Christian Long

Michael Sandel: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

In TED Talks on May 4, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Reflection by CAROLINE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Michael Sandel: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Justice is defined by as “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.” So by taking this definition we can say that by following the rules of justice we are doing what is deemed as right, ethically right. But who gets to decide what is morally correct and what standards are named justifiable? Where is the line between right and wrong?

The discussion starts off with the predicament of killing five innocent men or one.

You’re in a trolley car that has brakes that are broken and it’s heading for five men working on the tracks. Do you turn the wheel to change the direction of the trolley for the one man or stay on the tracks heading for the five? What is the right thing to do? Most of the students, and myself, agreed that it is better to kill one man and save five due to the basic fact that the death of one person spares the lives of five. Then the idea of pushing a man onto the tracks to stop the trolley and save the five men was proposed. Here, the majority and again myself, were opposed to that possibility. This is where the interesting philosophical issue lies. Just minutes before a large amount of people would have justified their reasoning of killing the one man and saving the five by saying five lives is better than one, but we’re in the same situation yet our answer changes. Why? Personally, like a few of the other students, I feel that when I was in the trolley and I had to choose between the five and the one I had no real choice and my actions would only effect the number of deaths and not directly cause them. In the second situation, by pushing the man I would directly be involving him into a situation he was never apart of, I would be the primary cause of his death. In favor of the majorities decisions, you could go as far to say that because of how selfish we are as humans, we can’t sacrifice the purity of our consciousness to save the lives of five men. Or you could say that murder is murder and it’s not justifiable in any situation and you cannot decide the fate of an innocent person. Every opinion is different, so in the end no one can determine what the right and wrong thing is in every quandary.

Sandel later goes on to tell the story of four men stranded on a life boat after their ship was wrecked. Eventually, due to hunger, they murder the 17 year-old cabin boy who’s already dying in result of drinking the ocean water. They resort to cannibalism in order to survive. After 24 days they are rescued and then put on trial for murder. The question raised is, are they guilty? Honestly I’m not sure how to answer this one since I’ve never been on the verge of death due to hunger. I am sure that when on the edge of death, and when being without sustenance for over a week, your mental state is shaken and decisions you’d usually make are suddenly altered. In a comment on this video Theodore A. Hoppe quoted Jonah Lerher by saying, “…rational brain is supposedly responsible for distinguishing between right and wrong. If you can’t reason, then you shouldn’t be punished” So if their minds and “rational brain” were in fact disturbed by the psychological and physical state they were in, can they be punished? Let’s say that their minds were slightly troubled but not enough to be pardoned for wrong-doings, are they guilty? I would say that yes they are. They took the life of an innocent man without his consent, it was murder and that is not the right thing to do. If consent was involved then it would be justifiable, and therefore they would be innocent. They needed the approval and acknowledgment from the cabin boy before they murdered him. In my opinion, it’s sacrifice if the victim is understanding of the consequences, but if they don’t understand then it’s murder. Murder is a crime they can never really be legitimatized.

Jeremy Bentham said that by maximizing utility you are doing what is right, by increasing pleasure and happiness of the majority you are automatically doing what is just. This is known as utilitarianism, or the broader term known as consequentialism. Consequentialism is a type of moral reasoning that depends solely on the consequences of the action, and that decisions should be made based on these results. However, numerous arguments can be made. One of the students in the video said that “murder is murder”, relating to the topic of the cabin boy being murdered to save the lives of the three other men. His objection to utilitarianism was that by killing the cabin boy you are increasing the amount of people that survived, but you are also murdering someone, and that is morally incorrect. They could use the excuse of needing food, that it was fight or flight at that moment. They decided they needed to kill someone to survive. Who knows what we’re willing to do in the moment before our last moment. However, necessity does not excuse a crime. The other type of reasoning is categorical, which is defined as absolute and unconditional. No matter what the outcome is the reasoning will always remain the same. This pertains to “murder is murder”, it doesn’t matter what the outcome or the variables of the problem are, the reasoning is always going to be murder is wrong, always.

Deciding what is right and wrong with the help of consequentialism and categoricalism is one of the most difficult dilemmas. No one has the answer, no one can tell you with absolute confidence that saving the life of the five workers is better than saving the one. London Observer says of Michael Sandel, “He sets himself at odds with one of the reigning assumptions of modern public life — that moral and religious notions are private matters that should be kept out of public political debate.” Sandel believes that not everyone has to agree on the concept of morality, and what makes something justifiable. But that is the great part of this puzzle, there is no answer. There are so many questions in life that answers have been found for and that will never again need to be explored, but the perplexity of what is right or wrong will never be conquered. Every situation changes ever so slightly and the people involved will never be the same, therefore their ideas of what’s wrong and right and the outcome of the situation will always change. People may know what the right thing to do is, but it’s difficult to explain the reasoning behind it or even conjure an explanation. This video, and Sandels mindset, isn’t dedicated to determining what’s right and wrong.  It’s more set on awakening the reasoning underneath the possibilities of every situation. Finding, psychologically, why we do what we do.


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