Justice: what is the right thing to do?

It makes me happy when something I post here actually encourages a reader to do something.  So I am pleased that the mention I made about the online lecture from Harvard on “The Morality of Murder” actually inspired someone to watch it.

That lecture is a part of the Justice course that is offered at Harvard by Michael Sandel.  It’s an extemely popular course: over 800 students enroll in it every time it is offered, and over 14 000 students have taken it in the past 20 years.  The statistics speak for themselves.  Watching those lectures doesn’t require you to be ‘intelligent’ or have an extraordinarily high IQ; in fact, Michael Sandel makes it really easy to understand and he gives plenty of examples and literally spells out each concept as he introduces it.

I’ve seen the first 2 lectures so far.  All of them basically revolve around morality, or the idea of what the RIGHT thing to do is.  Sandel really gets you thinking within the first 10 minutes itself by asking mind-boggling questions suhc as this one:

You are on a trolley car and you have no control over stopping it, you can only steer it.  In front of you are two paths, at the end of one is one worker, and at the end of another are 5 workers.  Which path would you choose?  Would you kill one person in order to save the 5 other lives, is that ‘just’ or ‘the right thing to do’?

He questions the students on their choices, and it was at this part that I reaslised that these Harvardian aren’t as smart as I had imagined them to be.  I asked my roommate the same question Sandel asked them and her response made alot more sense to me.

Another example Sandel gives is of torture and 9/11:  If a terrorist was arrested at a US airport on September 10th and you knew that he had informantion about an imminent attack that would kill over 3000 people, would it be ‘okay’ to torture him to get that information and possibly prevent that attack from happening?  I thought this was a good example but there are so many loopholes in it.  First of all, 9/11 killed more than 3000 people, because it was the catalyst for invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq so the death toll is definitely higher.  Secondly, after everything that has been revealed since then about American intelligence agencies, I think a lot of people would agree that they wouldn’t have hesistated on using torture.  Forget thinking about human rights or consequences, they would’ve waterboarded the guy then and there.  Lastly, given the amount of conspiracy theorists out there, its actually widely believed that the US knew about the 9/11 attack before it happened and let it happen anyway.  (They have a history for this, they even knew the Pearl Harbour attack was going to happen before it actually did.)

Sandel continues on with more examples and then introduces the idea of utilitarianism.  This is a philosophical school of thought on morality which was first developed by Jeremy Bentham.  According to it, the right and moral thing to do, whether personally or politically, is to maximise utility which is the general welfare or the overall balance of pleasure over pain.  Bentham rationalised this by stating that we are all governed by pleasure and pain, and they have to be taken into account by any moral system so the best way to take them into account is to maximise, in this case, the pleasure.

It sounds like a pretty simplistic idea, and even an appealing one.  Who wouldn’t want to maximise their general level of happiness?  Don’t we all crave to live in a state in which pleasure is given much priority over pain?  No one wants to live in misery.  But there are problems with this way of thinking which only emerge if you actually apply utilitarianism to a practical enterprise.  For example, Sandel gave an instance (in the 2nd lecture) in which the gov’t of the Czech Republic carried out a cost-benefit analysis to determine the pros and cons of smoking in the country.  The result was that the gov’t benefits more if its citizens continue to smoke.  The immediate problem that you notice here is that the gov’t put a monetary value on human life.  Is that even possible?  Apparently it is, and many companies that carry out such analyses to assess risk continue to put a dollar-value on life. 

The other issue that arises is the lack of representation of individual and minority rights.  In the first lecture, Sandel talked about an old case involving a shipwreck.  The crew of 4 was stranded and had run out of food and a decision was made to consume the youngest and weakest member of the crew.  Yes, they ate the cabin boy.  Now if we apply that problem to this case, its obvious that the cabin boy’s rights weren’t taken into account.  Just because he was weak and may not have had too long to live doesn’t justify ending his life on purpose to devour him.  Did he not have just as much right to live as the others?

Sandel makes all his points articulately and almost delicately.  He is a real treat to watch and the lectures really make you think on topics that may not even cross your mind otherwise.  Oh and what REALLY stands out in them is the audience: honestly, I think 90% of the student body there was Chinese/Japanese/Korean or some other form of Oriental!  They’re everywhere!!