"For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport," The Nation's reviewer of Justice remarked. In his acclaimed book―based on his legendary Harvard. Michael Sandel's graceful and intelligent new book, The Case against Perfection, is an extended effort to diagnose that unease.” —Carl Elliott, The New England. the Right Thing to Do? is a book on political philosophy by Michael J. Sandel. The work was written to accompany Sandel's famous "Justice" course at.

Michael Sandel Justice Book

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For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport “Every once in a while, a book comes along of such grace, power, and wit that it. Justice book. Read reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Michael J. Sandel's Justice course is one of the most popular and infl. A Harvard law professor explores the meaning of justice and invites out of this book, since I've already listened to the series of Dr. Sandel's.

Prosperity matters, in other words, because it contributes to our welfare. To explore this idea, we turn to utilitarianism, the most influential account of how and why we should maximize welfare, or as the utilitarians put it seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Next, we take up a range of theories that connect justice to freedom.

Most of these theories emphasize respect for individual rights, though they disagree among themselves about which rights are most important. The idea that justice means respecting freedom and individual rights is at least as familiar in contemporary politics as the utilitarian idea of maximizing welfare.

For example, the U. Bill of Rights sets out certain liberties — including rights to freedom of speech and religious liberty — that even majorities may not violate. And around the world, the idea that justice means respecting certain universal human rights is increasingly embraced in theory, if not always in practice. The approach to justice that begins with freedom is a capacious school. In fact, some of the most hard-fought political arguments of our time take place between two rival camps within it — the laissez- faire camp and the fairness camp.

Leading the laissez-faire camp are free-market libertarians who believe that justice consists in respecting and upholding the voluntary choices made by consenting adults. The fairness camp contains theorists of a more egalitarian bent.

They argue that unfettered markets are neither just nor free. In their view, justice requires policies that remedy social and economic disadvantages and give everyone a fair chance at success. Finally, we turn to theories that see justice as bound up with virtue and the good life. In contemporary politics, virtue theories are often identified with cultural conservatives and the religious right. The idea of legislating morality is anathema to many citizens of liberal societies, as it risks lapsing into intolerance and coercion.

But the notion that a just society affirms certain virtues and conceptions of the good life has inspired political movements and arguments across the ideological spectrum. They often begin with concrete situations.

You Be the Judge

Often the disagreements are among partisans or rival advocates in the public realm. Sometimes the disagreements are within us as individuals, as when we find ourselves torn or conflicted about a hard moral question. But how exactly can we reason our way from the judgments we make about concrete situations to the principles of justice we believe should apply in all situations?

What, in short, does moral reasoning consist in? The Runaway Trolley Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car hurtling down the track at sixty miles an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track, tools in hand. You feel desperate, because you know that if you crash into these five workers, they will all die. Suddenly, you notice a side track, off to the right. There is a worker on that track, too, but only one. You realize that you can turn the trolley car onto the side track, killing the one worker, but sparing the five.

What should you do? Now consider another version of the trolley story. This time, you are not the driver but an onlooker, standing on a bridge overlooking the track. This time, there is no side track. Down the track comes a trolley, and at the end of the track are five workers. The trolley is about to crash into the five workers. You feel helpless to avert this disaster — until you notice, standing next to you on the bridge, a very heavy man.

You could push him off the bridge, onto the track, into the path of the oncoming trolley. He would die, but the five workers would be saved. You consider jumping onto the track yourself, but realize you are too small to stop the trolley. Would pushing the heavy man onto the track be the right thing to do? It would be terribly wrong to push the man onto the track. But this raises a moral puzzle: Why does the principle that seems right in the first case — sacrifice one life to save five — seem wrong in the second?

It does seem cruel to push a man to his death, even for a good cause. But is it any less cruel to kill a man by crashing into him with a trolley car? Perhaps the reason it is wrong to push is that doing so uses the man on the bridge against his will. He was just standing there. But the same could be said of the person working on the side track. He was just doing his job, not volunteering to sacrifice his life in the event of a runaway trolley.

It might be argued that railway workers willingly incur a risk that bystanders do not. Maybe the moral difference lies not in the effect on the victims — both wind up dead — but in the intention of the person making the decision. But the same is true in the pushing case. The death of the man you push off the bridge is not essential to your purpose.

All he needs to do is block the trolley; if he can do so and somehow survive, you would be delighted. Or perhaps, on reflection, the two cases should be governed by the same principle.

Both involve a deliberate choice to take the life of one innocent person in order to prevent an even greater loss of life. Perhaps your reluctance to push the man off the bridge is mere squeamishness, a hesitation you should overcome. Pushing a man to his death with your bare hands does seem more cruel than turning the steering wheel of a trolley.

