The big questions.


I was delighted this week to discover Michael Sandel Professor of Philosophy and Government at Harvard’s Law School, where he teaches a wildly popular course called “Justice”. In this course, Sandel asks the big questions: Is it right to take from the rich and give to the poor? Is it right to legislate personal safety? Can torture ever be justified? He also asks questions of the digital age These are the issues with which I wrestle. A recent article in FastCompany, highlighted some of these: “Should we try to live forever? Buy our way to the head of the line? Create perfect children?” In a recent blog, I asked a similar question: Is it a human right to have everything that you want?

Sandel’s questions are about ethics and making his students think about the tough questions that we confront every day and the tough issues that are looming in the future. Some of these are accelerating toward us at an alarming pace. Privacy, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology are also on his list.

To the students at Harvard, Sandel is probably a celebrity. Sandel has a long list of credentials, including TED talks, and a best-selling book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do. Nevertheless, I just discovered him this week, and I’m particularly pleased. Sandel is raising the kinds of questions that I try to do through my design fiction. His class is provoking the same discussion and debate that I work toward not only with design students but also the public at large.

Most often we do not like to grapple with these questions. It is one of the challenges of The Lightstream Chronicles. An explicit goal of my story to get people to think about the future, but thinking is optional. We have the option view the story as entertainment, purely for its story value without considering the underlying themes. It is one of the reasons that I have begun to pursue additional, more “guerrilla” oriented design fictions.

Back to the FastCo article, Sandel agrees that these discussions happen too infrequently. He gives a couple of reasons (sorry for the long quote, but he’s dead-on).

“There are two obstacles to having these conversations. One is that we have very few public venues and occasions for serious discussion of these questions… It’s very hard to have the kind of reasoned discussion of these big ethical questions without creating opportunities to do that.

The second obstacle is that we have a tendency in our public life to shy away from hard, controversial moral questions…We have a fear of moral judgment and moral argument because we know we live in pluralist societies where people disagree about values and ethics. There’s a tendency to believe that our public life could be neutral on those questions.

But I think that’s a mistaken impulse.”

Sandel goes on to suggest that the public has a “great hunger” for these philosophical, moral and ethical questions. I agree. Through my work and research, I hope to provoke some of these discussions and perhaps the public venues and occasions to hold them.

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