Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s Justice Lectures

Thanks to Open Culture for passing on this interesting resource.

We happened to mention Michael Sandel last week, and then I came across this…
Harvard University and WGBH Boston have posted online Sandel’s very popular course, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” How popular is it? Over 14,000 Harvard students have taken this course over the past 30 years. The course takes a close look at our understanding of justice by exploring important, contemporary moral dilemmas. Is it wrong to torture? Is it always wrong to steal? Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth?  We have posted the first lecture above, and you can watch the remaining 11 lectures here on Harvard’s YouTube Channel. We have also added this course to our collection of Free University Courses. It’s filed under Philosophy.

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8 thoughts on “Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s Justice Lectures

  1. @fleance & jessica: Mr. fleance is right. Ms. Jessica, we may just have misunderstood his words. There are objective truths around us that are independent of our beliefs. Take for instance: It is unfortunate that some Christians argue about whether drinking alcohol is sin or not. If one studies the Bible though, it would be plain that drinking alcohol is not sin. What makes it sinful though could either be the abuse of the drinker, or his “unhealthy” desire/dependence on the drink, or the destruction of his health because of the drink. Such instances would make drinking a sin. But Paul, on the other hand, advices young Timothy to “drink” wine. Contradiction in the Bible! NO. Drinking wine in this case had a use, because apparently, Timothy had stomach problems.

    Its not the wine itself that is sin. Nor the act of drinking. Sin is in the man. The intentions of the man. The desires, lusts, & cravings of the man. In his mind and in his heart. Not the act itself. Or in the object acted upon.

    Same with murder. Not the act. The intentions. That’s why Jesus said that if we hate someone, it’s essentially the same as murder. Killing a person to save a life is not sin if the intentions are right and true and just. Which makes it the right choice.

    Sex or sexuality is not sin. The prostitute itself is not sin. The act of lying with a prostitute is not inherently sin. Why, it’s essentially just sex with another person. Bottom line is, what’s in the heart of man? The desire for flesh? Even having sex with one’s own spouse can become sinful with the wrong intentions.

    Money is not inherently sin. Nor is being wealthy. But what makes it sinful?

    Drugs are not inherently sin. Nor is doing drugs. They can cure and assist bodily function. How does doing drugs become sin? Maybe now, we can answer this, no?

    Ironic. It seems that the very people who doubt God because he let negative things happen to us are starting to realize that murder has a use. Or stealing, or lying has a use. So much for accusing God for doing these things.

    I’m so sorry that people around misunderstand Christians all so often. (The same is true the other way around) I’m really grieved to see many people dismiss folks from organized religions with : “bigotry, greed, plutocracy, and the likes of it.”

    Which is true to some extent (thank you Rome:-|). And it’s so unfortunate that some people would never try to just see what Christianity is all about. It’s so sad. I grieve for this.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I think what is scary for me is the term “absolutism”. Abortion, as you know, is also considered murder by the religious right and the Christian coalition. A considerable number of pro lifers are also pro death penalty. See the contradiction? They are defying their own “absolute moral principle” regarding murder when it suits their convenience.
    However, while this may not be a good example to showcase my point, we could see this contradiction as an inherent challenge to the very notion of moral absolutism; it forces us to reexamine our moral beliefs. But it does beg the question, particularly if our findings determine that we are nothing but hypocrites, do we adhere to moral absolutism? Do we give up either our pro life or pro death penalty stance to reconcile with moral absolutism? Certainly not! You have the right to be pro life and pro death at the same time, but just be clear and conscious of the contradiction in what you are saying, and lets not pretend we are self-righteous, and moral absolutes when our actions prove otherwise.

    I think it is more important to look at the moral will behind an action to determine if it is right or wrong. Sometimes it is right to do wrong and wrong to do right if one must stick to such narrow definitions of right and wrong—for example if lying can help save lives, then lie! Our morals and how we act are derived from, and informed by, our consciousness around situations we face like poverty, hunger, genocides, bureaucratic corruption, racism, homophobia, sexism and greed. This is exactly why we try to reform policy—to make our moral and legal systems inclusive of diversity, and to move away from one dimensional or absolutist policies dictated by mostly by organized religions, and other institutions that hamper justice through bigotry, greed, plutocracy, and the likes of it.

    Bottom line is that there are no absolutes, and if you say certain circumstances (like self-defense) allow for exceptions, then you are just confirming that are no absolutes. At the end, I am still a supporter of categorical logic (with a broader definition than moral absolutism) than I am of consequential logic.



    • Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for those observations. It sounds like you have the spirit of a moral reformer, which is a good thing. I’m with you on that. There are (and always will be) areas in society that need to be changed or modified or even done away with. One important aspect of Christian theology is that Christians should be involved in making society more just and more compassionate, and ensuring that the most vulnerable in society are protected (Deuteronomy 10:17-19; James 1:26-27, etc.).

      I think we might be talking about two separate positions regarding morality. I think the view you’re describing is one called “moral absolutism,” and the view I’m referring to is “moral objectivism.”

      Moral absolutism holds that “There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated,” while moral objectivism believes that “There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.” (from Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_absolutism).

      Someone who is a moral absolutist about the right to life would, as you mention, have to be consistent about it in every situation: there wouldn’t be an exception for self-defense, and they couldn’t be pro death penalty.

      But what I’m most concerned with is that there are objective truths about right and wrong that don’t depend on one’s culture or time in history or personal preference. In other words, morality is objective (not subjective). How we apply moral principles in different situations is a related but separate issue. (I agree with you that a person’s intentions are important in deciding whether their actions are good or evil.) If morality weren’t objective, we would all have to be ethical relativists and just admit that right and wrong have no meaning outside of our personal opinions.

      If God didn’t exist, I think moral relativism would be true, because apart from Him, there is nothing beyond the human person to ground objective right and wrong. But since God does exist, His perfectly good nature is the ground of morality, and His commands to us constitute our moral duties and obligations.

      Let me know what you think!

      Take care,

  3. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for your comment. I haven’t listened to these lectures yet, but they’re apparently very popular. You don’t see many philosophers make it to the Today Show (as he did), so that says a lot about his popularity.

    About ethics, I do believe there are moral absolutes that are always true for all people — for example, murder and stealing are objectively wrong, while kindness and generosity are objectively good. But I do think circumstances are important in figuring out how we apply these principles. So in some cases killing could be justified (in self-defense) or in others generosity might not be appropriate (when a con artist asks for a donation).

    I also think these objective moral values derive from God’s nature, and if He didn’t exist, they wouldn’t either.

    All the best,

  4. I really enjoyed professor Sandel’s lectures and would definitely listen to more. I lean on categorical rather than on consequential logic, but I am not a moral absolutist. While I think adhering to principles or law if you like is crucial, i think reforming law/policy is more important.

  5. Pingback: Top Posts of 2009 « Cloud of Witnesses

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