Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Harvard’s Justice and the Morality of Murder

To introduce our study of ethics and social/political philosophy, we’ll be viewing the introductory lecture(s) by Michael Sandel in Harvard’s JusticeIn addition to the introduction to the two major schools or moral reasoning – consequentialist and categorical – Sandel’s brilliant facilitation throughout the series stands out as a remarkable feat of intellectual discourse. By highlighting the guiding principles underpinning our ‘gut’ reactions to the thought experiments, the lecture/discussion serves as a model of respectful dialogue, as well as an invitation to engage everyday topics with an open mind.

Upon completing the discussion, Sandel poses three questions I would like to pose here for our own debate and introductory musings on morality and ethics. Please add your thoughts to one or more of the following prompts in the comments to this post:

  1. Do we have certain fundamental rights? (Follow up: What are they? Why can we assume that they exist?)
  2. Does a fair procedure justify any result?
  3. What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?

9 Responses to Harvard’s Justice and the Morality of Murder

  1. davidwaffles says:

    What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?

    Even in the circumstances that someone is being killed, with the use of consent, I believe that the actions do in fact become moral. My reasoning for this is purely do to the fact that the individual has given you permission to the actions you want to perform.

    Permission is the game changer. When provided with the consent, the individual has now been given the time to assess information, consequences, and actions which thereby allow him to make a decision. Therefore they are accountable for their own choices; which has put every ounce of responsibility onto themselves.

    If the individual has given consent to be killed, it would not be immoral for someone to kill them because they know what they are getting into, and have accepted the terms of the proposal to die. Hence, the only person responsible for the death is the individual itself.

  2. shiyun says:

    What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?

    In the Dudley and Stephen case proof of consent from the victim would have been effective. If the men trapped on the boat had decided to do a fair draw (ie. drawing matches), it would not be amoral to have “murdered” the victim because he knew what he was getting himself into and still went through with the plan. The consent was given when he made the decision to draw a match knowing fully that rest of them were going to feed on his carcass if he drew the shortest match.

    So, even though many think that cannibalism is immoral and any type of murder is still murder, if there is proof that the person has given permission for the others to kill and eat him, then maybe consent can make amoral moral.

  3. kelseyf says:

    What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?

    When consent was brought up in the lifeboat scenario, I was swayed more to the side that consuming Parker to save other passengers was more morally correct. As grotesque and wrong I believe cannibalism to be, I still believe the survival of three lives would make it moral, especially with Parker’s consent. As stated in the video, Parker was orphaned, and had no family back in England. However, the other passengers had families waiting for them. I feel that not only three lives were saved, but also the wives and children back in England, likely unable to support themselves without their husbands/fathers.

    Parker was sick and was going to die soon anyways. If he was brave and sacrificed himself to save the other passengers and their families, I do not see anything that is amoral with that.

    • samthom says:

      hi Kelsey,
      while we did discuss this in class, and i’m sure that you know I completely agree with you, I am going to pose a question on the other side just for arguments’s sake. This was brought up in class, however I feel it was something that could have been dissected more in terms of ethics. Is it justifiable that just because Parker was orphaned, sick, and the youngest, most inexperienced on the boat that he be sacrificed just because of these facts? I will bring attention to the fact that he didn’t choose to be an orphan, the youngest, or the most inexperienced. (however drinking sea water? All on him). Does Parker’s life mean less than the other three men because of these facts? If you say no, then how is it morally right to choose him, when his life means just as much as the others?

  4. Avery C says:

    What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?

    One of the main evils of ethics is forcing one’s will upon others. Many crimes such as vandalism, theft, and murder follow this trend of placing one’s need for enjoyment/money/revenge above another person’s wellbeing. These crimes are committed without the consent of the victim, and lead to their detriment.

    What (non-coerced) consent does is remove this ethical evil from whatever scenario is occurring. It is no longer the monologue one exerting their will over another, but a dialogue between the parties. This dialogue can inspire empathy and understanding, and help to moralize the crimes being committed. In this way, consented theft may be called a gift.

    However, for those who value categorical ethics consent may not be enough. In Dudley’s scenario, for example, a categorical ethicist may still disagree with murder and cannibalism, things they see as moral wrong. A consequentialist may dismiss this argument, showcasing that the lives of 3 outweigh the lives of 1. Ultimately, consent serves as a blunting tool: reducing the seriousness of a moral offense, although perhaps not justifying it entirely.

  5. Thad says:

    Does a fair procedure justify any result?

    Take the mine worker as an example, the decision of pulling the track to the other way or let it stay on the main track may related to whatever motivation the decision maker had. But the consequences of whatever decision will lead to a certain death of either 5 or 1 persons which civilized society interpret as severe crime. So I think even with the positive motive, the result of the decision should be re-evaluated regardless.

    • kaustinstack says:

      We tend to simply live life assuming that there is a status quo to which we follow during any situation. Human interactions can range from murder for the act of cannibalism, theft, sexual encounters, or even a visit at someone else’s home. My eyes feel exposed to the relationship between all these things.

      I believe that no one person has a natural instinct on what should be legal or illegal. Though we do carry a sense of cause and effect and can feel what is socially right and wrong. Our experiences give us the ability to be empathetic. The feeling of relief when given consent does not come from knowing that you will not be punished, its the feeling of acceptance and a clean slate (at least in the current situation).

      As far as I’m concerned, morality comes from a general agreement that we care what others think of us.

  6. taraclarke says:

    What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?

    Many people felt that it would be morally permissible to murder the cabin boy had he given his consent before the murder took place. Receiving consent, in my opinion, does not make the act of killing the cabin boy any further morally justifiable, however, it does clear the conscience of the person committing the act. Anyone in their right mind, would feel some sense of remorse after being involved in a murder, which would explain why many of us would be willing to commit the crime if consent was given. Receiving consent does nothing to change the fact that a murder is taking place as at the end of the day, the cabin boy is dead. It does, however,quite selfishly, clear the conscience of the person committing the murder.

  7. aileen4 says:

    Hi so I just thought I’d add my own opinion to the mix.
    Does a fair procedure justify any result? For this to even be questioned, the whole concept of “fair” should actually be applied. Through living life, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are in fact certain situations that present “fairness”; e.g.) everyone starting a race at the exact same time. But more so we will find instances where it isn’t even possible to think of things as fair. Actually, let me re-word that. It is possible to imagine life in a manner where our everyday situations are fair, but actually achieving that idea isn’t possible at all. The reason for this? Well, it’s the same reason why it’s so difficult to achieve a “just life”. Discrimination, oppression, racism, just to name a few. If negative ideas weren’t part if the equation, I feel like we would infect find results. If that was the case, an african american teenage boy wouldn’t fear for his life when walking alone in a wealthy neighbourhood. Or when I’m taking the bus alone at night, I wouldn’t have to stare out the window because I’m too afraid to make eye contact with a stranger. Unfortunately this is just the world we live in. And yes, there probably is things we can do to fix these issues. But who’s going to do them?


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