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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; What's A Fair Start; What Do We Deserve

05/15/2009

EPISODE EIGHT Lecture Fifteen: John Rawls applied his “veil of ignorance” theory to social and economic equality issues, as well as fair governance. He asks, if every citizen had to weigh in on the issue of redistributive taxation -- without knowing whether they would end up as one of the poor or one of the wealthy members of society – wouldn’t most of us prefer to eliminate our financial risks and agree to an equal distribution of wealth? Lecture Sixteen: Professor Sandel recaps the three different theories raised so far, concerning how income, wealth, and opportunities in life should be distributed. He summarizes libertarianism, the meritocratic system, and the egalitarian theory. This leads to a discussion of the fairness of pay differentials in today’s society. Sandel compares the salary of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,00) with the salary of Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? And if not, why not? Sandel explains how John Rawls believes that personal “success” is more often a function of arbitrary issues for which we can claim no credit: luck, genetic good fortune, positive family circumstances. But what of effort – the individual who strives harder and longer to succeed – how should his/her “effort” be valued?


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Series
Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do
Program
What's A Fair Start; What Do We Deserve
Program Number

108

Series Description

This 12 part series invites viewers to think critically about the fundamental questions of justice, equality, democracy and citizenship. Each week, more than 1,000 students attend the lectures of Harvard University professor and author Michael Sandel, eager to expand their understanding of political and moral philosophy, as well as test long-held beliefs. Students learn about the great philosophers of the past — Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Locke — then apply the lessons to complex and sometimes volatile modern-day issues, including affirmative action, same-sex marriage, patriotism, loyalty and human rights. Sandel's teaching approach involves presenting students with an ethical dilemma — some hypothetical, others actual cases — then asking them to decide "what’s the right thing to do?" He encourages students to stand up and defend their decisions, which leads to a lively and often humorous classroom debate. Sandel then twists the ethical question around, to further test the assumptions behind their different moral choices. The process reveals the often contradictory nature of moral reasoning.

Material co-owned by Harvard and WGBH. Need both consent to reuse for any other purpose. Contact Amy Tonkonogy in Educational Productions. Series release date: 9/20/2009

Program Description

PART ONE: WHAT’S A FAIR START?

Is it just to tax the rich to help the poor? John Rawls says we should answer this question by asking what principles you would choose to govern the distribution of income and wealth if you did not know who you were, whether you grew up in privilege or in poverty. Wouldn’t you want an equal distribution of wealth, or one that maximally benefits whomever happens to be the least advantaged? After all, that might be you. Rawls argues that even meritocracy—a distributive system that rewards effort—doesn’t go far enough in leveling the playing field because those who are naturally gifted will always get ahead. Furthermore, says Rawls, the naturally gifted can’t claim much credit because their success often depends on factors as arbitrary as birth order. Sandel makes Rawls’s point when he asks the students who were first born in their family to raise their hands.

PART TWO: WHAT DO WE DESERVE?

Professor Sandel recaps how income, wealth, and opportunities in life should be distributed, according to the three different theories raised so far in class. He summarizes libertarianism, the meritocratic system, and John Rawls’s egalitarian theory. Sandel then launches a discussion of the fairness of pay differentials in modern society. He compares the salary of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,000) with the salary of television’s Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? According to John Rawls, it is not. Rawls argues that an individual’s personal success is often a function of morally arbitrary facts—luck, genes, and family circumstances—for which he or she can claim no credit. Those at the bottom are no less worthy simply because they weren’t born with the talents a particular society rewards, Rawls argues, and the only just way to deal with society’s inequalities is for the naturally advantaged to share their wealth with those less fortunate.

Duration

00:56:46

Asset Type

Broadcast program

Media Type

Video

Genres
Educational
Topics
Social Issues
Citation
Chicago: “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; What's A Fair Start; What Do We Deserve,” 05/15/2009, WGBH Media Library & Archives, accessed December 5, 2016, http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_C9AB35E523D247AB8977AF95A35DBF5E.
MLA: “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; What's A Fair Start; What Do We Deserve.” 05/15/2009. WGBH Media Library & Archives. Web. December 5, 2016. <http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_C9AB35E523D247AB8977AF95A35DBF5E>.
APA: Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; What's A Fair Start; What Do We Deserve. Boston, MA: WGBH Media Library & Archives. Retrieved from http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_C9AB35E523D247AB8977AF95A35DBF5E
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