But doing the right thing is not always easy. We can test this idea by altering the story slightly. Suppose you, as the onlooker, could cause the large man standing next to you to fall onto the track without pushing him; imagine he is standing on a trap door that you could open by turning a steering wheel. No pushing, same result. Would that make it the right thing to do? Or is it still morally worse than for you, as the trolley driver, to turn onto the side track?

It is not easy to explain the moral difference between these cases — why turning the trolley seems right, but pushing the man off the bridge seems wrong. But notice the pressure we feel to reason our way to a convincing distinction between them — and if we cannot, to reconsider our judgment about the right thing to do in each case.

We sometimes think of moral reasoning as a way of persuading other people. But it is also a way of sorting out our own moral convictions, of figuring out what we believe and why.

Some moral dilemmas arise from conflicting moral principles. For example, one principle that comes into play in the trolley story says we should save as many lives as possible, but another says it is wrong to kill an innocent person, even for a good cause. Confronted with a situation in which saving a number of lives depends on killing an innocent person, we face a moral quandary.

We must try to figure out which principle has greater weight, or is more appropriate under the circumstances. Other moral dilemmas arise because we are uncertain how events will unfold. Hypothetical examples such as the trolley story remove the uncertainty that hangs over the choices we confront in real life. This makes such stories imperfect guides to action. But it also makes them useful devices for moral analysis.

The Afghan Goatherds Consider now an actual moral dilemma, similar in some ways to the fanciful tale of the runaway trolley, but complicated by uncertainty about how things will turn out: According to intelligence reports, their target commanded to heavily armed fighters and was staying in a village in the forbidding mountainous region. Shortly after the special forces team took up a position on a mountain ridge overlooking the village, two Afghan farmers with about a hundred bleating goats happened upon them.

With them was a boy about fourteen years old. The Afghans were unarmed.

The American soldiers trained their rifles on them, motioned for them to sit on the ground, and then debated what to do about them. On the one hand, the goatherds appeared to be unarmed civilians. On the other hand, letting them go would run the risk that they would inform the Taliban of the presence of the U. The only choice was to kill them or let them go free. We have a right to do everything we can to save our own lives.

The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong. But my trouble is, I have another soul. My Christian soul. And it was crowding in on me. Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood. He cast the deciding vote to release them. One of his three comrades had abstained. It was a vote he came to regret. About an hour and a half after they released the goatherds, the four soldiers found themselves surrounded by eighty to a hundred Taliban fighters armed with AKs and rocket-propelled grenades.

The Taliban fighters also shot down a U. Luttrell, severely injured, managed to survive by falling down the mountainside and crawling seven miles to a Pashtun village, whose residents protected him from the Taliban until he was rescued. In retrospect, Luttrell condemned his own vote not to kill the goatherds.

I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. The deciding vote was mine, and it will haunt me till they rest me in an East Texas grave. Would they simply go on their way, or would they alert the Taliban? But suppose Luttrell knew that freeing the goatherds would lead to a devastating battle resulting in the loss of his comrades, nineteen American deaths, injury to himself, and the failure of his mission?

Would he have decided differently? For Luttrell, looking back, the answer is clear: Given the disaster that followed, it is hard to disagree. Killing the three Afghans would have saved the lives of his three comrades and the sixteen U. But which version of the trolley story does it resemble? Would killing the goatherds be more like turning the trolley or pushing the man off the bridge?

The fact that Luttrell anticipated the danger and still could not bring himself to kill unarmed civilians in cold blood suggests it may be closer to the pushing case. And yet the case for killing the goatherds seems somehow stronger than the case for pushing the man off the bridge. This may be because we suspect that — given the outcome — they were not innocent bystanders, but Taliban sympathizers.

Consider an analogy: We would still need to know who his enemies were, and why he wanted to kill them. If we learned that the workers on the track were members of the French resistance and the heavy man on the bridge a Nazi who had sought to kill them by disabling the trolley, the case for pushing him to save them would become morally compelling. It is possible, of course, that the Afghan goatherds were not Taliban sympathizers, but neutrals in the conflict, or even Taliban opponents, who were forced by the Taliban to reveal the presence of the American troops.

Suppose Luttrell and his comrades knew for certain that the goatherds meant them no harm, but would be tortured by the Taliban to reveal their location. The Americans might have killed the goatherds to protect their mission and themselves. But the decision to do so would have been more wrenching and morally more questionable than if they knew the goatherds to be pro-Taliban spies. Moral Dilemmas Few of us face choices as fateful as those that confronted the soldiers on the mountain or the witness to the runaway trolley.

But wrestling with their dilemmas sheds light on the way moral argument can proceed, in our personal lives and in the public square. Life in democratic societies is rife with disagreement about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Some people favor abortion rights, and others consider abortion to be murder. Some believe fairness requires taxing the rich to help the poor, while others believe it is unfair to tax away money people have earned through their own efforts. Some defend affirmative action in college admissions as a way of righting past wrongs, whereas others consider it an unfair form of reverse discrimination against people who deserve admission on their merits.

