Morals Class Is Starting; Please Pass the Popcorn

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Would you switch a runaway trolley from one track to another if it meant killing one person instead of five? Would it be just as moral to push a person in front of the speeding trolley to stop it and save the five? What about a surgeon killing one healthy person and using his organs so that five people who needed organ transplants could live? Is that moral? Why not?

“In a way, the book and the course try to model what public discourse would be like if it were more morally ambitious than it is,” Mr. [Michael J.] Sandel said. “The title is ‘Justice,’ but in a way its subject is citizenship.”

Mr. Sandel emphasizes that “the aim is not to try to persuade students, but to equip them to become politically minded citizens.”

He has apparently succeeded, at least with some. “The course changed how I think about politics,” Vivek Viswanathan, who graduated in June, wrote in an e-mail message. “Questions of politics, Professor Sandel suggested, are not simply a matter of governing the system of distribution but are connected to what it means to live a ‘good life.’ ”

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchEducation* Economics, PoliticsPolitics in General* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

Posted September 26, 2009 at 11:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Tamsf wrote:

It always bothers me that ethics and moral classes seem to concentrate on these kinds of difficult questions. It has been a while since I’ve had to make the choice between killing 1 person or allowing 5 to die. The more important moal questions that we have to deal with are ones like “should I fudge my income on the tax form?” or “is it really wrong to sleep with a married women if we’re really in love?” Let’s get the simple stuff right before we even start looking at the hard stuff.

September 26, 4:48 pm | [comment link]
2. William Witt wrote:

Michael Sandel is one of the most important political philosophers of our time.  His book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is a direct challenge to John Rawls’ notion of a justice that operates abstractly of the communities in which people actually learn how to live just lives.

I cannot imagine that Professor Sandel’s course would focus on the kind of quandary ethics that is illustrated in the “money quote” from this article.  It seems at odd with his approach.

September 27, 8:34 am | [comment link]
3. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Just a thought, but if I could “push” someone in front of the speeding trolley to somehow save the five passengers…couldn’t I jump in front of the trolley myself?  Shouldn’t I jump in front of the trolley myself?

I can tell you, no one would regard a soldier with anything but contempt if he pushed a fellow soldier on top of a grenade to save himself and another four soldiers in a foxhole.  Everything changes though, if the soldier sacrifices himself by jumping on the grenade to save his fellows.  In fact…no greater love hath man than that he lay down his life for another.

Call me old fashioned, but I think the ethical situations used as an illustration have missed something important.  Selfless devotion, self sacrifice, putting others first all seem conspicuously missing from my vantage point.

September 27, 10:06 pm | [comment link]
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