2013 Book Study:  Justice by Michael Sandel

On January 11, 2013, the West Hill book study group began looking at Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel.  Janice Meighan has put together a schedule for facilitators which you can download and review.

Below under each session date are the videos we reviewed and the questions discussed in each small group.  To continue the conversation, also check out our Justice blog.  

For more information, please contact Janice Meighan through the church office (416-282-8566).

 

Thursday
Apr252013

Week 8: April 19, 2013

Chapter 9:  What Do We Owe One Another? / Dilemmas of Loyalty

Video: The Claims of Community / Where Our Loyalties Lie

Small Group Questions 

Group 1: The United Church’s apology for Indian residential schools:   

Apologies & Reparations:

According to Sandel, there are 3 main justifications for public apologies: 1) to honor the memory of those who have suffered injustices; 2) to recognize the persisting effects of injustice on victims and their descendants; 3) to atone for the wrongs committed by those who inflicted the injustice or those who failed to prevent it. Pgs. 210-211. He goes on to say that in some cases public apologies can cause more harm than good. They can either damage people further or aid in healing.

Many theories of justice state that any present generation does not need to atone or apologize for the actions committed by previous generations. There are “individualist” views verses the “collective” views. What do we owe one another?

  1. Do you agree with the United Church of Canada's apology for their role in the Aboriginal residential schools?
  2. Did this apology provide healing or cause more damage? Consider to the aboriginal community, descendants, and UCC membership as a whole.
  3. Is it just that current membership (you and me), throughout the UCC, are still paying for the law suits and financial reparations made to aboriginal descendants of the residential schools?
  4. What, if anything, does the UCC and its membership (you and me) still owe the aboriginal descendants of the residential schools?

(See pages 210-215)

Group 2:       Canada’s apology for Chinese Head Tax  

  1. Should the government be morally neutral? Review Canada’s apology in light of Kant, Rawls and Aristotle’s views of the good life and justice. Pages 215-219.
  2. Should The Gov’t of Canada have apologized for the head tax and the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act?
  3. Did this apology provide healing or cause more damage? Consider to the Chinese community, descendants, and Canadian citizens as a whole.
  4. What, if anything, do the citizens of Canada (you and me) still owe Chinese descendants of the head tax policy and immigration act?

(see pages 215-219)

Group 3:  Moral Responsibilities:  

Patriotism and Loyalty:

From Sandel’s course:  “According to many modern liberals, moral obligations can arise in only two ways: First, there are universal duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily. Second, there are voluntary obligations that we acquire by consent, as when we agree to help someone or promise to be faithful to our partners and friends. According to many modern liberals, there are no other types of moral obligation.

Critics of liberalism disagree. They say there is a third type of moral obligation that is neither universal nor voluntary. We can be morally obligated to a particular community even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. Obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities, communities, and traditions—because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.”

Recently, outsourcing “high” technology jobs in the banking sector has been in the news. Yet, outsourcing of jobs has been a trend for years in many sectors and will continue. However, there is a backlash now (pages 232 – 234) .

  1. Do the banks or any “Canadian” company have an obligation or loyalty to employ Canadians (other than what the law requires)?
  2. Should Canadians have a “buy Canadian or source Canadian” policy?
  3. What happens to Canadian graduates with high-tech degrees or MBA’s, or trades people (automotive sector) when they cannot get a job in their field? Does Canada / do we owe our own kids and graduates anything?
  4. If you had a small Canadian company that was struggling with its expenses and could cut those expenses by outsourcing it’s high-tech or director level jobs to India or China in order to become profitable, would you? What would the right thing to do be? Now, what if you were the CEO of Bell Canada or Royal Bank? What is the difference?

Group 4: Moral Responsibilities:  

Patriotism and Loyalty (questions taken from Sandel’s course):

From Sandel’s course:  “According to many modern liberals, moral obligations can arise in only two ways: First, there are universal duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily. Second, there are voluntary obligations that we acquire by consent, as when we agree to help someone or promise to be faithful to our partners and friends. According to many modern liberals, there are no other types of moral obligation.

Critics of liberalism disagree. They say there is a third type of moral obligation that is neither universal nor voluntary. We can be morally obligated to a particular community even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. Obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities, communities, and traditions—because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.”

