Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:
- Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
- The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
- The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
- The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
- The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
- Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
- The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
- The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
- The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:
Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.
(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)
Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.
For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:
People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.
One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.
… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].
“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.
“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.
“To get a good grade.”
“But why care about grades?”
“To get a job in investment banking.”
“But why get a job in investment banking?”
“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”
“But why be a hedge fund manager?”
“To make a lot of money.”
“But why make a lot of money?”
“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”
This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.
What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”