Review: Justice with Michael Sandel

by Ken Arneson

The worst teachers take complicated subjects and somehow make them seem even more complicated.  Mediocre teachers take complicated subjects and help you understand just how complicated they are.  Great teachers take complicated subjects and make them simple.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel is a great teacher.

His philosophy course on Justice is the most popular course at Harvard, and PBS wisely decided to capture it.  Unfortunately, philosophy lectures aren’t exactly ratings gold, so most PBS stations buried the 12-part series at odd hours of the night if they showed it at all, but you can watch the whole thing online.  If you weren’t a philosophy major and know all this stuff already, but you have the slightest interest in philosophy, if you feel the slightest confusion about morality and want to understand the underlying historical points of contention, this is the series to watch.

The course asks a simple question:  what’s the right thing to do?  It starts out with Bentham and Mill and utilitarianism, and then contrasts that to libertarianism.  Then the heavyweights come in–Kant and Aristotle, with Rawls thrown in between.  It’s not a chronological history of philosophy, but it works better that way.  The order that Sandel chooses to discuss these philosophies helps greatly in the understanding of the what the philosophers are trying to say.  In this order, the issues seem to flow naturally from one philosopher to the next.  Only with Kant did Sandel not fully succeed in making a complex philosophy easy to understand; I’d probably have to watch those episodes multiple times for Kant’s ideas to truly sink into my head.

Each episode includes both a lecture and a classroom discussion.  I was always afraid of something cringeworthy coming out of the discussion parts, but they were for the most part well edited, and never dragged on too long.

Although I had studied bits and pieces of these philosophers before, I was fascinated throughout.  But because I have an engineer’s mentality, there was also a little nagging voice in my head throughout the series, asking, how do these theories stand up to the mess when the users get their hands on them?  How do the assumptions these philosophers make about human nature match what is beginning to emerge from the young neurosciences?

Plato was not discussed in the series, but he has a character in The Republic named Thrasymachus.  Thrasymachus argues that there is really no such thing as justice, because in the end, might makes right, and the powerful impose their concept of justice on the weak.  I think there is a certain amount of truth to that, just as I found a certain amount of truth to all of these approaches to justice.

The question then becomes, how do you choose a philosophy?  They all seem to make a certain amount of intuitive sense, but they also contradict each other.  There is no easy answer, but if we want to participate as a citizen of the world, we must in one way or another make such choices.  And that is what I shall attempt to do as this blog progresses.

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