  1. Is patriotism a virtue? Or is it merely prejudice for one’s own? Most people do not get to choose what country they will live in, and no one chooses where they’re born. Why are we obligated to the people of our own country more than to the people of any other?
  2. If you caught your brother shoplifting, would you call the police? Should you call the police? Many people would hesitate to report their own brother. Is this evidence of a special moral obligation that competes a universal duty of justice, or is it mere prejudice?
  3. If you caught your best friend cheating on an exam, should you turn him in for the sake of fairness? Or should you keep quiet out of loyalty? Are you under two competing obligations, or is your sense of loyalty a prejudice you should overcome?
  4. Do parents have greater obligations to their own children than to other people’s children? Suppose your child is drowning next to the child of a stranger. Do you have a greater moral obligation to save your own child than to save the stranger’s child? Why? Does the obligation change if it’s a step-child and not a biological child?

Group 5:       Moral Responsibilities:   

Patriotism and Loyalty (questions taken from Sandel’s course):

From Sandel’s course:  “According to many modern liberals, moral obligations can arise in only two ways: First, there are universal duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily. Second, there are voluntary obligations that we acquire by consent, as when we agree to help someone or promise to be faithful to our partners and friends. According to many modern liberals, there are no other types of moral obligation.

Critics of liberalism disagree. They say there is a third type of moral obligation that is neither universal nor voluntary. We can be morally obligated to a particular community even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. Obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities, communities, and traditions—because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.”

This year, April 13, 2013, at the Master’s Golf tournament there was a “significant” error made by Tiger Woods that should have disqualified him but it didn’t.

  1. A new rule was created for Tiger’s error, what kind of moral obligation is this? a) natural duty/universal; b) voluntary obligation; c) obligation of solidarity?
  2. The decision may not have been one of integrity but was it just?
  3. What does the PGA owe Tiger? What does Tiger owe the PGA?
  4. As spectators of sport of golf and of this Master’s tournament, do you feel you have any particular moral obligation (e.g. to write to the PGA, to support Tiger..)?
Thursday
Apr252013

Week 7: April 5, 2013

Chapter 8:  Who Deserves What? / Aristotle

Video: The Good Citizen / Freedom vs. Fit

Questions for Consideration - Small Group

“In the ancient world, teleological thinking was more prevalent an it is today. … To understand nature, and our place in it, was to grasp its purpose, its essential meaning.” Pg. 189.

“Aristotle’s point: Argument’s about justice and rights are often arguments about the purpose, or the telos, of a social institution, which in turn reflects competing notions of the virtues the institution should honor and reward.” Pg. 191

Think about Aristotle’s understanding that fairness and justice is linked with something's essential nature and purpose (telos), and that something's purpose is connected to the virtues of what you think deserves recognition and reward (pg. 186):

  1. What is the essence or nature and purpose (telos) of Church?
  2. What virtues of Church do you think deserve recognition and honour/reward?
  3. What is the essence or nature and purpose (telos) of West Hill United Church?
  4. What virtues of WHUC do you think deserve recognition and honour/reward?
  5. Is there a difference between Church and WHUC?  If so, what is the difference(s)?

 

Thursday
Apr252013

Week 6: March 22, 2013

Chapter 7: Arguing Affirmative Action

Video:  Arguing Affirmative Action / What's the Purpose?

Questions for Consideration - Small Groups:

  1. Often, naturally gifted athletes go to college on scholarship. However, their natural talents are a factor over which they had no control. Is it just that scholarships should go to gifted athletes but not to other people? Think of Kant and Rawls; consider the libertarian and utilitarian perspectives.
  2. What is merit? Often, minority groups receive better care from minority doctors and better representation from minority lawyers. Does the ability to serve the needs of minority communities constitute a form of merit? Shouldn’t schools train doctors and lawyers who will provide the best care and the best representation?
  3. Barbara Grutter applied to law school at the University of Michigan. She was rejected, even though her grades were higher than some of the minority candidates who were admitted. This time, the US Supreme Court decided that the University of Michigan had acted lawfully, because racial diversity at law school was an important goal. Do you agree? Was the decision of the US Supreme Court just or unjust?
  4. In the United States, African Americans have historically been disadvantaged because of slavery and racial segregation. Is affirmative action in college admissions an acceptable form of compensation for historical disadvantage?
  5. Should “Black Only” schools or “Aboriginal Universities” be allowed across Canada (currently in Ontario & Alberta)? If not, what about allowing Catholic separate schools, and Jewish Hebrew schools, to continue operating across Canada? What is the difference? Is the difference just?
  6. How does affirmative action shape our identity as individuals, communities and as a country?
  7. What if minority lawyers do a better job helping their minority clients than do white lawyers? Is that a form of merit? Does it justify discriminating against law school applicants who are white?
  8. In general, is it legitimate to design social, political, and educational institutions to redress past wrongs? Does your answer depend on what kind of institution we are talking about?
  9. Is affirmative action equally acceptable when picking candidates for government jobs, when picking candidates for private sector jobs, and when choosing who will receive government income support?
  10. Should affirmative action workplace policies be mandated by governments (Ontario/Canada) to redress past wrongs?
  11. Are individual rights violated if the person (minority or majority) is used either for or against upholding affirmative action criteria (in education, workplace, political spheres)?
  12. Which wrongs are sufficiently important to justify using affirmative action to redress them?

