that protect people from themselves (seat belt laws), to enact laws that force a moral value on society, or enact laws that redistribute income from the rich to the poor. Sandel uses the examples of Bill Gates and Michael Jordan to explain Nozick’s theory that redistributive taxation is a form of forced labor.
Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick makes the case that taxing the wealthy—to pay for housing, health care, and education for the poor—is a form of coercion. Students first discuss the arguments in favor of redistributive taxation. If you live in a society that has a system of progressive taxation, aren’t you obligated to pay your taxes? Don’t the poor need and deserve the social services they receive? And isn’t wealth often achieved through sheer luck or family fortune? In this lecture, a group of students (“Team Libertarianism”) are asked to defend the objections against Libertarianism.
Episode 04: This Land is My Land / Consenting Adults
John Locke is both a supporter and detractor from the theory of Libertarianism. Locke argues that in the “state of nature”, before any political structure has been established, every human has certain natural rights to life, liberty—and property. However, once we agree to enter into society, we are consenting to being governed by a system of laws. And so, Locke argues, even though government is charged with looking after one’s individual rights, it is the majority that defines those rights.
John Locke on the issue of taxation and consent. How does John Locke square away the conflict between 1) his belief that individuals have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and property and 2) that government—through majority rule—can tax individuals without their consent? Doesn’t that amount to taking an individual’s property without his/her consent? Locke’s answer to that is that we are giving our “implied consent” to taxation laws, by living in society, therefore taxation is legitimate. And, as long as government doesn’t target a particular group for taxation—if it isn’t arbitrary—then taxation isn’t a violation of the fundamental rights of individuals.
Episode 05: Hired Guns? / For Sale: Motherhood
During the Civil War, men were conscripted to fight in the war—but draftees were allowed to pay hired substitutes to fight in their place. Professor Sandel asks students—was this policy an example of free-market exchange? Or was it a form of coercion, because the lower class surely had more of a financial incentive to serve? This leads to a classroom debate about the contemporary questions surrounding war and conscription. Is today’s voluntary army really voluntary, given that many recruits come from a disproportionately lower economic background? What role does patriotism play? And what are the obligations of citizenship? Is there a civic duty to serve one’s country?
Professor Sandel applies the issue of free-market exchange to a contemporary and controversial new area: reproductive rights. Sandel describes bizarre presents examples of the modern-day “business” of sperm and egg donation. Sandel then takes the debate a step further, using the famous legal case of “Baby M”, which raised the question of “who owns a baby”? Mary Beth Whitehead signed a contract with a New Jersey couple in the mid-eighties, agreeing to be their surrogate mother, in exchange for a large fee. But 24 hours after giving birth, Whitehead decided she wanted to keep the child and the case went to court. Students discuss the morality of selling human life, the legal issues surrounding consent and contracts, and the power of maternal rights.
Episode 06: Mind Your Motive / The Supreme Principle of Morality
Professor Sandel introduces Immanuel Kant—one of the most challenging and difficult thinkers in his course. Kant believes we, as individuals, are sacred and the bearer of rights, but not because we own ourselves. Rather, it is our capacity to reason and choose freely that makes us unique, that sets us apart from mere animals. And when we act out of duty (doing something because it is right) only then do our actions have moral worth. Sandel uses the example of a shopkeeper who passes up the chance to shortchange a customer only because he worries it would hurt his business. That wouldn’t be considered a moral action, according to Kant, because he wasn’t doing the right thing …for the right reason.
Immanuel Kant says that in so far as our actions have moral worth, what confers moral worth is precisely our capacity to rise above self-interest and inclination and to act out of duty. Sandel tells the true story of a 13-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: when making a decision, imagine if the moral principle behind your actions became a universal law that everyone had to live by. Would that principle, as a universal law, benefit everyone?
Episode 07: A Lesson in Lying / A Deal is a Deal
Immanuel Kant’s stringent theory of morality allows for no exceptions; he believed that telling a lie, even a white lie, is a violation of one’s own dignity. His theory is put to the test with a hypothetical case. If your friend was hiding inside your home, and a killer knocked on your door asking where he was, what could you say to him–without lying–that would also save the life of your friend? This leads to a discussion of “misleading truths”–and the example of how President Clinton used precise language to deny having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, without outright lying to the public.
