Michael Sandel
Professor of Government, Harvard University

Has science undermined the place of philosophy?

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Michael Sandel discusses the idea of the prestige of rigor and the relationship between philosophy and science.

Michael Sandel

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. He is the author of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press), Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1996), Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2005), and The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, 2007). His writings have also appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The New York Times. The recipient of three honorary degrees, he has received fellowships from the Carnegie Corporation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ford Foundation. From 2002 to 2005, he served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics, a national council appointed by the President to examine the ethical implications of new biomedical technologies. A summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University (1975), Sandel received his doctorate from Oxford University (D.Phil.,1981), where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He lives with his wife and two sons in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Well there are two things that I’d like to say about that actually. One of them is the question of social science. What is the … What does political philosophy have to do with the prestige of science, especially as it’s played itself out within the social sciences? Today the most successful and the most prestigious social science is economics, because it’s seen as the most rigorous. It’s seen as . . . It’s thought – especially by many of its practitioners – to have arrived at a scientific understanding of human behavior, at least where market and market behavior are concerned. And in many ways, scientific understandings of economics detach from traditional normative questions. Traditional questions of value has a kind of momentum of its own, as if economics were a science or a discipline that had graduated from – risen above – a connection with mere speculation, which is what philosophers are sometimes thought to do. And there is something very … about that idea of economics as a science, even if you like physics, for example. But I think it’s a mistake. And I think it’s short-sighted. And I think the most important and creative work in the social sciences, in our lifetime and in the future, will be done by people who are equipped with economic training, and concepts, and categories; but who can see beyond it, and who can reconnect economics with what used to be called moral and political economy. You know, back in the days of Adam Smith, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, there was one subject: moral and political economy. There was not political philosophy on the one hand, and economics – “the science” – on the other. And I think that some of the most exciting developments and new work will consist in reconnecting the normative dimensions of moral and political theory with economic analysis. And we see this beginning in debates about globalization, for example, where the role of markets and normative questions seem very hard to leave by the wayside. So that’s one area, I think, in which the established social sciences will … are in need of a kind of leavening and deepening that can come if they reconnect with questions not only of policy, but also of values, and of norms, and of ideas.

Recorded on: 6/12/07


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