 

Thursday
Apr252013

Week 5: March 8, 2013 Video

Chapter 6 - The Case for Equality / John Rawls

What's a Fair Start?  What Do We Deserve?

Questions

What is justice? According to John Rawls, principles of justice are whatever principles would be agreed to behind a “veil of ignorance,” where no one knows his or her age, sex, race, intelligence, strength, social position, family wealth, religion, or even life goals.

If we were unaware of these particular facts about ourselves, we would not propose social rules designed to give ourselves an unfair advantage over other people. Therefore, according to Rawls, the principles we would agree to behind a veil of ignorance would be fair and just.

Within this context, consider the following questions:

  1. If an agreement is entered into voluntarily, is it necessarily fair?
  2. Suppose you own a leaky toilet, and a plumber tells you that it will cost $2000 to repair. You agree to this price, not knowing that the usual price for the same type of repair is $200. Is the contract between you and the plumber voluntary? Is the contract fair?
  3. According to Rawls, principles of justice are whatever principles we would all agree to govern our society if we were ignorant of our personal qualities and therefore unable to take advantage of one another. Is this the right way to think about principles of justice? Should we abstract from our personal qualities, strengths, and aspirations in choosing principles of justice to govern our society?
  4. “A just person is blind to the differences between people, and treats everyone equally.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

According to Rawls, justice is the outcome of a fair contract. However, for Rawls a contract is guaranteed to be fair only if the contracting parties are not able to take advantage of each other. Rawls therefore proposes that the principles of justice are the outcome of a special, hypothetical contract, concluded between behind a “veil of ignorance,” where no one knows any of his personal qualities, strengths, or weaknesses.

Within that context, consider the following:

  1. Should we abstract from our personal qualities, strengths, and aspirations in choosing principles of justice to govern our society?
  2. Do you think that you should be able to make reference to your religious beliefs, or your life goals, when proposing rules for society? Is it even possible to make such an important decision without knowing who you are and what goals and beliefs you have?
  3. In thinking about justice in everyday life, do you try to make yourself color-blind, sex-blind, race-blind, intelligence-blind, and treat people with equal consideration? Or do you think that treating people fairly is compatible with showing greater concern for some people than for others? Does fairness require you to be blind to the differences between people?
  4. As a matter of justice, should laws always be blind to the differences between people?
  5. Rawls’s first principle says that everyone should have the same set of basic liberties, including the freedom of speech and conscience, the right to hold office and to vote for elected officials, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to hold personal property, and so on. Do you agree?
  6. Why, according to Rawls, should talented and hard-working poor children have the same chances of success as rich children? Do you agree with him? Suppose that providing equal educational opportunity for all children would require substantial taxes on the rich. After all, it would cost a lot of money to provide schools of the same quality to everyone. Do you believe that such taxes are required as a matter of justice?
  7. Rawls’ second principle says that people who are equally talented and equally motivated should have equal chances of success. This principle would likely require steep inheritance taxes. After all, children who inherit lots of money have a huge advantage in the competition for jobs, money, and success. Do you think that children should be able to inherit great wealth from their parents? Should they be allowed to get very expensive, private math lessons, or singing lessons, or basketball lessons? What if such lessons give them a huge, unearned advantage in the race for jobs, careers, and wealth? Is it just for poor children to have much lower prospects as a result?
  8. Rawls’s second principle also holds that social and economic inequality can be justified only if it works to the advantage of the least advantaged members of society. Not even superior effort makes a person deserving of special rewards. After all, argues Rawls, your ability to make a good effort is partly dependent on how good your childhood was, whether your parents loved you and provided encouragement, or whether you were neglected and abandoned. These are all factors over which you had no control. Therefore, if you are now able to make a good effort, you can’t really claim credit for it.  Do you agree? Is it true that you can’t really claim credit for your upbringing? Surely, your habits and temperaments today are partly the result of your upbringing. Does this mean that you don’t really deserve what you get from making an effort?

