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Justice, one of the most famous courses taught at Harvard College, is an introduction to moral and political philosophy, offering an opportunity to discuss contemporary dilemmas and controversies.

Class videos:


Class 1: The moral side of murder

  • Trolly dilemma scenarios

    • Turn trolly to the right to kill one, but save the five in front of you. Most people will turn the wheel to kill the one.
    • Trolly coming at bridge towards 5 people - Fat man over the bridge you could push, killing him and saving the 5. Would you? Most people would not.
    • Doctor in emergency room: 6 people injured in trolly car accident. Tradeoff between fixing one and the rest dying, or saving the 5 and the 1 dying. Save the 5.
      • Or, what if 5 people all need an organ transplant of different organs, and next door is a healthy guy who just came in for a checkup. Kill the healthy guy to save the 5 other people?
  • Certain moral principles are emerging from this:

    • Consequentialist moral reasoning: Locates morality in the consequences of an act
    • Categorical: locates morality in certain absolute duties and rights
  • Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham, 18th century, english political philosopher

    • Utilitarianism calls under consequentialist theory.
  • Emmanuel kant - categorical reasoning, 18th century, german political philosopher

Class 2: The case for cannibalism

  • Utilitarianism, from Bentham
    • The right thing to do, the just thing to do, is to maximize utility
    • Utility: the balance of pleasure over pain, happiness over suffering
    • Humans are governed by pain and pleasure. We like pleasure and dislike pain. Act in a way that maximizes the overall level of happiness.
    • Summary: the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • The Queen vs. Dudley and Stevens
    • 19th century British law case
    • Yacht mignonette - 4 men. Newspaper article. 3 men (captain, etc) and 4th was a cabin boy.
    • Wave hit the ship, 4 crew members escaped in a lifeboat. 2 cans of turnips, no fresh water. Caught a turtle to eat it.
    • After 8 days, no food or water. Boy in bottom of boat, sick from seawater.
    • 19th day, dudley (captain) suggested a lottery to see who would die to save the rest. One man didn’t want to do the lottery. No lots were drawn.
    • Next day, dudley and stephens killed the boy by stabbing him.
    • All three men ate the boy. Three days later, they were rescued.
    • “On the 24th day, as we were having our breakfast (><), a ship appeared at last.”
    • Picked up by a german ship, they were tried at trial.
    • They claimed necessity. Better that one should die so three could survive. Prosecutor said murder is murder.
  • Guilty or not?
    • Most people say guilty
    • What if the boy consented?
    • What if the boy came up with the idea?
  • Questions:
    • Do we have certain fundamental rights?
    • Does an agreement to a fair procedure justify any result?
    • The basic idea of consent - What is the moral work of consent? Why does an act of consent make such a moral difference that it makes a nonconsensual immortal act now moral?

Class 3: Putting a price tag on life

  • Utilitarianism, jeremy bentham
    • devoted life to jurisprudence and moral philosophy
    • Utilitarianism: the highest principle of morality is to maximize the general welfare or the collective happiness for the overall balance of pleasure over pain. Maximize utility.
    • How we got here - we are all governed by pain and pleasure, so we must take account. Leads to the greatest good for the greatest number. Maximize happiness/utility. Principle for individuals, but also communities/legislatures. Community is sum of individuals.
    • Add all the benefits and subtract all the costs of a policy, the right one is that which maximizes happiness over suffering.
    • Cost/benefit analysis used by companies and government all the time. Usually takes a dollar value.
      • Phillip morris found a net gain in czech republic if citizens smoke (early deaths, extra taxes = gain)
      • What about the value to the person/families with lung cancer?
      • Some cost/benefit analyses include benefit to life.
        • Ford Pinto: small subcompact car
        • Problem - fuel tank at back of car, would explode in rear end collisions
        • Victims took ford to court, and found that ford knew about the vulnerable fuel tank and did a cost/benefit analysis about whether or not to add a shield. The cost per part ($11/part) resulted in:
          • $11/part at 12.5 million cars = $137 million to improve safety
          • Benefits of spending money: 180 deaths x $200,000 per death (value of life?) 180 injuries x $67,0000/person, 2000 vehicles x $700 = $490 million.
          • So they didn’t install device.
          • This analysis appalled the jurors.
      • Should you put any sort of monetary number value on human life?
      • What is advantageous from a business perspective and what is morally right - need to differentiate
      • (Why is this professor conflating putting a dollar value on life is utility? Bentham didn’t advocate for that?)
    • 1930s, survey:
      • How much would you have to be paid to undergo the following experiences: tooth pulled out, cut off toe, eat live earth worm.