Some people reject the torture of terror suspects as a moral abomination unworthy of a free society, while others defend it as a last resort to prevent a terrorist attack. Elections are won and lost on these disagreements. The so-called culture wars are fought over them. Given the passion and intensity with which we debate moral questions in public life, we might be tempted to think that our moral convictions are fixed once and for all, by upbringing or faith, beyond the reach of reason.

But if this were true, moral persuasion would be inconceivable, and what we take to be public debate about justice and rights would be nothing more than a volley of dogmatic assertions, an ideological food fight. At its worst, our politics comes close to this condition. But it need not be this way.

Sometimes, an argument can change our minds. How, then, can we reason our way through the contested terrain of justice and injustice, equality and inequality, individual rights and the common good? This book tries to answer that question.

One way to begin is to notice how moral reflection emerges naturally from an encounter with a hard moral question. We start with an opinion, or a conviction, about the right thing to do: Confronted with this tension, we may revise our judgment about the right thing to do, or rethink the principle we initially espoused.

As we encounter new situations, we move back and forth between our judgments and our principles, revising each in light of the other. This turning of mind, from the world of action to the realm of reasons and back again, is what moral reflection consists in. This way of conceiving moral argument, as a dialectic between our judgments about particular situations and the principles we affirm on reflection, has a long tradition.

It goes back to the dialogues of Socrates and the moral philosophy of Aristotle. But notwithstanding its ancient lineage, it is open to the following challenge: If moral reflection consists in seeking a fit between the judgments we make and the principles we affirm, how can such reflection lead us to justice, or moral truth?

Even if we succeed, over a lifetime, in bringing our moral intuitions and principled commitments into alignment, what confidence can we have that the result is anything more than a self-consistent skein of prejudice? The answer is that moral reflection is not a solitary pursuit but a public endeavor. It requires an interlocutor — a friend, a neighbor, a comrade, a fellow citizen. Sometimes the interlocutor can be imagined rather than real, as when we argue with ourselves.

But we cannot discover the meaning of justice or the best way to live through introspection alone. All they ever see is the play of shadows on the wall, a reflection of objects they can never apprehend. Only the philosopher, in this account, is able to ascend from the cave to the bright light of day, where he sees things as they really are.

Socrates suggests that, having glimpsed the sun, only the philosopher is fit to rule the cave dwellers, if he can somehow be coaxed back into the darkness where they live. He is right, I think, but only in part. The claims of the cave must be given their due. If moral reflection is dialectical — if it moves back and forth between the judgments we make in concrete situations and the principles that inform those judgments — it needs opinions and convictions, however partial and untutored, as ground and grist.

A philosophy untouched by the shadows on the wall can only yield a sterile utopia. When moral reflection turns political, when it asks what laws should govern our collective life, it needs some engagement with the tumult of the city, with the arguments and incidents that roil the public mind. Debates over bailouts and price gouging, income inequality and affirmative action, military service and same-sex marriage, are the stuff of political philosophy. They prompt us to articulate and justify our moral and political convictions, not only among family and friends but also in the demanding company of our fellow citizens.

More demanding still is the company of political philosophers, ancient and modern, who thought through, in sometimes radical and surprising ways, the ideas that animate civic life — justice and rights, obligation and consent, honor and virtue, morality and law.

But their order of appearance is not chronological. This book is not a history of ideas, but a journey in moral and political reflection. Its goal is not to show who influenced whom in the history of political thought, but to invite readers to subject their own views about justice to critical examination — to figure out what they think, and why. Their ship, the Mignonette, had gone down in a storm, and they had escaped to the lifeboat, with only two cans of preserved turnips and no fresh water.

He was an orphan, on his first long voyage at sea. Sadly, it was not to be. From the lifeboat, the four stranded sailors watched the horizon, hoping a ship might pass and rescue them.

For the first three days, they ate small rations of turnips. On the fourth day, they caught a turtle. They subsisted on the turtle and the remaining turnips for the next few days. And then for eight days, they ate nothing. By now Parker, the cabin boy, was lying in the corner of the lifeboat. He had drunk seawater, against the advice of the others, and become ill. He appeared to be dying. On the nineteenth day of their ordeal, Dudley, the captain, suggested drawing lots to determine who would die so that the others might live.

But Brooks refused, and no lots were drawn. The next day came, and still no ship was in sight. Dudley told Brooks to avert his gaze and motioned to Stephens that Parker had to be killed. Dudley offered a prayer, told the boy his time had come, and then killed him with a penknife, stabbing him in the jugular vein. Brooks emerged from his conscientious objection to share in the gruesome bounty.

For four days, the three men fed on the body and blood of the cabin boy. And then help came. Dudley describes their rescue in his diary, with staggering euphemism: The three survivors were picked up. Upon their return to England, they were arrested and tried.

