Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sandel on Justice

Sandel's TED talk on improving policy debate. His big idea is that we spend too much of the time asking the wrong questions because we ignore the fundamentals. We should ask "what is the purpose of universities?" before we ask who they should admit (affirmative action). I think it's a good talk.

But I have two big problems with philosophers and both apply to Sandel. When Sandel asks the audicence about the Supreme Court case they end up in a situation where A says letting a disabled golfer use golf cart would not give him an unfair advantage. B says that it would. A's only response is, to paraphrase, "I believe it wouldn't as an article of faith." In situations like this our thoughts should jump to "why don't we do an experiment and find out?" The facts are almost always absolutely essential to a debate, even after it has been framed properly.

The second problem is that Sandel says "musical performance isn't just [about] mak[ing] . . . us happy, but to honor and recognize . . . excellence." For decades this kind of virtue ethic has been in vogue. I understand appeal--consequentialism brings too many unsavory paradoxes. But isn't it obvious, when you really stop and think, that act utilitarianism is the only sensible ethical system?

This debate has an analog in economics. Sometimes people don't behave like the homo economicus would. We take that as evidence that some economic models are bad. Fair enough. But it's also evidence that a lot of people make stupid choices. Utilitarianism doesn't predict people's intuitions AND it shows people have bad intuitions.

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