Justice Episode 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.  After the majority of students votes for killing the one person in order to save the lives of five others, Sandel presents three similar moral conundrums—each one artfully designed to make the decision more difficult.  As students stand up to defend their conflicting choices, it becomes clear that the assumptions behind our moral reasoning are often contradictory, and the question of what is right and what is wrong is not always black and white.


Sandel introduces the principles of utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, with a famous nineteenth century legal case involving a shipwrecked crew of four.  After nineteen days lost at sea, the captain decides to kill the weakest amongst them, the young cabin boy, so that the rest can feed on his blood and body to survive.   The case sets up a classroom debate about the moral validity of utilitarianism—and its doctrine that the right thing to do is whatever produces “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The entire online course can be found at : http://justiceharvard.org/



  1. LeRoy said,

    1 May, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    One knight among the students was willing to stand strong and humbly pronounce that disagreeing philosopher wrong in consent to murder.


    • Michael Bark said,

      1 May, 2010 at 8:04 pm

      I’m so glad that you took the time to watch it. It promises to be a great series. I too would not have condoned the killing of the boy, I hope that if one were to die I would step forward myself.

      Things are not always so clear cut. I remember talking to my son, whom I love deeply, about a related situation. It was a discussion concerning what I would do if he went over to ‘the dark side’ (he’s a Star Wars fan).

      The scenario he created was one in which he was about to carry out a massacre of innocents, and only I had the ability to give him a fatal blow that would prevent it. He asked me whether I would do it and I answered that I ‘hope’ I would have strength of character to do so, even if I would pass the remainder of my days (perhaps mere moments) in the deepest of sorrow.

      I would not condone death before that moment, neither would I as a means of punishment after, but at that precise point of ‘no return’ it may well be the only solution.

      In truth, I don’t suppose I could do. I’m far too weak hearted. I’m just happy that the prospect of the situation happening is an extremely low probability. 🙂

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