The Tab Meets: Prof Michael Sandel

HANNAH GRAHAM talks to Professor Michael Sandel about the importance of discomfort, morality and the pitfalls of markets.

hannah graham harvard market economy market society michael sandel moral philosophy what money can't buy

Professor Michael Sandel, professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard, sees being a philosopher as more than just residing in an ivory tower and theorising about possible worlds (N.B. I study philosophy, so am totally allowed to say this).

'What is a good hospital?' … Michael Sandel

He emphasises the importance of encouraging public discussion over political issues. His trademark sharp, witty style was on display at the Union on Monday. If you missed it, you missed out.

With his career as ‘the public philosopher’ in mind, I ask Sandel about the importance of encouraging an awareness of philosophy beyond the academic sphere.

“Philosophy,” he tells me, “is more than just an academic subject, it can be a way of becoming more reflective about our own lives and, in the case of political philosophy, about civic life… Political philosophy should be discussed and debated by citizens generally, not just scholars and academics.”

Michael Sandel - 'the public philosopher'

Michael Sandel: ‘the public philosopher’

Elsewhere, Sandel has written that philosophy’s insistence on cynical questioning of fundamental beliefs can make it an uncomfortable subject. Certainly, some of Sandel’s own public discussions – such as the potential morality of murder, or whether rape is really morally worse than other violent crime – encourage viewers and participants to challenge their ethical intuitions, sometimes leading to surprising and even shocking conclusions. I wonder whether he thinks this explains why philosophy can be seen as an inaccessible, cumbersome subject.

On the contrary, he tells me, “It explains the allure and appeal of philosophy, precisely because it leads us to question assumptions, conventions and our own convictions. It makes us uncomfortable, but this discomfort is a price well worth paying because it can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our societies.” Pedantry does have a place in the world after all.

The conversation turns to Sandel’s latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, the subject of his talk at the Union that evening. In it, he expounds the view that we are living in a ‘market society’ where the market dynamic is allowed to bleed into every aspect of public and personal life. The conventional view in economics is that markets are morally neutral – there is no difference between the moral character of a good or service that is sold or of that, which is given away for free.

'What Money Can't Buy' on the all-pervading nature of the market economy

‘What Money Can’t Buy’ looks at the all-pervading nature of the market economy

By contrast, Sandel’s talk brought out the common belief that many actions seem to become less moral when performed as the result of a financial incentive. Examples offered included offering children cash to read more books; paying for blood donation; introducing tradable quotas to encourage states to accept refugees. These actions, he argues, lose their intrinsic moral status once they can be paid for, since we will only perform them if offered a sufficiently hefty lump sum.

I ask Sandel how a society that makes use of a market economy, but is not corrupted by it, would work, rather than a market society. Surely markets have an interest in making sure as much is for sale as possible and the two – market economy and market society – cannot be separated?

“It is possible, but very difficult, to preserve the benefits of a market economy without sliding into the moral and civic costs associated with market societies,” he replies. “One way we can do this is to be alive to the distinction between them. A market economy is a tool… for organising productive activity. A market society is… a way of life where market values… are allowed into discussions about personal relations, family life, health education and civic life. They can crowd out or corrupt non-market values worth caring about.”


So, Sandel claims, “deciding where market values belong is a task not only for economists, but for political philosophy and ultimately, for citizens…Access to higher education… should be a public good, not merely a private privilege.” I imagine I’m speaking for a lot of debt-ridden students in agreeing with this last sentiment.

Here at The Tab, we may not be able to alter such deference towards money nor the market values of education, but I’m pretty sure our comment section is an excellent forum for the public debate that Sandel stresses as being so key.

Bring it on, A Sensitive Scholar – Michael Sandel would be proud.