Harvard Justice: Lecture 1 – Murder and Cannibalism

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?

Knuth @ Glasgow

It was more a Q&A than a lecture, but I was seriously impressed with a lot of what Knuth had to say.

Rob Irving got polynomial time alg for stable marriages after reading a paper by Knuth in French posing the problem, so he got a mention & asked a Q. David Manlove asked if P=NP.

Other questions I remember were on functional programming (meh, not for my work, said he [I paraphrase]), literate programming (greatest thing since sliced bread but not picked up like Tex has been), what has been his greatest contribution (alg analysis), should we learn assembly (yes), is computing art or science (art is man made, as in artificial, science is what we know), book recommendation (Princeton Algs book by Bob Segewick), how he communicates/teaches so well (say everything twice [or in two different ways], have jokes that won’t be understood unless the technical point is understood).

He said one of his chapters was called “utility functions” and that then evolved into one on arithmetic. I often have a class in my programs full of static methods called “UtilityFunctions” that have no home; a phd student commented to me that he “liked it, but it’s not very Java-like”, but so what, Knuth agrees with me :).

He’s just published a collection of papers called “Papers on fun and games”. He’s worked hard, and turned out so much. What I noticed was that his brain seems to be always on, and thinking, and he really explores what he is thinking.