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« Martha Nussbaum on the Value of the Humanities | Main | Paul Russell on Fate »

December 30, 2010



According to Aristotle, Michael Sandel states politics makes us all human. Yet, rather than pose political justice questions, Sandel's parables pose individual ethical dilemmas. By the use of humorous devices, Sandel obviated serious thinking about political justice. In the parable of the trolley and the people on the track, the class chuckled at the prospect tossing a “fat” man off a bridge. No one asked about the justice related importance of the man’s obesity.

An Asian student raised the issue of genocide. The parable could have been: Choose the track. On one track, the trolley could run over a European man in a business suit and on the other track, four Asian women in peasant garb. The justice question would be “Which track would most non-Asian Americans choose?”

In the iTune Philosophy Bite’s interview, Sandel asked “Why should today’s Germans be responsible for reparations to victims of the Holocaust?” He basically sided with no reparations. In Sandal’s thinking, the Germans born or living the ‘30s are one entity and today’s millions of Germans another. Yet Germany is same single political entity. Live before or past the injustice period and you’re home free. Sandel is silent on when an injustice begins or ends.

There is a reason for the popularity of Sandel’s course at Harvard. It is a “get out of jail free” card for injustice. There’s no injustice here; so people move on. Sadly, in all of these years, there has not been a refutation of Zimbardo’s classic jail study (1973) In two weeks, normal Stanford students converted into perpetrators of inhuman acts towards “prisoners.” This demonstrates how we are prone, but yet inured, to committing unjust acts.

After all, as one of Sandel’s student said, “You gotta do what gotta do.” I’m certain that this was the sentiment held by the British sailors on the slave ships or the German truck drivers on their way to the holocaust ovens.

Sandel did take a stand. In the iTune Philosophy Bits interview Sandel used another parable. Is it unjust for rich violin collectors to outbid violinists for the “great” Stradivarius violins? In this scenario, Sandel acknowledges that the rich man has the “right” to buy the violins, but, if the rich person went overboard (i.e. hoarding all of the Stradivarius violins) something should be done. In the name of justice, the government should intervene to get some of those violins to the maestros!

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