Justice Goes Global

Mention Michael J. Sandel’s popular course “Justice,” and most Harvard students will probably picture the dark wooden grandeur of Sanders Theatre.

But “Justice” has found a home not only in Memorial Hall. With the launch of duplicate courses in Beijing and Tokyo, Sandel’s curriculum designed to introduce students to major philosphers and provoke debate over moral questions has gone international.

Through the aid of technology and of simultaneous translation, “Justice” students in three countries now debate ethical dilemmas in real time with each other as well.

Eight students apiece from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, the University of Tokyo in Japan, and Harvard take part in the global discussion by video chat. The ensuing intercultural discussion is televised by NHK, the national television network of Japan. Five episodes of the show have been taped so far.

“Justice” has become such a craze in China that China Newsweek named Sandel the “most influential foreign figure” of the year in 2011 and audiences across East Asia scalp tickets to hear him speak, according to a column in the New York Times.

Sandel has visited the “Justice” classes in Tokyo and Beijing. In an email, he wrote that his goal in expanding the reach of his curriculum “is to foster global discussion of philosophical questions that bear on contemporary issues, and to promote learning across cultures.”

The same sort of ethical debates that take place in Sanders Theatre are conducted abroad, Sandel wrote, and the foreign universities have mimicked Harvard’s use of teaching fellows and weekly discussion sections to teach the course.

Shalini K. Rao ’12, one of the eight Harvard students who participates in the televised class, said that the idea of working with student who had a “different cultural thesis” enticed her to join the international discussion after taking “Justice” at Harvard.

“It’s not okay to assume that everyone in the room thinks that torture is wrong. It’s not automatic to assume that everyone will know where you’re coming from if you’re speaking on your intuition,” said Rao, who is also a Crimson editorial writer.

According to Sandel, the transnational class has discussed ethical dilemmas that arose from the Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster last year; issues of justice in fighting terrorism; inequality, taxation, and distributive justice; and the moral limits of markets over its first five sessions.

“They aren’t Chinese problems, they aren’t Japanese problems, they aren’t American problems. They’re fundamentally human ones that we all face,” said participant Duc P. Luu ’12.

Luu said that he has been pleased to find that he is able to see eye-to-eye with his fellow students in the video-linked class despite the oceans, languages, and time zones that separate them.

“We have been surprised again and again,” Luu said, “by how much common ground we’ve been able to find.”

—Staff writer Amy Q. Friedman can be reached at afriedman@college.harvard.edu.

Tags