Sandel introduces the modern philosopher John Rawls and his theory of a “hypothetical contract”. Rawls argues that the only way to achieve the most just and fair principles of governance is if all legislators came to the bargaining table in a position of equality. Imagine if they were all behind a “veil of ignorance”–if their individual identities were temporary unknown to them (their race, class, personal interests) and they had to agree on a set of laws together. Then and only then, Rawls argues, could a governing body agree upon truly fair principles of justice.
Episode 08: What’s a Fair Start? / What Do We Deserve?
John Rawls applied his “veil of ignorance” theory to social and economic equality issues, as well as fair governance. He asks, if every citizen had to weigh in on the issue of redistributive taxation—without knowing whether they would end up as one of the poor or one of the wealthy members of society—wouldn’t most of us prefer to eliminate our financial risks and agree to an equal distribution of wealth?
Professor Sandel recaps the three different theories raised so far, concerning how income, wealth, and opportunities in life should be distributed. He summarizes libertarianism, the meritocratic system, and the egalitarian theory. This leads to a discussion of the fairness of pay differentials in today’s society. Sandel compares the salary of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,000) with the salary of Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? And if not, why not? Sandel explains how John Rawls believes that personal “success” is more often a function of arbitrary issues for which we can claim no credit:luck, genetic good fortune, positive family circumstances. But what of effort—the individual who strives harder and longer to succeed—how should his/her “effort” be valued?
Episode 09: Arguing Affirmative Action / What’s the Purpose?
Students discuss the issue of affirmative action and college admissions. Is it “just” for schools to consider race and ethnicity as a factor in admissions? Does it violate individual rights? Or is it as equal, and as arbitrary, as favoring a star athlete? 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?
Sandel introduces Aristotle’s theory of justice which, simply put, is giving people what they are due, what they deserve. Aristotle argues that when considering issues of distribution, one must consider the goal, the end, the purpose of what is being distributed. For him, it’s a matter of fitting a person’s virtues with their appropriate roles.
Episode 10: The Good Citizen / Freedom vs. Fit
Aristotle’s theory of justice leads to a contemporary debate about golf, specifically “the purpose” of golf. Students debate whether the PGA was wrong in not allowing a disabled golfer, Casey Martin, to use a golf cart during professional tournaments.
Sandel addresses one of the most glaring objections to Aristotle’s views on freedom—his defense of slavery. Students discuss other objections to Aristotle’s theories and debate whether his philosophy limits the freedom of individuals.
Episode 11: The Claims of Community / Where Our Loyalty Lies
Professor Sandel presents Immanuel Kant’s and John Rawl’s objections to Aristotle who believe that individuals should be free and capable of choosing his or her ends. This leads to an introduction to the communitarian view. As individuals, how do we weigh our obligations to family against our obligations to community and to our country?
Professor Sandel leads a discussion about the arguments for and against our obligations of solidarity and membership in the smaller community of family and the larger community of the society at large. Using various scenarios, students debate whether and when loyalty outweighs duty.
Episode 12: Debating Same-sex Marriage / The Good Life
If principles of justice depend on the moral or intrinsic worth of the ends that rights serve, how does society deal with the fact that people hold different ideas and conceptions of what is good? Using the example of same-sex marriage, students debate whether it is possible to detach moral permissibility of sexuality from the end or purpose of marriage.
Professor Sandel raises two questions. Is it necessary to reason about the good life in order to decide what is just and what rights people have? And if that’s the case, is it possible to argue or to reason about the nature of the good life? Students debate these questions with a further discussion about government’s role in deciding the purpose of marriage. Michael Sandel concludes his lecture series by making the point that we, as individuals, may never agree on many moral philosophical issues. However, he argues, on the one hand the debate about these issues is unavoidable. And on the other hand, it is a worthwhile opportunity for all of us to better appreciate the values of others.