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TELEVISION Right thinking

Justice: A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century BBC4

University, began as he meant to go on: by asking tough hypothetical questions. Stopping ordinary shoppers, he asked them whether it would be right to torture a suspected ter- rorist to gain information that might stop a bomb going off on a plane. There was no con- sensus – but nor was there when he put similarly tricky problems to academics, judges and intellectuals. The title of this hour-long Open University co-production was misleading, but only slightly. It spent a lot of its time in the past, considering the different philosophies of three great thinkers: Bentham, Kant and Aristotle. But it showed how their different attitudes are mirrored in contemporary thinking, and applied them to difficult modern problems. Sandel took us first to see Jeremy Bentham’s


body, preserved as what Bentham called an “auto-icon” in a wooden cabinet at University College, London. Bentham’s utilitarian phi- losophy, defined here as a commitment to “the increase of pleasure and the diminution of pain”, is also still with us. Sandel invited the philosopher Peter Singer, who is happy to call himself a utilitarian, to stick up for it. On the face of it, Bentham is an attractive

figure. Seeking “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”, he supported decriminalisation of homosexuality and was interested in animal welfare. But he also wanted to pay people to take beggars off the streets and incarcerate them in workhouses, where their presence would not be so offensive to good citizens. In our own day, posited Sandel, Bentham would be in favour of a ban on the burka, if the majority wanted it. Singer agreed: “If a majority are made seriously unhappy… then the numbers ought to prevail.” “But what about religious liberty?” asked Sandel. “For a utilitarian,” replied Singer, “religious liberty is not an absolute.” Rights, he said, are some- thing we devise when they are conducive to the long-term benefit of everyone involved. If you believe in absolute rights, you’re bet-

ter off with Emmanuel Kant. Sandel took us to Germany and introduced us to a war reporter and intellectual named Carolin Emcke, whose travels have reinforced in her the Kantian view, reflected in the first line of the German constitution, that “human dignity is inviolable”. The German courts take a similar view. When a police chief threatened a kidnapper with torture unless he revealed the where- abouts of a missing 11-year-old boy (later found murdered), he was prosecuted for vio- lating the kidnapper’s rights. Emcke agreed with that decision. Her

24 | THE TABLET | 29 January 2011

rofessor Michael Sandel, a teacher of political philosophy at Harvard

Philosopher and Harvard University professor Michael Sandel: the big ethical questions

viewer, using theoretical cases to draw out the essence of the Kantian and utilitarian positions.

experiences in war zones have taught her that torturers use that kind of argument all the time. Singer, though, was prepared to entertain the idea. “I would say, what about the dignity of the child? As a utilitarian, I would say, if I can save the child and I don’t, I’m responsible for the child’s death.” At which point, the wily Sandel turned the

screw, asking whether, if the kidnapper still wouldn’t talk, it would be acceptable to torture his 14-year-old daughter to help with the per- suasion. “That would be a much harder case on the emotional level,” admitted Singer. He wouldn’t do it if it was a “one-on-one case”, he said. But if it meant getting information that would save 10 children, then torture might be the right thing, even of an innocent girl: “She’s innocent, but then so are the 10. It’s a matter of numbers in the end.” It looks bad, written down, and it sounded pretty bad when he said it: but no-one could accuse him of not thinking it through. Sandel proved an extremely skilful inter-

RADIO Desert island dish

Robinson Crusoe: Rescued Again BBC RADIO 4


he raw materials that filled up Glenn Mitchell’s spirited half-hour (classic chil-

dren’s TV series, a humdinger of a score, an archive crammed with reminiscence) were so compelling that it’s no disrespect to Mr Mitchell to say that it scarcely mattered who presented it: a funny-voice merchant from the Radio 4 comedy franchises would have made the enterprise zing. As it was, Mitchell brought a kind of nicely measured enthusiasm to the proceedings, together with such an animated group of 40-to-50-something interviewees that the general effect was as if the surviving members of the Black Hand Gang had been reunited four decades after the primary-school gates

As far as his own position goes, he seemed to take more sustenance from Aristotle, with his view of the political life as a means for developing better citizens. Travelling to Athens, he chatted amiably with a number of Greek academics, who reminded him that the ancient Greeks had no conception of individualism and individual liberty: etymo- logically, “idiot” comes from the word for “private person”. The important thing was to be a full, and positive participant in public life. (Rioting is not the same thing at all.) Back in London, he chatted to a couple of politicians of left and right, and attended a conference organised by London Citizens, an alliance of community organisations and faith groups campaigning for safer streets and the “living wage”. And from there it was on to David Cameron and his Big Society, to which Sandel seems well disposed. The idea may be 2,500 years old, but perhaps it shouldn’t be ruled out. John Morrish

shut behind them for the final time. To get maximum enjoyment out of Robinson Crusoe: Rescued Again, you prob- ably had to have been introduced to BBC children’s television sometime in the late 1960s, and then been fixated on its repeat schedules throughout the decade that fol- lowed. Screenings of the 13 black-and-white 25-minute episodes began in October 1965, with the last re-run as late as 1981. Along the way it seemed to have offered a formative teatime experience to everyone from Jarvis Cocker to the explorer Pen Hadow, both of whom chose it for Desert Island Discs. A series of videos, issued in the late 1990s, made the fortune of the entrepreneur who managed to track the tapes down to a Parisian lock-up.

If the late 1960s, as everyone here insisted, were the golden age of British children’s TV, then it was remarkable how much of the prod- uct had to be sourced from elsewhere. It was the era of Champion the Wonder Horse and Casey Jones(America) and The Flashing Blade and White Horses (France). Robinson Crusoe

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