Dudley and Stephens went to trial. They freely confessed that they had killed and eaten Parker. They claimed they had done so out of necessity. Suppose you were the judge. How would you rule? To simplify things, put aside the question of law and assume that you were asked to decide whether killing the cabin boy was morally permissible.

The strongest argument for the defense is that, given the dire circumstances, it was necessary to kill one person in order to save three. Had no one been killed and eaten, all four would likely have died. Parker, weakened and ill, was the logical candidate, since he would soon have died anyway. And unlike Dudley and Stephens, he had no dependents. His death deprived no one of support and left no grieving wife or children.

This argument is open to at least two objections: First, it can be asked whether the benefits of killing the cabin boy, taken as a whole, really did outweigh the costs.

To anyone appalled by the actions of Dudley and Stephens, the first objection will seem a tepid complaint. It accepts the utilitarian assumption that morality consists in weighing costs and benefits, and simply wants a fuller reckoning of the social consequences.

If the killing of the cabin boy is worthy of moral outrage, the second objection is more to the point. It rejects the idea that the right thing to do is simply a matter of calculating consequences — costs and benefits. It suggests that morality means something more — something to do with the proper way for human beings to treat one another. These two ways of thinking about the lifeboat case illustrate two rival approaches to justice. The first approach says the morality of an action depends solely on the consequences it brings about; the right thing to do is whatever will produce the best state of affairs, all things considered.

The second approach says that consequences are not all we should care about, morally speaking; certain duties and rights should command our respect, for reasons independent of the social consequences. In order to resolve the lifeboat case, as well as many less extreme dilemmas we commonly encounter, we need to explore some big questions of moral and political philosophy: Is morality a matter of counting lives and weighing costs and benefits, or are certain moral duties and human rights so fundamental that they rise above such calculations?

And if certain rights are fundamental in this way — be they natural, or sacred, or inalienable, or categorical — how can we identify them? And what makes them fundamental? In fact, it exerts a powerful hold on the thinking of policy-makers, economists, business executives, and ordinary citizens to this day. Bentham, an English moral philosopher and legal reformer, founded the doctrine of utilitarianism. Its main idea is simply stated and intuitively appealing: The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, the overall balance of pleasure over pain.

According to Bentham, the right thing to do is whatever will maximize utility. Bentham arrives at his principle by the following line of reasoning: We are all governed by the feelings of pain and pleasure. We all like pleasure and dislike pain. The utilitarian philosophy recognizes this fact, and makes it the basis of moral and political life.

Maximizing utility is a principle not only for individuals but also for legislators. In deciding what laws or policies to enact, a government should do whatever will maximize the happiness of the community as a whole. What, after all, is a community? Citizens and legislators should therefore ask themselves this question: If we add up all of the benefits of this policy, and subtract all the costs, will it produce more happiness than the alternative? There are no possible grounds for rejecting it.

Every moral argument, he claims, must implicitly draw on the idea of maximizing happiness. People may say they believe in certain absolute, categorical duties or rights. But they would have no basis for defending these duties or rights unless they believed that respecting them would maximize human happiness, at least in the long run. He proposed a number of projects designed to make penal policy more efficient and humane.

One was the Panopticon, a prison with a central inspection tower that would enable the supervisor to observe the inmates without their seeing him. He suggested that the Panopticon be run by a private contractor ideally himself , who would manage the prison in exchange for the profits to be made from the labor of the convicts, who would work sixteen hours per day. Recent years have seen a revival, in the United States and Britain, of the idea of outsourcing prisons to private companies.

The plan, which sought to reduce the presence of beggars on the streets, offers a vivid illustration of the utilitarian logic. Bentham observed, first of all, that encountering beggars on the streets reduces the happiness of passersby, in two ways.

For tenderhearted souls, the sight of a beggar produces the pain of sympathy; for hardhearted folk, it generates the pain of disgust. Either way, encountering beggars reduces the utility of the general public. So Bentham proposed removing beggars from the streets and confining them in a workhouse. But Bentham does not neglect their utility. He acknowledges that some beggars would be happier begging than working in a poorhouse.

But he notes that for every happy and prosperous beggar, there are many miserable ones. He concludes that the sum of the pains suffered by the public is greater than whatever unhappiness is felt by beggars hauled off to the workhouse. But Bentham proposed a way to make his pauper management plan entirely self-financing.

Any citizen who encountered a beggar would be empowered to apprehend him and take him to the nearest workhouse. Next to prostitutes and loose women, place the aged women.

It was meant simply to promote the general welfare by solving a problem that diminished social utility. His scheme for pauper management was never adopted.

But the utilitarian spirit that informed it is alive and well today. Objection 1: Individual Rights The most glaring weakness of utilitarianism, many argue, is that it fails to respect individual rights.

By caring only about the sum of satisfactions, it can run roughshod over individual people.

