Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Updated Thu, Dec 1, 2011 1:06 pm


JUSTICE: WHAT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO? invites viewers to think critically about the fundamental questions of justice, equality, democracy and citizenship. Each week, more than 1,000 students attend the lectures of Harvard University professor and author Michael Sandel, eager to expand their understanding of political and moral philosophy, as well as test long-held beliefs. Students learn about the great philosophers of the past — Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Locke — then apply the lessons to complex and sometimes volatile modern-day issues, including affirmative action, same-sex marriage, patriotism, loyalty and human rights. Sandel's teaching approach involves presenting students with an ethical dilemma — some hypothetical, others actual cases — then asking them to decide "what’s the right thing to do?" He encourages students to stand up and defend their decisions, which leads to a lively and often humorous classroom debate. Sandel then twists the ethical question around, to further test the assumptions behind their different moral choices. The process reveals the often contradictory nature of moral reasoning.
Sunday, November 6 at 8 p.m.
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 ($200,00) 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 
Sunday, November 13 at 8 p.m.
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. 
Sunday, November 20 at 8 p.m.
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. 
Sunday, November 27 at 8 p.m.
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.