WASHINGTON -- There have been various attempts over the decades to bury moral philosophy -- to dismiss convictions about right and wrong as cultural prejudices, or secretions of the brain, or matters so personal they shouldn't even affect our private lives.
But moral questions always return, as puzzles and as tragedies. Would we push a hefty man onto a railroad track to save the lives of five others? Should Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, in June of 2005, have executed a group of Afghan goatherds who, having stumbled on his position, might inform the enemy about his unit? (Luttrell let them go, the Taliban attacked, and three of his comrades died.)
These examples and others -- price gouging following Hurricane Katrina, affirmative action, gay marriage -- are all grist for the teaching of Michael Sandel, perhaps the most prominent college professor in America. His popular class at Harvard -- Moral Reasoning 22: Justice -- attracts about a sixth of all undergraduates. For those lacking $49,000 a year in tuition and board, he has written "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?" which has been further translated into a PBS series and a Web site, justiceharvard.org.
Sandel practices the best kind of academic populism, managing to simplify John Stuart Mill and John Rawls without being simplistic. His discussion of Immanuel Kant's case against casual sex was almost enough to make me dig out my college copy of "Critique of Pure Reason." Almost.
But Sandel is best at what he calls bringing "moral clarity to the alternatives we confront as democratic citizens." In this cause, he outlines three attempts to define the meaning of justice, each with large public consequences.
Definition one is the maximization of social welfare -- the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But utilitarianism, in Sandel's view, has glaring weaknesses. It allows no principled defense of individual rights. What if the sum of social happiness is increased by throwing a minority to the lions? And utilitarianism ultimately can make no distinction between fulfilling higher forms of happiness and degraded ones. Why should we prefer the pleasures of art museums to the pleasures of dog fighting?