Now you can watch wildly popular Harvard prof Michael Sandel teach ethics online and on TV. Students wait in line to get into his ethics course — despite room for 800 per semester. My wife says it was the best class she ever took.
Here are a couple of his provocative ethical dilemmas
Discussion is an essential part of the course, Mr. Sandel said, which is why the Web site, justiceharvard.org, offers beginner and advanced discussion guides. The first episode deals with utilitarianism, which maintains we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness. “But is that right?,” the guide asks.
Suppose a terrorist will not reveal the location of a bomb “unless an innocent member of his family is tortured.”
“Should it be legal for the police to torture innocent people,” the guide continues, “if that is truly the only way to discover the location of a large bomb?”
In class, affirmative action arouses the strongest feelings, Mr. Sandel said, because students, who have worked very hard to reach Harvard, believe their own merit is being rewarded. They are disquieted, he said, by the philosopher John Rawls’s idea that many of their advantages have nothing to do with merit: American citizenship, fortunate family circumstances, a society that values what they are good at, whether it is telling jokes or having a great jump shot.
He tells the class that many psychologists think that birth order makes a lot of difference in one’s work ethic and degree of striving, and then asks: “How many here are first in birth order?” There are gasps and laughter. About 80 percent in the auditorium raise their hands. “Is it your doing that you are first in birth order?,” he continues.
That moment, Mr. Sandel said, is often “a turning point” in getting students to question their own deeply held assumptions. New viewers and readers will undoubtedly find different moments when a light bulb suddenly turns on. “There is a journeylike quality to the course and the book,” he said, adding that he did not “want to spoil the sense of suspense and exploration” about where this journey leads.
Attending his class should be entertaining and educational. Glad we can all get a seat.