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?
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: