OWL Magazine Korea

“What is Justice? by Michael Sandel”

In the early 2010s, the lecture and book titled “What is Justice?” by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel became a social topic.

In South Korea, EBS, the educational broadcasting system, recorded and edited Michael Sandel’s lectures at Harvard University, broadcasting them in Korea. This was something Sandel desired and introduced at TED. He aimed to spread university lectures through videos globally so that everyone could watch them, a project that eventually became a reality.

Moreover, in the early 2010s, South Korean society experienced a sudden surge in interest in the humanities, and it was also a society lacking in “justice.” In this context, Michael Sandel’s lecture on “What is Justice?” was broadcast on EBS as one of the top three Ivy League lectures, causing a significant social impact.

“Justice by Michael Sandel”

In Korea, it was broadcast on EBS under the title “What is Justice?” and also published as a book. The original English title is “Justice,” which can be simply translated as “정의” in Korean.

To convey the concept of “justice,” Professor Michael Sandel brings forth various scholars’ definitions of “justice” and engages in discussions and debates with students about the flaws in those definitions, encouraging them to rethink what “justice” means.

Throughout the book, various case studies are presented to facilitate conversations and reasoning about what constitutes justice in our society.

“The Trolley Problem”

The book begins by presenting a scenario where one must make a difficult decision:

“You are a train conductor. The train is traveling at 100km/h, and there are five workers ahead on the tracks. You cannot stop the train in time, and they will all die if you do nothing. Suddenly, you notice an emergency track to the right with one worker on it. By diverting the train, you can save five lives at the cost of one. What would you do?”

In such a dilemma, opinions differ, but most people tend to choose sacrificing one life over five.

Following this conclusion, Sandel presents a new scenario:

“Now, you are not the conductor but a bystander standing on a bridge overlooking the tracks. There’s no emergency track this time, and five workers are at the end of the line. The brakes fail again. Suddenly, you see a large man standing next to you. You realize you could push him onto the tracks, stopping the train but killing him. Would you push the man?”

In this scenario, most people hesitate to push the man. While both scenarios result in saving the same number of lives, the moral judgment differs, highlighting the complexities of justice and morality.

“Defining Justice through Various Philosophical Perspectives”

The book explores the essence of justice through three main philosophical perspectives:

  1. Utilitarianism: Seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
  2. Respect for Freedom of Choice: Emphasizing the importance of respecting individual autonomy, as advocated by Immanuel Kant and John Rawls.
  3. Virtue Ethics: Highlighting human nature, virtues, and the pursuit of common good, as emphasized by Aristotle.

By delving into these philosophical concepts and presenting various case studies, the book encourages readers to contemplate and discuss what fairness and justice mean in different contexts.

“Understanding Justice through Different Philosophers’ Perspectives”

The book summarizes how various philosophers define “justice” as follows:

  • Utilitarianism:
    • The principle of maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people.
    • Advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
  • Immanuel Kant:
    • Human beings deserve respect as rational beings.
    • Moral value lies in the motive behind actions, not the consequences.
    • Actions are morally good when motivated by duty, not inclination.
  • John Rawls:
    • Fair principles are those agreed upon behind a “veil of ignorance,” where individuals are unaware of their own characteristics.
    • Emphasizes justice as fairness in societal agreements.
  • Aristotle:
    • Justice is based on teleology, understanding the purpose of social acts.
    • Justice bestows honor, giving each what is due.
    • Justice is determined by virtue and the pursuit of the common good.

“Contemplating Fairness through Various Philosophical Concepts”

Michael Sandel’s lectures and book offer an opportunity to contemplate fairness and justice philosophically. While they may not provide definitive answers, they encourage deeper philosophical thinking about why we consider certain actions right or wrong and provide a platform for discussing and refining our understanding of justice.

Even today, questions about justice remain relevant, prompting reflection on societal fairness and common sense. As we continue to grapple with these issues, Sandel’s work serves as a reminder of the importance of ethical reasoning and philosophical inquiry in shaping our understanding of justice and morality.

“What is Justice? (Justice)”