Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Justice with Michael Sandel - Episode 1

Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do? Episode 01
Part 1

Thought Experiments
1. The Trolley Problem
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five workers. If you stay on the track it is assumed that all five of the workers will certainly die. Fortunately, you could turn a steering wheel, which will lead the trolley down a different track were there is only a single worker. It is again assumed that doing so will certainly result in the death of the single worker. Should turn the wheel or do nothing?

When polled, the vast majority in the audience would turn the wheel thus killing only the one worker.

2. The Trolley Problem Fat Man Variation
A runaway trolley car is running out of control down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track. Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. You could push him and he would fall right onto the track below. Should you push him?

When polled, the vast majority in the audience would not push the man.

3. Doctor Triage Problem
Six patients are brought to an emergency room where you are a doctor(they have been in a terrible trolley car accident). 5 have moderately severe injuries, 1 has extremely severe injuries. You could spend all day treating and saving the 1 extremely injured patient but the other 5 would die, or you could spend the day treating and saving the 5 moderately injured patients but the 1 severely injured one would die. Which set of patients do you treat?

When polled the vast majority would save the 5.

4. Doctor Transplant Problem
This time you are a brilliant surgeon. You are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. You have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die. The time is almost up when a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. All you need do is transplant his organs to the five who need them. You ask for his permission but he says no. Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway?

When polled, all in the class voted it is not morally permissible to operate (except for the clever guy who comes up with a work around).

Moral/Ethical Theories
Consequentialist Moral Reasoning - Locates morality in the consequences of an act. Stated another way, it judges the rightness or wrongness of an action based on its consequences. When the majority of students in thought experiment 1 agreed that turning the wheel and killing one worker to avoid killing five was the moral thing to do, they where applying consequentialist moral reasoning. When the majority of students in thought experiment 3 agreed that it was right to try and save the five patients over the one, they were again utilizing consequentialist reasoning. A major type of consequentialism is Utilitarianism, a doctrine invented by Jeremy Bentham.

Categorical Moral Reasoning (deontological) - Locates morality in certain duties and rights. The most important philosopher of categorical moral reasoning is Emmanuel Kant. When the majority of students in thought experiment 2 voted that it would not be moral to push the fat man on the track to save the five workers, they were using categorical moral reasoning (some things you just don't do no matter what the consequences). The same thing applies when in thought experiment 4 the students voted it would not be moral to kill one healthy man to save the five sick patients.

Part 2
Picking up from the last class, Professor Sandel discusses one of the most influential forms of consequensialism, known as utilitarianism.

The 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham gave the first clear systematic expression to the utilitarian moral theory. Bentham's central idea was that the right or just thing to do is the thing which maximizes utility. Utility refers to, on balance, the predominance of pleasure over pain, or happiness over suffering. In The Principles of Morals and Legislation, he wrote "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think". Simply stated, humans like pleasure and dislike pain, and so the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, is to act in a way that maximize
the overall level of happiness. It has been summed up with the slogan "The greatest good for the greatest number of people".

The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens
A real life story with which to begin to test and examine the principles of utilitarianism. "A newspaper account of the time described the background. A sadder story of disaster at sea was never told than that of the survivors of the yacht Mignonette . The ship foundered in the South Atlantic, 1300 miles from the cape. There were four in the crew, Dudley was the captain, Stephens was the first mate, Brooks was a sailor, all men of excellent character, or so the newspaper account tells us. The fourth crew member was the cabin boy, Richard Parker, seventeen years old. He was an orphan. He had no family, and he was on his first long voyage at sea. He went, the news account tells us, rather against the advice of his friends; he went in the hopefulness of youthful ambition thinking the journey would make a man of him. Sadly it was not to be. The facts of the case were not in dispute. A wave hit the ship and the Mignonette went down. The four crew members escaped to a life boat. The only food they had were two cans of preserved turnips, no fresh water. For the first three days they ate nothing. On the fourth day they opened one of the cans of turnips and ate it. The next day they caught a turtle. Together with the other can of turnips, the turtle enabled them to subsist for the next few days, and then for eight days, they had nothing. No food, no water. Imagine yourself in a situation like that. What would you do? Here's what they did. By now, the cabin boy Parker is lying at the bottom of the lifeboat in the corner because he had drunk sea water against the advice of the others and he had become ill, and he appeared to be dying. So on the nineteenth day, Dudley the captain, suggested that they should all have a lottery. That they should draw lots to see who would die to save the rest. Brooks refused. He didn't like the lottery idea. We don't know whether this was because he didn't want to take the chance or because he believed in categorical moral principles. But in any case, no lots were drawn. The next day, there was still no ship in sight, so Dudley told Brooks to avert his gaze and he motioned to Stephens that the boy Parker had better be killed. Dudley offered a prayer, he told the boy his time had come, and he killed him with a pen knife, stabbing him in the jugular vein. Brooks emerged from his conscientious objection to share in the gruesome bounty. For four days, the three of them fed on the body and blood of the cabin boy. True story. And then they were rescued. Dudley describes their rescue in his diary with staggering euphemism, quote, "On the 24th day, as we were having our breakfast, a ship appeared at last. The three survivors were picked up by German ship, they were taken back to Falmouth in England where they were arrested and tried. Brooks turned states witness. Dudley and Stephens went to trial. They didn't dispute the facts. They claimed they had acted out of necessity. That was their defense. They argued, in effect, better that one should die so that three could survive. The prosecutor wasn't swayed by that argument. He said murder is murder, and so the case went to trial."

The class then discusses the morality of their actions. (As a side note Dudley and Stephens ultimately received 6 months in prison). At the end of the discussion the class is grouped into various camps: some believed their actions were morally permissible. Some thought that the problem was a lack of consent, either from the boy or to a lottery. If consent of some sort was given, this group would have agreed with the morality of the crew. Finally, some believed that their actions were wrong and that it could not be justified even with consent (it is just categorically wrong).

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