Class 4: How to measure pleasure

  • Objections to utilitarianism
      1. Fails to respect individual rights
      • Torture and terrorism: Is it just to torture a suspect to get information that would save 3,000 people?
      1. Not possible to aggregate all values and preferences
      • Using a single measure like $$
      • Isn’t there a distinction between higher and lower pleasures?
        • “The quantity of pleasure being equal, the pushpin is as good as poetry” Bentham
        • It’s presumptuous to judge whose pleasures are higher or better than others. Refusal to make qualitative distinctions.
  • Response to objections: John Stuart Mill
    • Child prodigy. Father was a philosopher (studied with Bentham). He had a breakdown at 20, depression for 5 years, then met and married wife Harriet. Can the utilitarian philosophy be magnified for humanitarian concerns? 1859 book, On Liberty, importance of defending individual and minority rights.
    • Then wrote “Utilitarianism”. Stated that you can distinguish higher and lower pleasures: If someone who has experienced both, and they’d prefer it, that’s the higher pleasure.
      • Experiment: Simpsons vs. fear factor vs. Shakespeare. Which is highest pleasure? Class found Simpsons the most pleasurable. Which is highest value? Many people thought Shakespeare - because it’s derives deeper longer term value.
  • Justice is sacred. Justice is a part of considering the long-running interests of human kind as a part of utilitarianism. Society as a whole is better off in the long run.

PERSONAL NOTE: Why is he equating utilitarianism to $$? That’s just capitalism, not utilitarianism.

Class 5: Free to Choose

  • Is the only reason you should do things is for the long-term benefit? What about intrinsic respect for the person as an individual? Can Mill’s utilitarianism account for this?
  • Strong theory of rights: individuals matter not just as instruments for a larger social purpose, or for the sake of maximizing utility. Individuals are separate beings with separate lives worthy of respect.
  • Strong rights theory 1: Libertarianism
    • The fundamental individual right is the right to liberty. A right to choose freely, live our lives as we choose, as long as we respect others’ rights to do the same.
    • Libertarian view of government. 3 things most modern states do, that based on libertarianism is wrong:
        1. No paternalist legislation (laws that protect people from themselves. Seatbelt laws, drug laws, marriage laws, incentives or disincentives)
        1. No morals legislation (laws that promote the virtue of citizens, ex. Prevent sexual interaction of gay people)
        1. No redistribution of income from rich to poor
        • What makes income distribution just? (Nozick)
            1. Justice in acquisition (initial holdings)
            1. Justice in transfer (free market)
        • Nozick thinks taxation = taking of earnings. Isn’t that the same as the state’s right to take a portion of my labor? Taking of earnings = forced labor. Forced labor = slavery. Violates principle of self-possession.

Class 6: Who Owns Me

  • Freeman - things policies like social security are paternalistic. Says it’s against liberty.
    • How do you prevent free riders?
  • Libertarian: What’s wrong with coercion? To coerce someone is wrong because it calls into question the fact that we own ourselves, self-possession.
  • Objections to libertarian:
      1. The poor need money more
      1. It’s not really slavery to tax, because there’s not a slave holder. It’s congress - it’s a democratic body.
      1. The successful owe a debt to society
      1. Wealth depends partly on luck so it isn’t deserved
  • Responses from libertarians:
    • The benefits of redistribution of wealth don’t justify the violation of property rights.
    • Wealthy people provided some value to society, so the wealthy people already paid their “debt”.
  • John Locke: Private property - when we mix our labor with unowned things, we acquire a property right to those things. Because we own our own labor. We are the proprietors of our own person.

Class 7: This Land is Your Land

  • John Locke
    • Believes (like libertarians) in certain fundamental individual rights that are so important that no government can override.
    • Believes that those rights include a natural right to life, liberty, and property. The right to property is not just the creation of government or of law - it’s a natural right, pre-political. It is a right that attaches to individuals as human beings.
    • Constraint given by the law of nature: the natural rights we have, we can’t give up, nor can we give them to someone else. I can’t take mine or someone else’s life, liberty, or property. You are made by god, so these items are owned by god.
    • Reason: If we properly reflect on what it means to be free, we can conclude that freedom means we can’t just do whatever we want.
    • Every man has property in his own person. Locke moves from the idea that we have property in our own person to the idea that we own our labor, and then extends that to whatever we mix our labor with unowned, it becomes ours.

