Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Harvard is putting the lectures (and other materials) online for a fantastic course, Justice, taught by Michael Sandel. It's a class on moral reasoning, exactly the sort of thing you'd hope a college freshman or sophomore would take to get them thinking about how to think. For years, it has been one of the most popular courses at Harvard. It is billed as "the first course Harvard has ever made available to everyone, online and on the air." (The lectures will, I understand, also be appearing on public television.)

I can vouch for the class, since I indeed took it as a sophomore, some large number of years ago. I can also vouch for it in that I've watched the first lecture online, and the production quality is extremely high. Funnily enough, the first lecture was exactly as I remember it 20 years ago -- the script hasn't changed that much. (If you watch the lecture, you'll see the examples are quite memorable -- I honestly do remember them from when I took the class. But I won't spoil them for you here.) I'm going to watch all the lectures, and see how the class stands up after all these years. I hope you'll join in for some of the fun.


Mosharaf Chowdhury said...

Thanks... This is awesome!

JeffE said...


(But I really expected someone to propose suicide as a potential solution to the first dilemma.)

Daniel Lemire said...

Broadcasting lectures on TV is hardly new (the BBC was doing it in the seventies), but this is nice and very powerful. The integration of the entire set inside a web site really makes a difference. Whereas even the best televised lectures are boring, this is a fun because you can take pieces of it and then revisit them at will! And you see people discussing the solutions on the online forum.

This is great learning.

Andy D said...

Thanks for the link... as the promo trailer suggests, Sandel might just have some serious potential as an unconventional day-time talk-show host. (Not that he should necessarily aspire to that.)

I've read one of his essay collections, 'Public Philosophy', and found it also to be interesting and quite accessible.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the link, interesting.

A question: is there any research on 'computational limits' in morality?

What i mean is that we see many papers in the interface of computer science and economy saying 'well equilibrium is great but can we compute it? if not what should we do etc ....'

So I was thinking along the line of 'well the utilitarian view of morality is great, but we can't compute the long term utilities -
so for example maybe torturing/killing a potential terrorist is good but we can't compute the long term consequences.
Therefore we apply local 'heuristics' which serve as moral rules, like that murder is bad, people should be treated equally etc.