What is the right thing to do 1: The first question of Prof. Sandel.


Justice: what is the right thing to do is a series of public lectures currently being given at Harvard on morality. The lecturer is Michael Sandel, who is known for his review for the book Theory of Justice. He has been teaching this Justice course at Harvard for the last 20 years. It has been a hit, not only on the campus of Harvard, with a record-breaking 1115 audiences in 2007, but also, rather unexpectedly, among the Chinese blog community.

I think one of the reasons why such a scholastic course gains global popularity is that, Prof. Sandels raised a very interesting and indeed intriguing question at the very beginning of the course. (Description of the killing 6 vs. killing 1 question, and the classroom discussion thereafter)

At first glance, this seems to be an easy question which has an obvious answer. But the answer is not obvious any more if you are asked to base your answer on solid, consistent principles of justice. blah blah

What is justice? What is the just thing to do in various situation? The most tempting answer is Utilitarian’s view: to do whatever maximizes the total welfare of the society. This is in fact the answer by Adam Smith and marks the beginning of modern economics. (need opinions from the professionals). But people has realized that this is only part of the story; fairness is, in many situations, as important as efficiency.

Coincidentally (or not?), there is a similar transition in the engineering field. There has long been a sub-field(profession? community? theory?) devoted specifically to maximizing efficiency, namely operation research, which I happen to be working on. But recently, the operation research community has been putting more and more effort on the issue of fairness and trying to rigorously quantify the tradeoff between fairness and efficiency. (Example from airs traffic). See also the paper by my advisor’s advisor.

More links related to the course:
– Course website: link
– The official lecture videos on Youtube (in English): link
– An introduction of the lecture by a Harvard CS professor Mitzenmacher, who has taken the course himself year ago: link
– An introduction from a blog in Chinese: link
– The lecturer is also invited by the Carnegie Council to join discussions with other well-known scholars: link


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