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

But this means that the utilitarian logic, if consistently applied, could sanction ways of treating persons that violate what we think of as fundamental norms of decency and respect, as the following cases illustrate: Throwing Christians to lions In ancient Rome, they threw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum for the amusement of the crowd.

Imagine how the utilitarian calculus would go: Yes, the Christian suffers excruciating pain as the lion mauls and devours him. But think of the collective ecstasy of the cheering spectators packing the Coliseum. If enough Romans derive enough pleasure from the violent spectacle, are there any grounds on which a utilitarian can condemn it?

The utilitarian may worry that such games will coarsen habits and breed more violence in the streets of Rome; or lead to fear and trembling among prospective victims that they, too, might one day be tossed to the lions.

If these effects are bad enough, they could conceivably outweigh the pleasure the games provide, and give the utilitarian a reason to ban them. Is torture ever justified? A similar question arises in contemporary debates about whether torture is ever justified in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. Consider the ticking time bomb scenario: Imagine that you are the head of the local CIA branch. You capture a terrorist suspect who you believe has information about a nuclear device set to go off in Manhattan later the same day.

In fact, you have reason to suspect that he planted the bomb himself. Would it be right to torture him until he tells you where the bomb is and how to disarm it? The argument for doing so begins with a utilitarian calculation. Torture inflicts pain on the suspect, greatly reducing his happiness or utility. But thousands of innocent lives will be lost if the bomb explodes. This is not to say that utilitarians necessarily favor torture.

Some utilitarians oppose torture on practical grounds. They argue that it seldom works, since information extracted under duress is often unreliable. So pain is inflicted, but the community is not made any safer: Or they worry that if our country engages in torture, our soldiers will face harsher treatment if taken prisoner.

This result could actually reduce the overall utility associated with our use of torture, all things considered. These practical considerations may or may not be true. As reasons to oppose torture, however, they are entirely compatible with utilitarian thinking. They do not assert that torturing a human being is intrinsically wrong, only that practicing torture will have bad effects that, taken as a whole, will do more harm than good.

Some people reject torture on principle. They believe that it violates human rights and fails to respect the intrinsic dignity of human beings. Their case against torture does not depend on utilitarian considerations. They argue that human rights and human dignity have a moral basis that lies beyond utility. Numbers do seem to make a moral difference. It is one thing to accept the possible death of three men in a lifeboat to avoid killing one innocent cabin boy in cold blood.

But what if thousands of innocent lives are at stake, as in the ticking time bomb scenario? What if hundreds of thousands of lives were at risk?

The utilitarian would argue that, at a certain point, even the most ardent advocate of human rights would have a hard time insisting it is morally preferable to let vast numbers of innocent people die than to torture a single terrorist suspect who may know where the bomb is hidden. As a test of utilitarian moral reasoning, however, the ticking time bomb case is misleading. It purports to prove that numbers count, so that if enough lives are at stake, we should be willing to override our scruples about dignity and rights.

And if that is true, then morality is about calculating costs and benefits after all. But the torture scenario does not show that the prospect of saving many lives justifies inflicting severe pain on one innocent person. Recall that the person being tortured to save all those lives is a suspected terrorist, in fact the person we believe may have planted the bomb.

The moral force of the case for torturing him depends heavily on the assumption that he is in some way responsible for creating the danger we now seek to avert. Or if he is not responsible for this bomb, we assume he has committed other terrible acts that make him deserving of harsh treatment.

The moral intuitions at work in the ticking time bomb case are not only about costs and benefits, but also about the non-utilitarian idea that terrorists are bad people who deserve to be punished. We can see this more clearly if we alter the scenario to remove any element of presumed guilt. Would it be morally permissible to do so? I suspect that even a hardened utilitarian would flinch at the notion.

But this version of the torture scenario offers a truer test of the utilitarian principle. It sets aside the intuition that the terrorist deserves to be punished anyhow regardless of the valuable information we hope to extract , and forces us to assess the utilitarian calculus on its own. The city of happiness The second version of the torture case the one involving the innocent daughter brings to mind a short story by Ursula K.

Le Guin. Lest we find this place too unrealistic to imagine, the author tells us one more thing about it: It has one locked door, and no window. The child is feeble- minded, malnourished, and neglected. It lives out its days in wretched misery. They all know it is there, all the people of Ornelas. They all know that it has to be there. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of the vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Ornelas would wither and be destroyed.

Those are the terms. Are those terms morally acceptable? It would be wrong to violate the rights of the innocent child, even for the sake of the happiness of the multitude. Objection 2: A Common Currency of Value Utilitarianism claims to offer a science of morality, based on measuring, aggregating, and calculating happiness.

It weighs preferences without judging them. This nonjudgmental spirit is the source of much of its appeal. And its promise to make moral choice a science informs much contemporary economic reasoning.

