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What’s the right thing to do? (Episode 02: Putting a Price Tag on Life & How to Measure Pleasure) Justice, Harvard University, Michael Sandel

Episode 02:

Part One: “Putting a Price Tag On Life”

Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian logic is used by governments and companies all the time, under the name of cost-benefit analysis. The analysis involves placing a value –usually a dollar value- to stand for utility on the costs and benefits of various proposals. Michael Sandel examines some contemporary cases such as the proposal of the tobacco company Philip Morris to increase the excise tax on smoking in the Czech Republic and amidst arguments for and against, he asks his students questions such as: “How much would you have to be paid to have one little tow cut off, or eat a live earth worm –six inches long-, or to live the rest of your life on a farm in Kansas?”

photo uploaded by: Harvard University

Part Two: How To Measure Pleasure

Professor Sandel goes through the objections to utilitarianism. At this point he mentions a story from his college years at Oxford:  

“There may be no knock-down argument for or against the claim that all moral goods can be translated without loss into a single measure of value. But here is a further case that calls the claim into question:

In the 1970s, when I was a graduate student at Oxford, there were separate colleges for men and women. The women’s colleges had parietal rules against male guests staying overnight in women’s rooms.

These rules were rarely enforced and easily violated, or so I was told. Most college officials no longer saw it as their role to enforce traditional notions of sexual morality. Pressure grew to relax these rules, which became a subject of debate at St. Anne’s College, one of the all-women colleges.

Some older women on the faculty were traditionalists. They opposed allowing male guests, on conventional moral grounds; it was immoral, they thought, for unmarried young women to spend the night with men. But times had changed, and the traditionalists were embarrassed to give the real grounds for their objection. So they translated their arguments into utilitarian terms. “If men stay overnight,” they argued, “the costs to the college will increase.” How, you might wonder? “Well, they’ll want to take baths, and that will use more hot water.” Furthermore, they argued, “we will have to replace the mattresses more often.”

The reformers met the traditionalists’ arguments by adopting the following compromise: Each woman could have a maximum of three overnight guests each week, provided each guest paid fifty pence per night to defray the costs to the college. The next day, the headline in the Guardian read, “St. Anne’s Girls, Fifty Pence a Night.” The language of virtue had not translated very well into the language of utility. Soon thereafter, the parietal rules were waived altogether, and so was the fee.”

Professor Michael Sandel

He then introduces his students to John Stuart Mill who tried to respond to those objections. Mill argued that “the greatest good for the greatest number” is compatible with the protection of the individual rights and that a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, is possible with utilitarianism. Mills believes that a well-informed majority will always prefer the higher pleasure.

Video clips from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, “Fear Factor”, and “The Simpsons” are used by Sandel to test the theory by having his students examine and debate about the one that offers the higher pleasure and whether Mill’s defense of utilitarianism is successful or not.

(Those of you who are interested in taking the course as a MOOC, you can find it here: )

(video via Harvard University’s YouTube Channel)

(Κείμενο: Αργυρώ Φώτη)

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