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Course Description

Justice is one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history, having taught more than 14,000 students over the course of two decades.

In this course, Sandel challenges us with difficult moral dilemmas and asks our opinion about the right thing to do. He then asks us to examine our answers in the light of new scenarios. The results are often surprising, revealing that important moral questions are never black and white.

This course also addresses the hot topics of our day—affirmative action, same-sex marriage, patriotism and rights—and Sandel shows us that we can revisit familiar controversies with a fresh perspective.

Each lecture in this course has two parts as well as related readings and discussion guides.


Lecture 1 - The Morality of Murder

Part 1 - The Moral Side of Murder: If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing, even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do? What would be the right thing to do? That’s the hypothetical scenario Professor Michael Sandel uses to launch his course on moral reasoning.

Part 2 - The Case for Cannibalism: Sandel introduces the principles of utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, with a famous nineteenth century law case involving a shipwrecked crew of four. After nineteen days lost at sea, the captain decides to kill the cabin boy, the weakest amongst them, so they can feed on his blood and body to survive.

Lecture 2 - How Much is a Life Worth?

Part 1 - Putting a Price Tag on Life: Today, companies and governments often use Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian logic under the name of “cost-benefit analysis.” Sandel presents some contemporary cases in which cost-benefit analysis was used to put a dollar value on human life. The cases give rise to several objections to the utilitarian logic of seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Should we always give more weight to the happiness of a majority, even if the majority is cruel or ignoble? Is it possible to sum up and compare all values using a common measure like money?

Part 2 - How to Measure Pleasure: Sandel introduces J.S. Mill, a utilitarian philosopher who attempts to defend utilitarianism against the objections raised by critics of the doctrine. Mill argues that seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number” is compatible with protecting individual rights, and that utilitarianism can make room for a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Mill’s idea is that the higher pleasure is always the pleasure preferred by a well-informed majority. Sandel tests this theory by playing video clips from three very different forms of entertainment: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the reality show Fear Factor, and The Simpsons. Students debate which experience provides the higher pleasure, and whether Mill’s defense of utilitarianism is successful.

Lecture 1 video included above. Lecture 1 and 2 summaries included below that. You can view all 12 of these lectures, and download course material, on

Tags: Harvard, Michael Sandel, justice, lectures, morality, philosophy

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Interesting discussion.


I am sometimes impatient with philosophers' discussions, but these lead to laws, verdicts, and other tangible outcomes.


I kept thinking, "What if those 5 people on one track were Westboro Baptist Church protesters carrying signs that "God hates Fags", and the 1 person on the other track was Dick Cheney?




What if the "Fat Man" who you could sacrifice to safe the 5 people was Karl Rove?  Then what?


Context is everything. 


The discussion assumes all other things are equal, they are blurry generic strangers, so that it's clearly 5 lives vs. 1.  If it was me, I would clearly steer the train to the 1.


But it's never that easy.


As for the sailors / cannibals, who knows.  I think I would just starve, but that's me.  I understand "Kill the one to save the 4", I don't like it but I understand it.  And they made the decision, hopefully knowing that if saved they could be put to death for murder.  But it's also not likely to happen.


Should we give weight to the majority?  In our society, individuals are considered very important.  And the majority is sometimes stupid.  How else can we explain "President George W Bush"


In addition, having only watched the first part, I cant say, but there is a very different viewpoint for West vs. East.  West is much more individualistic.  East is much more communitarian.  Not absolute, but I think some of the answers would be different.

Hehehehehehe! Yes, indeed, context is everything. Dick Cheney v. Westboro --- hmmm. I think I'd choose Dick Cheney. He's clearly done more evil. Yes, WBC is vile, but ultimately harmless. Unlike Cheney.


Yes, the scenarios presented are very simplified. I doubt he can approach it any other way. In the case of the cannnibalism at sea, I think we could all agree that it was reprehensible, and likely wrong. But when people are dying from hunger, reason leaves them. They are driven by a desperation few of us could imagine. (I can't skip a meal without falling apart!) So while we may say it was wrong to kill the cabin boy, we almost have to forgive them considering the situation. It's not like they had the choice of making dinner reservations at their favorite restaurant on the one hand, and killing a boy and eating him on the other.


I think I would just starve, but that's me. 


When we are desperate or frightened, we can rationalize anything. You say that now, but if you were in their shoes, you'd see things differently. I don't think any of us can say how we'd react.

West is much more individualistic.  East is much more communitarian.  Not absolute, but I think some of the answers would be different.




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