Class 8: Consenting Adults

  • Locke believes in constraints on what government can do, and the constraints are natural rights - not legal, they are things that come from the state of nature/God. Government exists in the context of your natural rights.
  • Locke’s 2nd big idea: consent.
    • Government is limited by the obligation to respect and enforce natural rights of the citizens (unalienable rights)
    • Government is expensive, so if you opt to live in a society that protects your right to property, you should pay out. “But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them.”
    • Locke is against seeking out an individuals to give things up for everyone - but if there’s an overall principle or system that is “fair”, then it’s ok.

Class 9: Hired Guns

  • Why is consent such a powerful moral sentiment? Let’s look at a concrete case: Military conscription.
    • Ways to increase recruitment:
      • Increase pay and benefits
      • Shift to a military conscription system (lottery)
      • Outsource - hire mercenaries
    • Used conscription + the market system in civil war. But if you didn’t want to serve, you could hire someone else to do it.
    • Questions:
        1. What inequalities in the background conditions of society undermine the freedom of choices people make to buy and sell their labor?
        1. What are the obligations of citizenship? Is military service one of them?

Class 10: For Sale - Motherhood

  • Human reproduction and procreation
  • Surrogate - Baby M
    • Inseminated with dad’s sperm, surrogate’s egg. Then surrogate wanted to keep.
    • Objections to enforcing the contract: tainted or flawed consent (imperfect information), dehumanizing
    • What did courts say? Lower court - contract was enforceable (neither party had a superior bargaining position, so enforce contract), then NJ Supreme Court said the contract was not enforceable. They put the baby with the father (because of the contract) but restored the rights of the surrogate. Because: there was not properly informed consent (“the natural mother is irrevocably committed before she knows the strength of her bond with her child. Not a truly voluntary informed decision.”), and the profit motive ultimately governs the transaction (which is a worry - could be coercive)
    • Sent to lower court for visitation rights.

Class 11: Mind Your Motive

  • Emmanual Kant
    • Rejects utilitarianism. Thinks that the individual person has a dignity that commands our respect.
    • The reason the individual is sacred and bearer or rights comes from the idea that we are all rational beings. We are also autonomous beings, meaning we are capable of choosing
    • He denies benson’s claim that pain and pleasure are sovereign masters - Kant thinks it’s our rational capacity that makes us special.
  • What does it mean to be free? When we, like animals, seek after pleasure / satisfaction of desires / avoidance of pain - when we do that, we aren’t acting freely. We are acting as slaves to those appetites and impulses. Freedom is the opposite of necessity.
  • Kant’s concept of freedom:
    • To act freely = to act autonomously = to act according to a law I give myself.
    • Autonomy: to act freely, to act according to a law I give myself
    • Heteronomy: To act according to desires I haven’t chosen myself
  • Human dignity comes from being free
  • Respect the dignity of persons and uphold their rights. Utilitarianism does the same thing, but “for the wrong reason” (according to Kant)
  • What makes an action morally worthy comes from intention
  • Kant’s conception of morality:
    • Moral worth of an action depends on motive (The person must do the right thing for the right reason)
  • “A good will isn’t good because of what it effects or accomplishes, it’s good in itself. Even if by utmost effort the good will accomplishes nothing it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself.” - Kant
  • Morality - duty vs. inclination

Class 12: The Supreme Principle of Morality

  • Kant’s groundwork is about 2 big questions:
      1. What is the supreme principle of morality?
      1. How is freedom possible?
  • Set of oppositions:
  • Three contrasts by which he derives the idea of his categorical imperatives.
    • The motive (morality), according to which we act. Only one kind of motive is consistent with morality: duty. Duty vs. inclination
      • Moral worth is defined by our ability to rise above self worth and act out of duty
      • It’s fine to have sentiments and feelings that support the action, as long as they don’t provide the reason for the action
    • Determination of will (freedom): autonomous vs. heteronomously
      • Reason determines my will - the will becomes the power to choose independent of nature or circumstance
    • Two different commands of reason (imperatives): hypothetical & categorical
      • Hypothetical: instrumental reason (if you want x, then do y)
      • Categorical: Without reference or dependence on any further purpose?
      • “If the action would be good solely as a means to something else, the imperative is hypothetical; if the action is represented as good in itself and therefore as necessary…for a will which of itself accords with reason, then the imperative is categorical” - Kant
  • The categorical imperative. Supreme principle of morality.
      1. The formula of universal law:
      • “Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
      • Ex. Promise keeping.
      • Test: try to universalize it. Universalize the maxim you’re about to act on - if everyone did this, would it still work/make sense?
      1. The formula of humanity as end
      • “But suppose, however, there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute value… an end in itself… then in it, and in it alone, would there be the ground of a possible categorical imperative.”
      • “I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will.”
      • Humanity / humans as an ends. Not open to use as a means.
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