The March Philosophy Book of the Month is Final Notice by Van Fleisher. Discuss Final Notice now.

The April Philosophy Book of the Month is The Unbound Soul by Richard L. Haight

Discussion of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

We choose one book per month to read and discuss philosophically as a group.

January 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

February 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity by Byron Reese (Nominated by RJG)

March 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: Final Notice by Van Fleisher

April 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Unbound Soul: A Visionary Guide to Spiritual Transformation and Enlightenment by Richard L. Haight
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Discussion of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Post by Scott » August 7th, 2011, 5:28 am

Please use this thread to discuss the August book of the month Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel.

How do you like the book? What do you agree with Sandel about? What do you disagree with him about?

Have any of you taken his Harvard course or is this first time you have read his ideas?

Online Philosophy Club - Please tell me how to improve this website!

Check it out: Abortion - Not as diametrically divisive as often thought?

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Post by Wowbagger » August 15th, 2011, 9:50 am

I haven't read the book, but I started watching the lecture videos so I can join the discussion. Here the first one:

So I'll start with the trolley problems:
1) Steering towards the one instead of five: This one seems obvious to everyone, still it's quite disturbing that some people would not steer.

2) Pushing the fat man: The question here is 'what has changed?' The answer: 'Means' -> Direct involvement. Now, intuitions are clearly against pushing the man, but is this a good reason to let four people die unnecessarily? I think no. We evolved an aversion to (direct) killing innocent people, because of shunning mechanisms in social groups. Being shunned and punished is bad for genes. But the fact that our ancestors evolved this mechanism does not make it 'reasonable' or 'moral'. We also have intuitions towards xenophobia and violence (i.e. in revenge), and we certainly don't think those are moral feelings. Who are we to give abstract 'rules' more weight than the life of four extra people?

Now, if one pins down the exact difference in the situations (the group of students couldn't come up with a precise reason, which is revealing because it shows they're just relying on their gut feelings), it comes down to using someone 'as a means'. But this position would soon run into abusurdities.

Let me introduce trolley problem 2 b): Things are equal to problem 1, two tracks and a choice, steering towards 5 or 1. However, now the track continues in a loop after the 1 person and rejoins(!) the track going towards the 5 people. Assuming the 1 person is fat enough to stop the train, one would be using him as a MEANS. What we have now: An additional piece of track(!) is the cause for four people dying that would otherwise not have died. Deontologists would have to defend this absurdity, arguing for the death and suffering of extra people.

[3) Organ donor example:
This one is phrased very misleadingly. If one looks at the isolated case, clearly the innocent person ought to be killed. But the hospital setting is in no way isolated. Allowing such practices would cause public outrage and fear. People wouldn't want to go to medical check-ups anymore. So those factors have to be considered as well.]

EDIT: Addendum.
I started watching the 2nd video ( ... two/#watch) where they talk about cost-benefit analyses for 'human life'. Most people seem to be against even putting a number there, and most would think 'a million' would be way too little. What utter hypocrisy!! Even without the catastrophe in Somalia, we have 27'000 children dying preventable deaths daily(!) in third world countries. Cost-effectiveness analyses have shown that it takes about 400-600$ to save a human life if one donates to the most efficient charities. Any now due to Somalia, the costs are down to less than ten dollars per life! And still not enough people donate. Those people that argue that there cannot be a number, are they spending all but the basic necessities for charity? I don't think so. This is pure hypocricy.

And then the lion-Christian-colosseum example:
First of all, I think happiness only counts inasmuch as it causes the absence of suffering. Without happiness, there's always longing or boredom which can be counted as suffering. So they weighing is easy, suffering adds up to suffering. Thus, it seems trivial that there's a number of Romans that would justifiy the practice, IF there's no better alternative, if those Romans really have a burning desire to see that Christian tortured, one that cannot be changed in midterm.

Why do people intuitively reject this trivial conclusion? The thing is, we are well capable of empathizing, we can more or less imagine that it is VERY HORRIBLE to be that one Christian. However, we are NOT intuitively good about imagining LARGE NUMBERS. We see this all the time, people make statistical mistakes and have cognitive biases. So it shouldn't surprise us that we can't intuitively grasp the benefits if hundreds of millions of Romans were ecstatic instead of bored. So again, the anti-utilitarians are using misleading intuitions and misleading premises to fool people into reject a perfectly sound, compassionate and consistent ethical framework. Whoever rejects the conclusion is implicitly arguing for extra suffering -- how could that ever be justified?

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Post by PhillerUp » August 20th, 2011, 9:15 am

The Trolley Problem

In case (1) the engineer should steer in the direction of the planned route even if it means killing more people because without any other information then at least he was responsible in following procedure.

In case (2) the man who pushes the fat man over should join him on the fall because that would enforce his conviction since his added weight would make the fat man "fatter" and ensure his belief in saving lives.

The Trolly Problem is really not about saving lives. It's about accountability and responsibility in one's actions.

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Post by Wowbagger » August 22nd, 2011, 6:37 am

PhillerUp wrote:The Trolly Problem is really not about saving lives. It's about accountability and responsibility in one's actions.
Well that's the question, what exactly is it about? What is 'justice', and do we need it everywhere?

Regarding your answers, 1) that's what Nazis said too, 2) you're supposed to take the premise of a thought experiment seriously, if you don't there's no point in doing philosophy.

In a further video, the people discuss libertarianism. A view that implies that tax = theft = slavery, (unless it helps to cover the very basic needs of poor people through redistribution). It's very hard to argue with libertarians, tbh, I was even a bit shocked when I watched the video and saw smart Harvard people defending this egoism vehemently. For one thing, obviously all the rich in society directly benefit from the way taxes are used for the poor. For another, even if they themselves aren't directly responsible, shouldn't it be obvious that helping is still a necessity if it can be done at a negligible personal cost and provides HUGE benefits to the helped? If I walk apathetically walk by a pond where a child is drowning, can I soothe my conscience by saying 'I'm not responsible for her falling into it'?

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