Rawls's First Principle

Rawls thinks that two principles would be agreed to behind the veil of ignorance. His first principle says that everyone should have the same set of basic liberties, including the freedoms of speech and conscience, the right to hold office and to vote for elected officials, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to hold personal property, and so on. According to the first principle, a society in which some people are slaves or serfs, or in which very few people get a say in the government, would be unjust.

  1. Do you agree that everyone should have the same basic liberties, whether they are a man or a woman, young or old, rich or poor, part of the minority or part of the majority? Which liberties should everyone have?
  2. Is Rawls right to think that the unfairness of a society that distributes liberties unequally is best explained by the idea of an agreement behind the veil of ignorance? If not, what explains the unfairness?
  3. Rawls’s first principle says that everyone should an equal chance to influence legislation and political affairs. However, today wealthy individuals and corporations exercise much more influence on the government and the laws than the average citizen might. Is this unjust? If so, do you think that Rawls’ theory best explains why it is unjust?

Rawl’s Fair Equality of Opportunity

Rawls’s second principle of justice has two parts. The first part says that society must ensure that there is fair equality of opportunity. Fair equality of opportunity is different from formal equality of opportunity or the idea of careers open to talents.

There is even a lack of formal equal opportunities when the best jobs are legally restricted to members of a powerful group. This was the case in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement and racial desegregation. However, there can be inequality of opportunity even without such legal restrictions. Often, poor kids who are very talented have unequal opportunities because their parents lack the money to send them to good schools, to pay for private lessons, and so on. Compared to equally talented children of rich parents, poor kids have fewer opportunities to develop their talents.

According to Rawls’s idea of fair equality of opportunity, this is unjust. People with the same natural talents and the same willingness to use them should have the same chances of success, no matter how rich or poor their parents, no matter their sex, or race, or any other social distinction. Do you agree?

  1. If you think that poor kids should have the same chances of success as equally talented rich kids, does that mean you agree with Rawls’s second principle? Suppose it turns out that satisfying this principle would require enormous taxes on the rich. After all, it would cost a lot of money to provide schools of the exact same quality to everyone. Do you think that justice requires such taxation?
  2. What is your birth order? Does this really make a difference to fair equality of opportunity?
  3. Rawls’s idea of fair of equality of opportunity could also be seen to require steep inheritance taxes. After all, children who inherit lots of money have a huge advantage in the competition for jobs, money, and success. Do you think that children should be able to inherit great wealth from their parents without paying tax (Canadian law)?
  4. Should the children of rich parents be allowed to get very expensive, private math lessons, or singing lessons, or basketball lessons? What if such lessons give them a huge, unearned advantage in the race for jobs, careers, and wealth? Is it just for poor children to have much lower prospects as a result?

Rawl’s The Difference Principle

The second part of Rawls’s second principle is called the difference principle, and it is even more egalitarian than Rawls’s idea of fair equality of opportunity.

The difference principle says that there should be no differences in income and wealth, except those differences that make even the least advantaged members of society better off. Not even superior effort makes a person deserving of special rewards. After all, argues Rawls, your ability to make a good effort is partly dependent on how good your childhood was, whether your parents loved you and provided encouragement, or whether you were neglected and abandoned.

  1. What is your birth order? If you were first or last did you not have more advantages than a sibling in the middle?
  2. All of these are factors (above) over which you had no control. Therefore, if you are now able to make a good effort, you can’t really claim credit for it. Do you agree?
  3. Is it true that you can’t really claim credit for your upbringing? Surely, your habits and temperaments today are partly the result of your upbringing. Does this mean that you don’t really deserve what you get from making an effort?
  4. Do you think it’s unjust if some people do not get to vote in elections and earn less money merely because they are a woman or are a member of a racial or ethnic minority?
  5. Do you think it’s also unjust if some people are much worse off than others merely because they were born with fewer talents or with a debilitating disease and the need for expensive medicines or because of birth order?
Wednesday
Mar062013

Week 4: February 24, 2013 -- Video and Podcast Tie-In

Chapter 5 -- Immanuel Kant

Video: Episode 6 Mind Your Motive & The Supreme Principle of Morality

CBC's Ideas Podcast

For more food for thought, check out this fascinating podcast from CBC's radio program Ideas.  Michael Sandel offers us and his students several morality problems such as the Trolley Car and the Triage Surgeon to help illustrate the philospophical principles of justice.  But what can science say about morality? Can it be manipulated neurologically?