Justice - What Is the Right Thing To Do?

Episode 9. Affirmative Action is a notoriously contentious social, ethical and political issue, so before we let our emotions get the better of our judgment, it may be worth our time to consider its raison d'ĂȘtre: it stems from the recognition that our current system of distribution of goods, talents and opportunities is largely determined by historical antecedents that are less than fair. In some instances, they are the direct result of the exploitation of some groups by others. Everyone should agree so far.

The disagreement begins when we consider what, if anything, should be done today in order to deal with these injustices. Is affirmative action justified as a mechanism aimed to correct the reality of currently unfair social and educational conditions? Do we have a moral obligation to compensate for historical injustices such as slavery, segregation and discrimination? Do we have a social obligation to promote diversity? Do affirmative action programs unfairly discriminate against individuals who are not directly responsible for any past injustices? Are individuals' rights violated when universities do not accept them simply because they can't tan very well :)? These are just some of the questions explored in the first lecture below.

Having demonstrated the difficulty of understanding questions of distributive justice from the point of view of modern conceptions of justice based on individual rights, Professor Sandel then turns to Aristotle, whose teleological approach suggests that in order to figure out how goods and opportunities should be distributed, we ought to consider the telos (goal, end or purpose) of what is being distributed. For instance, the best flutes should be given to the best flute players. Why? Because that's the telos of flutes, that's what they're for.

Justice, according to the Aristotelian account, is a question of aligning a person's arete (virtue or excellence) with his/her appropriate role. High political offices, accordingly, should be given to those with the best judgment and the greatest civic virtue. Yes, something along the way went very, very wrong :)


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