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Wisdom Level:  Beginner

Overview:

‘Justice’ is one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history. Professor Michael Sandel hosts a series of talks that discuss various ethical and moral challenges where our views about right and wrong will often blur depending on the circumstances.

Commentary:

PART ONE: MIND YOUR MOTIVE

Professor Sandel introduces Immanuel Kant, a challenging but influential philosopher. Kant rejects utilitarianism. He argues that each of us has certain fundamental duties and rights that take precedence over maximizing utility. Kant rejects the notion that morality is about calculating consequences. When we act out of duty—doing something simply because it is right—only then do our actions have moral worth. Kant gives the example of a shopkeeper who passes up the chance to short-change a customer only because his business might suffer if other customers found out. According to Kant, the shopkeepers action has no moral worth, because he did the right thing for the wrong reason.

PART TWO: 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. Sandel tells the true story of a thirteen-year old boy who won a spelling-bee contest, but then admitted to the judges that he had, in fact, mis-spelled the final word. Using this story and others, Sandel explains Kants 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.

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