Monday, December 21, 2009

Think Responsibly

Having just watched the twelfth and final episode of Justice with Michael Sandel, I find myself wanting more. For those not familiar with the series, it was a broadcast version of Professor Sandel's lively and interactive lectures on the meaning of justice and the skills involved in moral reflection. Drawing from the writings of Bentham, Mills, Locke, Kant, and Aristotle as well as several recent court decisions, Sandel artfully led his students and TV viewers in fascinating discussions about the good life, natural law, utilitarianism, communitarianism, and more.

If there is any doubt that Sandel is an accomplished lecturer and teacher, you need only watch one of the episodes on line. I even recommended that my current flight instructor candidates watch the series as a way to augment their understanding of classroom teaching methods related to lecture, effective questioning and especially how to lead a productive guided discussion. After a while you'll forget the striking resemblance Sandel has to Montgomery Burns, the morally bankrupt capitalist captain-of-industry on the animated TV series The Simpsons. It turns out that several of the writers for that series were, at one time, sitting in Sandel's classroom studying moral reasoning and justice. But as others have pointed out, Sandel, who has dedicated his life to studying and teaching political philosophy, is in fact the antithesis of Burns.

I think the main reason I found this series so engaging and satisfying has to do with the reasoned nature of the discourse. Instead of emotional verisimilitude, ad hominem attacks, begging the question, and the myriad of other problems that plague the way political debate is portrayed in the media, this was a group of young people who were challenged to think critically and justify their reasoning. Watching this series was, for me, a breath of fresh air when contrasted to the level of popular debate that is so often bereft of reason, emotionally charged, and intellectually challenged. There is no mystery here because thinking critically is a difficult and uncomfortable process. This series is still available to watch on-line and if you haven't already, I recommend you check it out.

Since he is much more eloquent, I'll let Professor Sandel have the last word.
" … When we first came together some thirteen weeks ago, I spoke of the exhilaration of political philosophy and also of its dangers. About how philosophy works and has always worked by estranging us from the familiar, by unsettling our unsettled assumptions. And I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance, it's never quite the same again. I hope by now you have experienced at least a little of this unease, because this is the tension than animates critical reflection and political improvement and maybe even the moral life as well.
… The aim of this course has been to awaken the restlessness of reason and to see where it might lead. And if we have done at least that, and if the restlessness continues to afflict you in the days and years to come, then we together have achieved no small thing.

1 comment:

David Cheung said...

Tiger Woods' got nothin' on you, John. Best he could come up with is "transgressions." "Verisimilitude" is on a whole other level!