I watched the following hour (2 episodes), that addressed murder and cannibalism. The 1+ million views on youtube point to the exceptional quality of the lecture.


Is the death of 1 to save 5 right? When?
Is the death and consumption of 1 to save 3 (or 300) others, right? Under all, or any circumstances?

The lecturer was excellent at giving scenarios (real or fictional) and then encouraging further discussion – and he didn’t try to control it. He went where the students went. A great way of getting through a number of issues, and provoking further discussion. For those who are interested, I would recommend this just from the point of view of understanding how to host a group discussion!

This was incredible at provoking thought. The lecturer was spot on when he asked “Why is murder wrong?”. If you believe it is wrong only from an idea that in general it is best for the overall good of people, then what happens when you put it against another scenario also involving overall good?

The video is not really academic – it forms a suitable introduction to the issues at stake, so the students have a firm grounding in arguments on each side that when they then go and study they will learn a good deal for themselves.

My initial thoughts were that some of the students were afraid of bringing in their religious beliefs, but those were what was principally motivating their stance. Honestly, how else do you argue that murder is always wrong? I can’t see any other way of doing so, unless you hold to a belief in absolute truth.
I would like to see students standing up and saying “I believe this because I believe in an absolute moral standard set down by a sovereign God”. I think this to be a far stronger, actually, the strongest argument. I don’t think this to be simplistic, or held to because it’s easier than considering the issue (really, believing God is sovereign isn’t less effort).

To take another argument based on overall good.

If the state provides healthcare – and some people are a particularly heavy burden (for example requiring life-long healthcare), if you hold to the belief that you do what’s best for the most people, then it’s easier on everyone else if you get rid of them.

This is an illustration, but I see it as morally wrong because I see the murder of any life made in the image of God as wrong. If you don’t see life as made in the image of God, if you don’t believe in God as lawgiver, then why is it wrong?

3 thoughts on “Harvard Justice: Lecture 1 – Murder and Cannibalism

  1. If you want to answer the question “Why is murder wrong?”, maybe you need to define “murder” first? The Oxford dictionary syas that murder “is the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another”. The important part of that is unlawful – immediately that is enough reason for deontologists (many people) to say that murder is wrong. If you define murder as “killing”, that distinction is not so clear.

    Revisiting the original question, I’ve realised it is actually a loaded question – it is not asking whether murder is wrong, it is stating that it is wrong, and asking for what reason it is.

    As a consequentialist I’d argue that murder is not always wrong, if it is committed for the greater good. But then for it to be murder it must be unlawful, and if it truly is for the greater good (killing a rampaging gunman in a school) then maybe it isn’t murder but just killing?

    It’s a blury line, and that’s before we’ve even got started on war…. 😉

    (By the way I’ve not yet watched the video above)


  2. I don’t have any real disagreement with what you’re saying about a distinction between murder and killing, Richard; what I’m rather wrestling with is who defines the law, and what gives them the right to do so.


  3. Have to say that I am disappointed with the answers of most of the students, I know they are hard questions, maybe the smart ones just knew they were unanswerable, but for all the reputation Harvard has, based on their answers that could have been a room full of students from Coatbridge collage.
    I wonder if the difference between the examples in L1 is that in the first track situation all involved were aware of the danger of working on the track and had consented thereto.
    Whereas in both the ‘fat man’ & ‘transplant’ examples those involved where not aware of what could befall them and had not consented to the risk of being thrown over the bridge/having vital organs stolen.

    It is much easier to justify a negative action upon someone who has consented to the risk of the action taking place, than upon someone who has not.

    However, I don’t think this hypothesis is quite the full story. It wouldn’t stand if both parties were unconcented.


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