Justice course from Harvard

You’ve probably seen the Socratic method at work in the give-and-take of a small classroom. The teacher asks provocative questions and then synthesizes the responses into new insights. It’s a great way to learn and think about complicated problems.

But can this method worked in a large lecture hall with thousands of students? Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel shows that it’s not only possible but that it can be an amazingly successful and thought-provoking experience. See him in action teaching his course Justice: An Introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy (website, iTunes).

The first two broadcasts are now posted on the web, and in them Sandel interacts with his students as they grapple with life-and-death questions of morality and justice. Are starving men in a lifeboat morally justified if they murder and eat one of the crew? Can you put a dollar value on human life? Can you harvest a healthy man’s organs in order to save other people?

Sandel challenges his students with these and other questions and brings to bear readings from Kant, Mill, Aristotle and others. The syllabus is here.  Links to many of the readings are here.

The way Sandel frames the moral quandaries made me think about current political issues in new ways.  For example, some people are framing the US healthcare debate in utilitarian terms — what is the greatest good for the greatest number?  And others counter with categorical moral arguments, such as the libertarian view that rejects taking property or money from one person to help another person.

Also check out Sandel’s presentation on Markets and Morals (iTunes), in which he calls into question our ongoing transformation into a “market society” in which too many public functions (like prisons or hospitals) have been made into profit making enterprises.

(Update 4/27/10: You can now download the course videos from iTunes.)

Part 1 of Sandel’s course is here:

This entry was posted in Academic podcasts, Courses, Five-star professors, Philosophy, Political Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Justice course from Harvard

  1. Saeed says:

    Thanks for putting this up on your blog. I listened to this with my eight year old son, who was a categorical moralist when he imagined himself in the role of the sick boy on the boat, i.e. under no circumstances would it be appropriate to eat him (not with consent, not with a lottery, not after he was dead of natural causes). When pressed on why, he said how could the crew members know for sure that they weren’t Just about to be rescued, and alternatively if they knew there were never going to be rescued then wouldn’t the most ethical position be for all to die of natural causes.

    An interesting twist occurred when I asked him to imagine that it was me, and not him, who was the sick one in the boat, he changed his stance into a more utilitarian one (he probably wouldn’t kill me to eat me, but if I died of natural causes, gave my consent, or we used a lottery method, then he could see how eating me might be justifiable under the circumstances). [So this to me is an interesting psychological element to a philosophical dialog, and probably occurs all the time, depending on how disinterested people are in any particular moral dilemma]

    He really enjoyed this, particularly the reactions of the students in the lecture audience.

  2. Saeed says:

    I just love your course selections.
    As I continue to view this course, I think the audience participation method really works here. The type of material lends itself to that (one wouldn’t want this approach in a biology course, probably), and I think the number of students actually enhances it (it’s fun to hear chuckles, gasps, and murmurs after certain responses).

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