John Stuart Mill’s Dilemma

John Stuart Mill wrote a famous book, entitled “Utilitarianism“.

Utilitarianism was first formulated by Jeremy Bentham, and though it was a sound moral theory, it received some serious criticism. The objection was that utilitarianism does not take into account the individual, and that some moral principles need to be followed, even for the benefits of a single individual. John Stuart Mill went deep into defending his standpoint. He stated that when you optimize for maximum utility for the greatest number of people on the long term – emphasis on the long term – utilitarianism is actually not the cold-hearted calculating moral theory that it looks like.

But there was one element he could not reconcile with utilitarianism. He had the intuition that human beings are entitled to an intrinsic respect, no matter what. Even when you optimize for the whole of humanity nong term. I like that!

Justice with Michael Sandel – Lecture 5

Libertarianism – people are entitled to intrinsic respect; the fundamental right is the right to liberty.

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.


Libertarian principles:

No paternalist legislation – laws that protect people from themselves

No morals legislation – laws that promote virtuous living

No progressive taxation – redistributing income or wealth from the rich to the poor

Am I a libertarian? What do I think of these principles?

Paternalistic and moral laws – a certain minimum amount is required to sustain the stability of society. As little as possible.

Progressive taxation – required, for the same reason. Large inequalities make the society unstable. Aristotle: the poorer 90% only accept that they are poor because thay are convinced that they have a reasonable chance to be rich. Rousseau: the society does you a favour: sustains favourable environment. If you live in a society, the social contract applies.

The moral goal is to provide a prosperous society, where everyone has equal chance and everyone has a large amount of guaranteed freedom.

Am I a utilitarian?

Utilitarianism is an ethical and philosophical theory that states that the best action is the one that maximizes utility, which is usually defined as that which produces the greatest well-being of the greatest number of people.

Is utilitarianism the best moral system we could possibly have? Many people around me think so.

This is a very compelling idea. But it can be challenged. Here is the challege…

Would you want to live in a world… where everyone lives a long and prosperous life and they are very happy … but! there is one single person, a child, who is constantly suffering and has a miserable life… in exchange for the happiness of the others.  Would you be OK with this, being one of the millions of happy people, while knowing that there is one who pays for your happiness?

I would not.

Justice with Michael Sandel – Lecture 1

The Moral Side of Murder

If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing, even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do? What would be the right thing to do? That’s the hypothetical scenario Professor Michael Sandel uses to launch his course on moral reasoning.


My thoughts about this lecture…

The first questions were easy to answer. As we went deeper into the lecture, they became harder. Often I had to go back to the previous questions are revise my answers… not the outcome of the moral dilemma (which option is the morally correct one?) but the reasoning that led to that outcome.

Very often we know why we believe that something is right, but when pushed to dig deeper, we realize that we actually don’t know. We feel that something is right, and our rational brain comes up with a logical reasoning – it rationalizes our choice. But that rationalizing can be challenged and it sometimes breaks down.