But in order to aggregate preferences, it is necessary to measure them on a single scale. But is it possible to translate all moral goods into a single currency of value without losing something in the translation? The second objection to utilitarianism doubts that it is. To explore this objection, consider the way utilitarian logic is applied in cost-benefit analysis, a form of decision-making that is widely used by governments and corporations. Cost-benefit analysis tries to bring rationality and rigor to complex social choices by translating all costs and benefits into monetary terms — and then comparing them.

The benefits of lung cancer Philip Morris, the tobacco company, does big business in the Czech Republic, where cigarette smoking remains popular and socially acceptable. Worried about the rising health care costs of smoking, the Czech government recently considered raising taxes on cigarettes. In hopes of fending off the tax increase, Philip Morris commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of the effects of smoking on the Czech national budget.

The study found that the government actually gains more money than it loses from smoking.

You Be the Judge

The cost-benefit analysis proved to be a public relations disaster for Philip Morris. Viewing lung cancer deaths as a boon for the bottom line does display a callous disregard for human life.

Any morally defensible policy toward smoking would have to consider not only the fiscal effects but also the consequences for public health and human well- being. But a utilitarian would not dispute the relevance of these broader consequences — the pain and suffering, the grieving families, the loss of life.

Bentham invented the concept of utility precisely to capture, on a single scale, the disparate range of things we care about, including the value of human life. For a Benthamite, the smoking study does not embarrass utilitarian principles but simply misapplies them. This takes us back to the question of whether all values can be translated into monetary terms.

Some versions of cost-benefit analysis try to do so, even to the point of placing a dollar value on human life.

Exploding gas tanks During the s, the Ford Pinto was one of the best-selling subcompact cars in the United States. Unfortunately, its fuel tank was prone to explode when another car collided with it from the rear.

More than five hundred people died when their Pintos burst into flames, and many more suffered severe burn injuries. When one of the burn victims sued Ford Motor Company for the faulty design, it emerged that Ford engineers had been aware of the danger posed by the gas tank.

But company executives had conducted a cost-benefit analysis and determined that the benefits of fixing it in lives saved and injuries prevented were not worth the eleven dollars per car it would have cost to equip each car with a device that would have made the gas tank safer. To calculate the benefits to be gained by a safer gas tank, Ford estimated that deaths and burn injuries would result if no changes were made.

So the company concluded that the cost of fixing the fuel tank was not worth the benefits of a safer car. Ford had not come up with that figure on its own, but had taken it from a U. In the early s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had calculated the cost of a traffic fatality.

Most people like living. What, then, would be a truer estimate of the dollar value of a human life? A discount for seniors When the U. Environmental Protection Agency tried to answer this question, it, too, prompted moral outrage, but of a different kind. In , the EPA presented a cost-benefit analysis of new air pollution standards. The agency assigned a more generous value to human life than did Ford, but with an age- adjusted twist: Lying behind the different valuations was a utilitarian notion: The young person has longer to live, and therefore more happiness still to enjoy.

Advocates for the elderly did not see it that way. Stung by the protest, the EPA quickly renounced the discount and withdrew the report. Defenders of cost-benefit analysis disagree. They argue that many social choices implicitly trade off some number of lives for other goods and conveniences.

Human life has its price, they insist, whether we admit it or not. For example, the use of the automobile exacts a predictable toll in human lives — more than forty thousands deaths annually in the United States. But that does not lead us as a society to give up cars. In fact, it does not even lead us to lower the speed limit. During an oil crisis in , the U. Congress mandated a national speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour.

Although the goal was to save energy, an effect of the lower speed limit was fewer traffic fatalities. In the s, Congress removed the restriction, and most states raised the speed limit to sixty-five miles per hour. Drivers saved time, but traffic deaths increased.

At the time, no one did a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the benefits of faster driving were worth the cost in lives. But some years later, two economists did the math. That was the economic gain, per fatality, of driving ten miles an hour faster. So why not be explicit about it?

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If trading off certain levels of safety for certain benefits and conveniences is unavoidable, they argue, we should do so with our eyes open, and should compare the costs and benefits as systematically as possible — even if that means putting a price tag on human life. Utilitarians see our tendency to recoil at placing a monetary value on human life as an impulse we should overcome, a taboo that obstructs clear thinking and rational social choice.

For critics of utilitarianism, however, our hesitation points to something of moral importance — the idea that it is not possible to measure and compare all values and goods on a single scale. Pain for pay It is not obvious how this dispute can be resolved. But some empirically minded social scientists have tried. In the s, Edward Thorndike, a social psychologist, tried to prove what utilitarianism assumes: He conducted a survey of young recipients of government relief, asking them how much they would have to be paid to suffer various experiences.

For example: Here is the price list his survey produced in dollars: So also does the life of man, though the appetites and desires are more numerous, subtle, and complicated. But here is a further case that calls the claim into question: In the s, when I was a graduate student at Oxford, there were separate colleges for men and women.

