Justice - What Is the Right Thing To Do?

Episode 3. The previous episode of this fascinating series of lectures on ethical and political philosophy from Harvard University focused on some of the implications of the aggregative requirements of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill's advocacy of rule-utilitarianism as a mechanism capable of securing and justifying the primacy of justice and individual rights doesn't quite seem to measure up to intuitive conceptions of why these concepts ought to be taken seriously.

Enter libertarianism, a political theory that takes the idea of rights so seriously, it becomes its philosophical basis and demands that we re-evaluate virtually all our beliefs about the role of government. Philosopher Robert Nozick (pictured above) began his masterpiece, Anarchy, State and Utopia, with the following lines: "Individuals have rights... So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state?" According to Nozick, the answer is simple: not much.

As in previous occasions, Professor Sandel presents a fair articulation of the theory's rationale, and then masterfully demonstrates what always happens in philosophy: you start with an idea that seems obviously true, and you end up in the twilight zone :)


I must confess that although I personally tend to lean in the libertarian direction, I've always been bothered by the unquestioned assumption of the idea of rights.

To me at least, the ontological status of rights is not self-evident, and that creates the possibility that if the theory rests on the assumption of a false claim, the whole thing becomes questionable, even while containing some nuggets of truth :)


And is it just me, or does the idea of self-possession seem painfully question-begging?

Episode list: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.
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