The Beaver: Michael Sandel the public philosopher

The first thought that popped into my head when Michael Sandel walked onto the stage to deliver his lecture at the LSE was that he looks nothing like Mr Burns! According to urban legend, the Harvard Professor of Political Philosophy was the inspiration for Montgomery Burns of the Simpsons, Homer’s evil boss and owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant, who has the habit of bribing nuclear safety inspectors. In one episode he even blocked out the sun to force the residents of Springfield to use more electricity.  The legend that Sandel might have served as a template for Mr Burns stems from the fact that several Simpsons writers took Sandel’s course on Justice as Harvard undergraduates. However, many argue that the only characteristic they share is a receding hairline.

In fact, Sandel could not be any more different than the amoral Mr Burns. Sandel is a Professor who has spent most of his life disseminating ideas of justice. He is basically the Anti-Burns. Sandel’s aforementioned course on Justice has brought him worldwide recognition. Every year, over one thousand undergraduates crowd together in Harvard’s largest lecture theatre to attend Sandel’s lectures. Some even have to be turned away due to the popularity of the course. Consequently, it was turned into an online lecture series and broadcast on television in the US. Instead of lecturing, Sandel facilitates dialogue between members of the audience. No PowerPoint. No notes. He calls it a “civic experiment in public philosophy” as he picks people who raise their hands in response to a series of his questions on political issues.

In his lecture at the LSE, Sandel addressed the issue of whether huge income gaps can ever be fair. During a period of recession, when public spending is cut and bonuses are highly controversial, it is very topical to discuss this. The first point the audience discussed was the qualities which should determine pay. One participant suggested that income should depend on skill, intelligence and creativity. Three arguments were drawn out: justice and fair pay should depend either on 1) effort and hard work, 2) contribution to well-being or 3) the demands of the market (aggregated choices of consumers), e.g. if many fans choose to pay to see Rooney play for United, why shouldn’t he earn a lot? But the objection was raised that the talents you inherently possess are not reflective of your own achievement. So why should society discriminate against you by paying you significantly less if you were not born with epic football skills?

In the second part of the discussion, it was pointed out that markets do not pass judgement on the intrinsic value of activities. I was surprised that the intrinsic difference between the job of a nurse and that of a banker was only reflected upon one hour into the debate. One of the first thoughts I expected people to voice was that, put simply, one saves lives while the other makes money. The other thought I had when I saw the title of Sandel’s lecture was influenced by the fact that I had just come out of a brilliant lecture on gender representation by Shaku Banaji. I wondered whether the title of the lecture evoked the image of a male banker versus a female nurse. Interestingly, this issue of gender entered the discussion only few minutes into the debate.

Moreover, the point was raised that people start out in life from different levels of wealth and educational opportunity. Sandel suggested the following scenario: if we were able to ensure structures of advancement and equal opportunities for those from an underprivileged background, would that remove our objections to an income gap? Would a pay difference then be fair? Some said yes, while others said no because two dimensions of luck remain: firstly, our skills can still be regarded as a matter of good luck and, secondly, it is not guaranteed that society will value our particular talent or skill. Therefore, as Sandel concluded, we have drawn out different competing principles about what fairness means in relation to differences in income.

I had hoped to hear more of Sandel’s own philosophical theories and I would have preferred him to pinpoint the theories and concepts behind the discussion. However, this might not have appealed to a broader audience, which is the aim of his lecture series. Therefore, I was more fascinated with the delivery of his lecture than the content. Rarely have I experienced such a great facilitation of discussion. Sandel remembered the names of people in his audience, deserving of applause in itself. Throughout the lecture, Sandel came across as very humble and softly-spoken, despite being one of the dons in political philosophy.

Sandel’s lecture was a version of deliberative democracy. Through the dialogical method of Socrates, he connected common sense arguments with political philosophy. You might say that the downside to such a deliberative lecture is that you might end up hearing uninformed opinions and people speaking nonsense. This is a risk that Sandel is willing to take and is more than capable of handling in order to facilitate proper discussion. He succeeded in showing that political philosophy is not remote or abstract but instead transpires in our everyday understanding of politics. I wonder if participating in Sandel’s lecture will inspire me to spontaneously start a debate when I read his new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” on the Northern Line.

Originally published in the Beaver, March 2012

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