These rules were rarely enforced and easily violated, or so I was told. Most college officials no longer saw it as their role to enforce traditional notions of sexual morality.

Pressure grew to relax these rules, which became a subject of debate at St. Some older women on the faculty were traditionalists. They opposed allowing male guests, on conventional moral grounds; it was immoral, they thought, for unmarried young women to spend the night with men. But times had changed, and the traditionalists were embarrassed to give the real grounds for their objection.

So they translated their arguments into utilitarian terms. Each woman could have a maximum of three overnight guests each week, provided each guest paid fifty pence per night to defray the costs to the college. Soon thereafter, the parietal rules were waived altogether, and so was the fee. How compelling are these objections? John Stuart Mill believed they could be answered. A generation after Bentham, he tried to save utilitarianism by recasting it as a more humane, less calculating doctrine.

Mill was the son of James Mill, a friend and disciple of Bentham. James Mill home-schooled his son, and the young Mill became a child prodigy. He studied Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. At age eleven, he wrote a history of Roman law. When he was twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown, which left him depressed for several years. Shortly thereafter he met Harriet Taylor. She was a married woman at the time, with two children, but she and Mill became close friends.

When her husband died twenty years later, she and Mill married. His book On Liberty is the classic defense of individual freedom in the English-speaking world. Its central principle is that people should be free to do whatever they want, provided they do no harm to others.

The only actions for which a person is accountable to society, Mill argues, are those that affect others. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

For consider: Suppose a large majority despises a small religion and wants it banned. True, the banned minority would suffer unhappiness and frustration. But if the majority is big enough and passionate enough in its hatred of the heretics, its collective happiness could well outweigh their suffering. If that scenario is possible, then it appears that utility is a shaky, unreliable foundation for religious liberty.

Mill disagrees. He insists that the case for individual liberty rests entirely on utilitarian considerations: I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.

And over time, he argues, respecting individual liberty will lead to the greatest human happiness. Allowing the majority to silence dissenters or censor free-thinkers might maximize utility today, but it will make society worse off — less happy — in the long run. Why should we assume that upholding individual liberty and the right to dissent will promote the welfare of society in the long run? Mill offers several reasons: The dissenting view may turn out to be true, or partially true, and so offer a corrective to prevailing opinion.

And even if it is not, subjecting prevailing opinion to a vigorous contest of ideas will prevent it from hardening into dogma and prejudice. Finally, a society that forces its members to embrace custom and convention is likely to fall into a stultifying conformity, depriving itself of the energy and vitality that prompt social improvement.

But they do not provide a convincing moral basis for individual rights, for at least two reasons: First, respecting individual rights for the sake of promoting social progress leaves rights hostage to contingency.

Suppose we encounter a society that achieves a kind of long-term happiness by despotic means. Mill has an answer to these challenges, but it carries him beyond the confines of utilitarian morality. Forcing a person to live according to custom or convention or prevailing opinion is wrong, Mill explains, because it prevents him from achieving the highest end of human life — the full and free development of his human faculties. The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice.

He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.

He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. Character also counts. For Mill, individuality matters less for the pleasure it brings than for the character it reflects. But it is also a kind of heresy. In Utilitarianism , a long essay Mill wrote shortly after On Liberty, he tries to show that utilitarians can distinguish higher pleasures from lower ones.

For Bentham, pleasure is pleasure and pain is pain. The only basis forjudging one experience better or worse than another is the intensity and duration of the pleasure or pain it produces. The so-called higher pleasures or nobler virtues are simply those that produce stronger, longer pleasure.

Bentham recognizes no qualitative distinction among pleasures. All preferences count equally. Bentham thinks it is presumptuous to judge some pleasures as inherently better than others. Some people like Mozart, others Madonna.

Some like ballet, others like bowling. Some read Plato, others Penthouse. Who is to say, Bentham might ask, which pleasures are higher, or worthier, or nobler than others? If experiences differ only in the quantity of pleasure or pain they produce, not qualitatively, then it makes sense to weigh them on a single scale.

But some object to utilitarianism on precisely this point: If some pleasures are worthy and others base, they say, why should society weigh all preferences equally, much less regard the sum of such preferences as the greatest good?

Think again about the Romans throwing Christians to the lions in the Coliseum. One objection to the bloody spectacle is that it violates the rights of the victims. But a further objection is that it caters to perverse pleasures rather than noble ones. It is said that the Puritans banned bearbaiting, not because of the pain it caused the bears but because of the pleasure it gave the onlookers.

Bearbaiting is no longer a popular pastime, but dogfighting and cock-fighting hold a persistent allure, and some jurisdictions ban them. One justification for such bans is to prevent cruelty to animals. But such laws may also reflect a moral judgment that deriving pleasure from dogfights is abhorrent, something a civilized society should discourage. Bentham would count all preferences, regardless of their worth, in determining what the law should be. But if more people would rather watch dogfights than view Rembrandt paintings, should society subsidize dogfight arenas rather than art museums?

