Michael Sandel: You Ask The Questions

The Professor of Government at Harvard University answers your questions, such as 'Is it desirable to have a classless society?' and 'Did you vote for Obama?'

Is aiming for the best possible consequences for every action the most ethical way to behave? Anthony Coogan, Lim

No, I don't think so. Some philosophers, notably utilitarians, say yes. According to utilitarians, the right thing to do is to maximise utility, or welfare – to seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham held this view, as do contemporary utilitarians. One of the most powerful reasons to question the utilitarian idea is that it fails to respect individual rights. Suppose a large majority despises a minority religion, and wants to ban it. Even if the persecuted minority suffers greatly, banning the religion might well maximise utility, or the overall happiness. But the happiness of the majority would not be a sufficient justification for persecuting the minority.

Those who defend consequentialist ethics might reply that the violation of individual rights (to religious liberty, say) is itself a bad consequence. If non-utilitarian considerations, such as respecting categorical duties and rights, count as a consequence, then perhaps one can agree that aiming for the best possible consequences is the right thing to do. But in that case, we still need to decide what sort of consequences matter, and the idea of aiming at the best consequences doesn't help us determine how we should act.

Eating meat means killing animals and causing huge suffering to highly sentient beings. Isn't vegetarianism morally superior? Michael Painter, Reading

I agree that industrial farming inflicts suffering on sentient beings, and that this is morally objectionable. Vegetarianism is an admirable response to this fact. Insofar as we can develop ways of raising and killing animals that does not inflict suffering, eating meat may not be morally objectionable. The level of consciousness may also make a moral difference. So, for example, eating prawns may not be the same as eating beef, morally speaking.

If dogs are pack animals in the wild, is it unjust to keep them as pets? Miranda Usborne, Stevenage

Not necessarily. To respect animals is to treat them in accordance with their nature. Domesticated dogs are different from wolves, despite their shared ancestry. It would be unjust to keep a wolf (or a lion) as a pet, because to do so would require confining it against its nature. The same is not necessarily true of domesticated animals, though it is certainly an injustice to mistreat pets.

Can you ever justify prioritising duties to the dead over duties to the living? Eve Lamarky, London

Suppose you could save someone's life by harvesting the organs of someone who recently died. If the deceased had agreed to be an organ donor upon death, extracting his or her organs would not pose a moral problem. But suppose the person had not agreed to be an organ donor. In that case, wouldn't the duty to respect the dead outweigh even the duty to preserve life?

Is a classless society desirable? Joanna Shrew, Exeter

I know of no good justification for according privileges based on the class into which people are born, or the wealth they happen to possess. This does not necessarily mean that no differences in income and wealth should be permitted. But these differences should not be the basis of class distinctions or privileges.

Which philosopher most influenced your own moral education? Amanda Wimp, Stockport

Aristotle and Hegel (if I may name two). From Aristotle, I learned that politics is, or at least should be, about something more than consumerism and market relations; it should involve deliberating about the common good. From Hegel, I learned that the ethical life is not simply a matter of abstract principles and rights; it's about embodying moral principles in actual practices and institutions.

How much sympathy do you have with (Australian ethicist) Peter Singer's utilitarianism? Paula Froome, Sheffield

I disagree with Singer's utilitarianism, for two reasons. One is the reason I mentioned above, about the need to respect individual rights regardless of utilitarian considerations. The other is that utilitarianism simply takes people's preferences as they come, without assessing their moral worth, and seeks to maximise them. But why should the preferences of a racist, for example, carry any weight in deciding what policy should be? Or, if some people derive pleasure watching dog fights, why should their preference count? I don't think ethics should be based simply on maximising preferences, regardless of how odious or perverse those preferences may be.

Is religion a useful vehicle for moral values, or a damaging translation of them? It seems to me that secularism is very damaging to any social fabric. Harriet Cummings, Oldham

This is a complex question. Religion can be a source of moral values, though I would not say that one must be religious in order to act morally. Secular moralities – such as Kant's ethics, for example – play an important role in contemporary moral and political discourse. The effect of secular versus religious outlooks on the social fabric is hard to assess in the abstract; we have to look closely, case by case.

Isn't the greatest failure of moral life in the West today the fact that we have abandoned the virtues championed by Aristotle? Richard Price, Ludlow

I do think that Aristotle's philosophy has much to contribute to contemporary thinking about ethics and politics. In my book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, I argue that Aristotle's way of thinking about justice is a necessary supplement to the most familiar modern approaches to justice, which focus on utility and individual rights. We often assume that justice is either a matter of maximising welfare (the utilitarian approach), or respecting the individual's freedom to choose (the liberal approach). But I argue that justice is not only about utility and consent. It is also about the right way to value things, and the qualities of character worthy of honour and recognition. Aristotle claims, and I agree, that we can't decide how to distribute income and wealth, power and opportunity, offices and honours, without deliberating about the best way to live. This takes us on to the terrain of the virtues.

Consider the recent public outrage, in the UK and the US, over bankers' bonuses in the wake of taxpayer financed bailouts. Underlying the outrage is a sense of injustice; the bankers are getting something they don't deserve. Aristotle can help us understand this. He argues that justice means giving people what they deserve – and that what people deserve depends on the virtues they display. Not only did the bankers contribute to the financial crisis; many people believe they did so out of recklessness and greed. And people believe greed is a vice that should be punished, not rewarded with bonuses. So the question of virtues and vices is not an antiquated, Victorian notion bearing only on private morality. It is very much alive, lurking just beneath the surface of the public response to the financial crisis.

Is academic life in the US of a higher standard than that of the UK? Has the answer got anything to do with student fees? Terence Friedmann, Kettering

I hesitate to offer a general answer to this question. During the late 1970s, I had the privilege of doing my graduate studies at Oxford, and I am enormously grateful for the education I received. I'm no expert on this subject, but I have the impression that higher education in the UK has suffered in recent decades, due to funding cuts that began during the Thatcher years.

In the US, many universities are funded in part by student fees, with scholarships and subsidies for those unable to afford them. Private fundraising also plays an important role in the financing of US higher education, a practice that some UK universities have recently undertaken.

Did you vote for Barack Obama? Kim Sanders, New York

Yes. He's not had an easy time of it during his first year in office. But he is one of the most gifted American political figures in recent memory. He stirred a remarkable civic idealism during his campaign, in large part because he articulated a politics of moral and spiritual aspiration. His challenge now is to find a way to carry into his presidency the energy and idealism he inspired as a candidate.

Michael Sandel's latest book, 'Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?,' is published by Penguin on 25 February

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

Dropout generation failed by colleges

£800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

Homeless Veterans appeal

Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
Shazam! Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

Shazam: Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch