What would you include in a citizen’s guide to justice? An outline of citizens’ legal rights? Details of the legal aid system? Or a list of the names of all the teenagers murdered in 2009 and a series of abridged lectures from an introductory course in moral philosophy?
BBC4 has opted for the latter. It’s running a season of programmes entitled ‘Justice—A Citizen’s Guide,’ exploring justice from the points of view of perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of injustice, as well as judges, philosophers, and members of the public. Some of these have been fascinating. The Highest Court In The Land, for instance, interviewed four of the Justices of the new UK Supreme Court, who revealed themselves to be personable, thoughtful, and almost touchingly in awe of the law that they themselves administer. Others have been gruelling: Scenes from a Teenage Killing chronicled the death of every teenager murdered in 2009. Interviews exposed not only the hopelessness and deep sadness that murder leaves in its wake but also the divisions between people that even such a terrible episode may not prompt them to heal.
The season’s centrepiece, though, is a series of introductory lectures in moral philosophy, given by the Harvard Professor and 2009 Reith lecturer, Michael Sandel (Prospect interview here). These lectures appeal to our judgments about unlikely or extreme hypothetical situations (fat men being pushed onto the tracks to halt runaway trams, murderous axemen asking the whereabouts of their intended victims) in order to draw out competing moral theories. Sandel is an excellent lecturer, eliciting arguments and opinions from his students in order to build an overall picture with the skill of a maestro conducting an orchestra. This makes the programmes an enjoyable spectacle even apart from the philosophical content. Unfortunately, the BBC is showing only half of the lectures in the series, which has made for some jarring references to issues covered in the unseen lectures. (The complete series is available, as it happens, here) All the same, these are an excellent introduction to the debates and methods of contemporary moral philosophy.
Sandel also kicked off BBC4’s season, less successfully, with a debate on fairness and the Big Society. This felt like Question Time, only without…