If certain pleasures are base and degrading, why should they have any weight at all in deciding what laws should be adopted? Mill tries to save utilitarianism from this objection. Unlike Bentham, Mill believes it is possible to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures — to assess the quality, not just the quantity or intensity, of our desires. And he thinks he can make this distinction without relying on any moral ideas other than utility itself.

Mill begins by pledging allegiance to the utilitarian creed: By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. Mill proposes a simple test: It does not depart from the utilitarian idea that morality rests wholly and simply on our actual desires.

I show the students three examples of popular entertainment: I then ask two questions: Which of these performances did you enjoy most — find most pleasurable — and which do you think is the highest, or worthiest? Invariably The Simpsons gets the most votes as most enjoyable, followed by Shakespeare. A few brave souls confess their fondness for the WWE. But when asked which experience they consider qualitatively highest, the students vote overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.

Many students prefer watching Homer Simpson, but still think a Hamlet soliloquy offers a higher pleasure. But if most people who have experienced both prefer watching The Simpsons, then Mill would be hard pressed to conclude that Shakespeare is qualitatively higher. And yet Mill does not want to give up the idea that some ways of life are nobler than others, even if the people who live them are less easily satisfied.

Everyone gives in to the impulse to be a couch potato once in a while. Mill makes this point in a memorable passage: And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. But in relying on it, Mill strays from the utilitarian premise. No longer are de facto desires the sole basis forjudging what is noble and what is base. Now the standard derives from an ideal of human dignity independent of our wants and desires.

The higher pleasures are not higher because we prefer them; we prefer them because we recognize them as higher. We judge Hamlet as great art not because we like it more than lesser entertainments, but because it engages our highest faculties and makes us more fully human.

As with individual rights, so with higher pleasures: Mill saves utilitarianism from the charge that it reduces everything to a crude calculus of pleasure and pain, but only by invoking a moral ideal of human dignity and personality independent of utility itself.

Of the two great proponents of utilitarianism, Mill was the more humane philosopher, Bentham the more consistent one. Bentham died in , at the age of eighty-four. But if you go to London, you can visit him today. He provided in his will that his body be preserved, embalmed, and displayed. And so he can be found at University College London, where he sits pensively in a glass case, dressed in his actual clothing.

Shortly before he died, Bentham asked himself a question consistent with his philosophy: Of what use could a dead man be to the living? His actual head, now kept in a cellar, was displayed for a time on a plate between his feet. But students stole the head and ransomed it back to the college for a charitable donation. The top 10 percent of American households take in 42 percent of all income and hold 71 percent of all wealth. Some people think that such inequality is unjust, and favor taxing the rich to help the poor.

Others disagree. They say there is nothing unfair about economic inequality, provided it arises without force or fraud, through the choices people make in a market economy.

Who is right? If you think justice means maximizing happiness, you might favor wealth redistribution, on the following grounds: Overall happiness would likely increase.

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Their collective utility would go up more than his would go down. This utilitarian logic could be extended to support quite a radical redistribution of wealth; it would tell us to transfer money from the rich to the poor until the last dollar we take from Gates hurts him as much as it helps the recipient.

It is here that Sandel begins to make clear his own perspective. He argues that justice, rather than being autonomous as Kantians or Rawlsians might have it , has a goal.

A form of communitarianism. Sandel quotes Alasdair MacIntyre and his characterisation of humans as being 'storytelling beings' who live their lives with narrative quests. Despite the controversial and polarizing nature of the material, the reviews have largely been positive.

The New York Times praised Sandel's ability to teach and says, "If 'Justice' breaks no new philosophical ground, it succeeds at something perhaps no less important: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press.

The New York Times. Retrieved The Observer. The Portsmouth Review. Archived from the original on Retrieved from " https: Sandel Philosophy book stubs. Hidden categories: All stub articles. Namespaces Article Talk.He conducted a survey of young recipients of government relief, asking them how much they would have to be paid to suffer various experiences.

Recent years have seen a revival, in the United States and Britain, of the idea of outsourcing prisons to private companies.

The Pentagon offered two reasons for its decision: Dionne, syndicated columnist. They argue that market choices are not always as free as they may seem. Erudite, conversational and deeply humane, this is truly transformative reading. Ron Paul, a Republican member of Congress and a leading libertarian, recently made this claim in opposing calls to reinstate the draft to fight the Iraq War: To explore this idea, we turn to utilitarianism, the most influential account of how and why we should maximize welfare, or as the utilitarians put it seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

As reasons to oppose torture, however, they are entirely compatible with utilitarian thinking. I wasn't sure I'd get much out of this book, since I've already listened to the series of Dr.