I firmly believe that any modern leader’s training should include Professor Michael Sandel’s course on justice and ethics. There’s a book version, but I strongly recommend watching the entire Harvard lecture series, which is available for free on YouTube:
I’ve watched these videos multiple times over the years, and still get so much every time. Moral philosophy boils down to the tension between individual rights & freedoms versus society’s rights & duties. We were taught in elementary school about “rights and duties”, and how they go hand in hand for good citizens. It’s surprising how much we have forgotten that lesson. As leaders, we would do well to make decisions based on a foundational understanding of what “justice” truly means.
You can get a summary of each episode in the lecture from the Harvard course page, which I’m copying here (with notes) for my own reference:
Lecture 1 – The Moral Side of Murder Would you kill one person to save the lives of five others? Would it be the right thing to do? Inviting students to respond to some amusing hypothetical scenarios, Professor Michael Sandel launches his course on moral reasoning.
Lecture 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 3 – Putting a Price Tag on Life 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.” Is it possible to sum up and compare all values using a common measure like money?
Lecture 4 – How to Measure Pleasure Sandel introduces J.S. Mill, a utilitarian philosopher who 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.
Lecture 5 – Free to Choose With humorous references to Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, Sandel introduces the libertarian notion that redistributive taxation—taxing the rich to help the poor—is akin to forced labor.
Lecture 6 – Who Owns Me? Are the successful morally entitled to the benefits that flow from the exercise of their talents? What about the fact that wealth is often due to good luck or fortunate family circumstances? A group of students dubbed “Team Libertarian” defend the libertarian philosophy against this objection.
Lecture 7 – This Land is My Land The philosopher John Locke argues that individuals have certain fundamental rights — to life, liberty, and property — that were given to us in “the state of nature,” a time before government and laws were created. How then can private property arise?
Lecture 8 – Consenting Adults If we all have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, how can government enact laws that tax or earnings or send us to war? Does this amount to taking our property or our lives without our consent?
Lecture 9 – Hired Guns? During the Civil War, men drafted into war had the option of hiring substitutes to fight in their place. Many students say they find that policy unjust, arguing that it is unfair to allow the affluent to pay less privileged citizens to fight in their place. Is today’s voluntary army open to the same objection?
Lecture 10 – For Sale: Motherhood Sandel examines free-market exchange as it relates to reproductive rights. Examples include the business of egg and sperm donation and the case of “Baby M” — a famous law case that raised the unsettling question, “Who owns a baby?”
Lecture 11: Mind Your Motive Sandel introduces Immanuel Kant, a challenging but influential philosopher. For Kant morality means acting out of duty — doing something because it is right, not because it is prudent or convenient. Kant gives the example of a shopkeeper who passes up the chance to shortchange a customer only because his business might suffer if other customers found out. According to Kant, the shopkeeper’s action lacks moral worth, because he did the right thing for the wrong reason.
Lecture 12: The Supreme Principle of Morality Immanuel Kant says that insofar as our actions have moral worth, what confers moral worth is our capacity to rise above self-interest and inclination and to act out of duty. Using several real life examples, Sandel explains Kant’s test for determining whether an action is morally right: to identify the principle expressed in our action and then ask whether that principle could ever become a universal law that every other human being could act on.
Lecture 13 – A Lesson in Lying Immanuel Kant believed that telling a lie, even a white lie, is a violation of one’s own dignity. Sandel asks students to test Kant’s theory with this hypothetical case: if a friend were hiding inside your home, and a murderer came to your door and asked you where he was, would it be wrong to lie to him? This leads to a video clip of one of the most famous, recent examples of dodging the truth: President Clinton talking about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Lecture 14 – A Deal is a Deal Sandel introduces the modern philosopher, John Rawls, who argues that a just society is one governed by principles we would choose if we did not know what advantages we would possess or what role in society we would occupy.
Lecture 15 – What’s a Fair Start? Rawls argues that even a meritocracy — a distributive system that rewards effort — doesn’t go far enough in leveling the playing field because the successful can’t claim to deserve the talents that enable them to get ahead. 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.
Lecture 16 – What do We Deserve? Sandel discusses 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?
Lecture 17 - Arguing Affirmative Action Is it just to consider race and ethnicity as factors in college admissions? Students discuss the pros and cons of affirmative action and discuss some controversial court cases.
Lecture 18 - What’s the Purpose? Sandel introduces Aristotle and his theory of justice. Aristotle disagrees with Rawls and Kant. He believes that justice is about giving people their due, what they deserve. The best flutes, for example, should go to the best flute players. And the highest political offices should go to those with the best judgment and the greatest civic virtue.
Lecture 19 - The Good Citizen Aristotle believes the purpose of politics is to promote and cultivate the virtue of its citizens. The telos or goal of the state and political community is the “good life”. And those citizens who contribute most to the purpose of the community are the ones who should be most rewarded. But how do we know the purpose of a community or a practice? Aristotle’s theory of justice leads to a contemporary debate about golf. Sandel describes the case of a disabled golfer who sued the PGA after it declined his request to use a golf cart.
Lecture 20 - Freedom vs Fit How does Aristotle address the issue of individual rights and the freedom to choose? In this lecture, Sandel addresses one of the most glaring objections to Aristotle—his defense of slavery as a fitting social role for certain human beings. Students discuss other objections to Aristotle’s theories and debate whether his philosophy overly restricts the freedom of individuals.
Lecture 21 – The Claims of Community Are all obligations based on consent, or are we also bound by unchosen obligations of membership and solidarity?
Lecture 22 – Where Our Loyalty Lies Do we owe more to our fellow citizens that to citizens of other countries? Is patriotism a virtue, or a prejudice for one’s own kind? Do I have a special responsibility for righting the wrongs of my great grandparents’ generation?
Lecture 23 – Debating Same-Sex Marriage If principles of justice depend on the moral or intrinsic worth of the ends that rights serve, how should we deal with the fact that people hold different ideas and conceptions of what is good? Students address this question in a debate about same-sex marriage. Can we settle the matter without discussing the moral status of homosexuality and the purpose of marriage?
Lecture 24 – The Good Life In his final lecture, Sandel challenges the notion that government and law should be neutral on hard moral questions. He argues that engaging, rather than avoiding, the moral convictions of our fellow citizens may be the best way of seeking a just society.