Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

A production of  
  

What's a Fair Start? What Do We Deserve?

Is it just to tax the rich to help the poor? John Rawls says we should answer this question by asking what principles you would choose to govern the distribution of income and wealth if you did not know who you were, whether you grew up in privilege or in poverty. Wouldn’t you want an equal distribution of wealth, or one that maximally benefits whomever happens to be the least advantaged? After all, that might be you. Rawls argues that even meritocracy — a distributive system that rewards effort — doesn’t go far enough in leveling the playing field because those who are naturally gifted will always get ahead. Furthermore, says Rawls, the naturally gifted can’t claim much credit because their success often depends on factors as arbitrary as birth order. Sandel makes Rawls’s point when he asks the students who were first born in their family to raise their hands.

In Part 2, Professor Sandel recaps how income, wealth, and opportunities in life should be distributed, according to the three different theories raised so far in class. He summarizes libertarianism, the meritocratic system, and John Rawls’s egalitarian theory. Sandel then launches a discussion of the fairness of pay differentials in modern society. He compares the salary of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,000) with the salary of television’s Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? According to John Rawls, it is not. Rawls argues that an individual’s personal success is often a function of morally arbitrary facts — luck, genes, and family circumstances — for which he or she can claim no credit. Those at the bottom are no less worthy simply because they weren’t born with the talents a particular society rewards, Rawls argues, and the only just way to deal with society’s inequalities is for the naturally advantaged to share their wealth with those less fortunate.

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ABOUT JUSTICE: WHAT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO?

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A coproduction of WGBH and Harvard University, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? invites viewers to think critically about the fundamental questions of justice, equality, democracy, and citizenship. Each week, more than 1,000 students attend the lectures of Harvard professor and author Michael Sandel (shown), eager to expand their understanding of political and moral philosophy, as well as test long-held beliefs. Students learn about the great philosophers of the past — Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Locke — then apply the lessons to complex and sometimes volatile modern-day issues, including affirmative action, same-sex marriage, patriotism, loyalty, and human rights.

Sandel presents students with ethical dilemmas — some hypothetical, others actual cases — then asks them to decide "what’s the right thing to do?" He encourages students to stand up and defend their decisions, which leads to a lively and often humorous classroom debate. Sandel then twists the ethical question around, to further test the assumptions behind their different moral choices. The process reveals the often contradictory nature of moral reasoning.

 

    

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