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

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