Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?


Updated Tue, Mar 5, 2013 10:08 am

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.

March 9
Lecture Three:

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?

Lecture Four:
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. 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.

March 16
Lecture Five:

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.

Lecture Six:
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.

March 23
Lecture Seven:

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.

Lecture Eight:
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 individualswithout 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.

March 30
Lecture Nine:

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?

Lecture Ten:
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.