Student Blog: What Trade-offs Would You Make for the Good Society?

The Seminal Readings course forms a special part of the ALU student experience. For six weeks in a student’s first year, the community dives into intense readings and provocative discussion. In the process, they sharpen their critical thinking and analysing skills and explore questions that all leaders grapple with. In the first two weeks of Seminal Readings the entire community pauses – there are no classes or other responsibilities – and students immerse themselves in the course and come together as an intellectual community. Each day during this second week of Seminal Readings, students will share reflections on the texts and their journey.

On Day 3 of the Seminal Readings we continue our analysis of texts and small group discussions on what defines a Good Society. Today we looked at The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel. For this particular discussion, we explore the kind of trade-offs we as leaders and citizens of the world must grapple with in order to develop this “Good Society” we aim to have.

Le Guin’s piece was a personal favorite. It paints the picture of a paradise where every citizen of this society is extremely happy with no worries. However, this happiness is solely based on the torture of a child who is somewhere between the ages of six and ten. This concept of decision-making that aims to produce the most good is known as utilitarianism, a term coined by Jeremy Bentham. As we dissected this piece in my small group discussion, we realised that in this system of leadership, being in a good state or being “happy” comes down to the satisfying the needs or wants of the majority. But are these terms morally acceptable? Is utilitarianism a system of leadership we should strive to emulate in its entirety?

Many of the questions that were shared from the start of the discussion, and still linger include “is it okay to put away your values, or better still, your morality for the greater good of the society? As a human being, does that make you happy? Do you want the 21st century Africa to uphold these concepts? Is this a concept we should even deem as a tool to building a Good Society?” After the discussion, I came to the conclusion that morality should not be based on numbers. Every individual has the right to live and to self-actualize, that is, to fulfill one’s talent and potentialities . There should be no point in any society where the pleasure of the majority overrides the well-being of another member of society because that is inhumane.

Sandel presented a similar approach to Le Guin. He presents different scenarios of different societies where hard trade-off decisions were made. Through this chapter, he is able to shed light on an interesting perspective of utilitarianism. In one of the scenarios, there is rumour of a ticking time bomb. You, the reader are the head of the local CIA branch and you have captured a terrorist suspect who you believe has some information about the device that is suspected to go off in Manhattan later the same day. This suspect refuses to admit that he is a terrorist. Would it be right to torture him until he tells you where the bomb is and how to disarm it?

In the utilitarianism approach, torture would be the way to go because his “ unwilling sacrifice” could potentially benefit the majority of the society. The suspected terrorist would provide the CIA with the relevant information and the device would be disarmed. However, let us look at the other side of this. He could be a father and may have planted the device to get money to save his family. Should he still be tortured? In the discussion, we realised that in this imperfect society we live in now, this trade-off of pleasure over pain has to be made in order to maximize the collective utility. Even though, he is a suspected terrorist, this process just shows us that the rights of individuals and in this case, the minority, have to be stepped on. As leaders, Sandel’s publication causes us to think about what we, as citizens and leaders, prioritize in structuring the Good Society which we want to live in. Should trade-offs happen in an ideal society? And most importantly, as the next generation of African leaders, what do we deem as morally upright trade-offs for us to make in pursuing the good and ideal society?

I have thoroughly enjoyed these discussions of what the Good Society is because as leaders we need to be able to understand the group or community we are working with, in order to know how best we can be exceptional leaders.

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