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What’s the right thing to do? (Episode 09: Part One: “Arguing Affirmative Action” & Part Two: “What’s the Purpose?”), Justice, Harvard University, Michael Sandel


Cheryl Hopwood, a white woman who had applied for admission to a Texas law school, saw her admission denied. At the same time, minority applicants who had lower grades than hers, were admitted. She took her case to court in 1996 arguing that her rights were violated by the school’s affirmative action program. Professor Sandel, and his students discuss the pros and cons of affirmative action:

  • Should we try to correct for inequality in educational backgrounds by taking race into consideration?
  • Should we compensate for historical injustices such as slavery and segregation?
  • Is the argument in favor of promoting diversity a valid one?
  • How does it size up against the argument that a students efforts and achievements should carry more weight than factors that are out of his or her control and therefore arbitrary?
  • When a university’s stated mission is to increase diversity, is it a violation of rights to deny a white person admission?


It’s time for Aristotle and his theory of justice. Aristotle’s theory disagrees with what we learned from Rawl’s or Kant’s theories. He believes that justice has to do with fitting the right person to the appropriate role after considering the goal, the end, the purpose of the distribution: e.g. the best flute players should be given the best flutes, and those with the best judgment and greatest civic virtue should take the highest political offices because that way we will all benefit.

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photo uploaded by: Harvard University

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

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