Michael Sandel on Justice: Lecture III

Lec­ture 3 of Michael Sandel’s ever pop­u­lar course on Jus­tice is now online. Here’s the sum­ma­ry of mate­r­i­al cov­ered by the new­ly added lec­ture. It’s pro­vid­ed by Har­vard’s course web site:

Part 1 — FREE TO CHOOSE: With humor­ous ref­er­ences to Bill Gates and Michael Jor­dan, Sandel intro­duces the lib­er­tar­i­an notion that redis­trib­u­tive taxation—taxing the rich to give to the poor—is akin to forced labor.

PART 2 — WHO OWNS ME?: Stu­dents first dis­cuss the argu­ments behind redis­trib­u­tive tax­a­tion. If you live in a soci­ety that has a sys­tem of pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion, aren’t you oblig­at­ed to pay your tax­es? Don’t many rich peo­ple often acquire their wealth through sheer luck or fam­i­ly for­tune? A group of stu­dents dubbed “Team Lib­er­tar­i­an” vol­un­teers to defend the lib­er­tar­i­an phi­los­o­phy against these objec­tions.

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  • Robert Maxwell says:

    In Lec­ture 3, on lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, a lot of empha­sis is placed on the premise that indi­vid­u­als own them­selves. What does it mean? If they own them­selves in the sense that they own prop­er­ty, then we’re born unequal because willy nil­ly we come into a world with such givens as brains, ambi­tion, looks, and fam­i­lies that are wealthy or poor. If we tru­ly own our­selves, some of us own a lot less than oth­ers.

  • Robert Maxwell says:

    In argu­ing for M. Jor­dan and Bill Gates’ right to keep what they have made, Sandel notes that Jor­dan has had help in achiev­ing suc­cess from oth­ers — his team mates and his coach, eg., — so he may owe them some­thing. A stu­dent objects that team mates and coach have already been paid. But nobody men­tions the par­tic­u­lar cul­ture, the social arrange­ment, with­in which all indi­vid­u­als work, that pro­vides the frame­work nec­es­sary for Jor­dan’s (or Gates’) suc­cess. Indi­vid­u­als aside, a social sys­tem exists on its own lev­el and got along fair­ly well with Michael Jor­dan’s bas­ket­ball and William Gates’ Microsoft, hard as that is to believe.

  • Shaun says:

    Ethics, the fun­da­men­tal under­pin­nings of any soci­ety, are ignored in all of the objec­tions that Sandel rais­es to Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism.
    The basic prin­ci­ple of all ethics is the non-aggres­sion prin­ci­ple — that should be the dri­ving prin­ci­ple for every cul­ture and soci­ety — sad­ly, it is not.
    1. The poor NEED the mon­ey more. Sure they do. Noone argues that, but using this argu­ment, all of the peo­ple in a neigh­bor­hood should be redis­trib­ut­ing their incomes until they all have the same. In effect, the NEED argu­ment is an argu­ment to be equal­ly poor until noone needs mon­ey more than any­one else.
    2. Tax­a­tion by con­sent of the gov­erned is not coerced. The can­ni­bal­ism dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing the eat­ing of the cab­in boy should be enough to under­stand that the major­i­ty rule, when it comes to self-own­er­ship, includ­ing eco­nom­ic self-own­er­ship, is indeed coer­cion.
    3. The suc­cess­ful owe a debt to soci­ety. Do they? Don’t the suc­cess­ful peo­ple in our soci­ety already pro­vide a great ben­e­fit to soci­ety by being great at what they do? Had Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and oth­ers in the com­put­er indus­try not been dri­ven to suc­cess would we still be suing aba­cus­es today? Who owes who a debt? How about Jonas Salk, cre­ator of the polio vac­cine. He gave away the patent. Did soci­ety not owe him? Using this lib­er­tar­i­an objec­tion, every­one in soci­ety who was poten­tial­ly saved from this hor­ri­ble dis­ease should have to give some of their income to Salk’s fam­i­ly.
    4. Wealth depends part­ly on luck so it isn’t deserved. So what? Some were born with movie star looks and can gain sub­stan­tial­ly by using them to their advan­tage, but it does­n’t make them a bet­ter per­son. From the many biogra­phies on Hol­ly­wood per­sona it appears that qual­i­ty rela­tion­ships are a rar­i­ty for celebri­ties. Per­haps those who use argu­ment would like to redis­trib­ute looks so that celebri­ties don’t rely on the luck of being born pret­ty?

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