Michael Sandel
Professor of Government, Harvard University

Self-government for a Modern Age

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We don't live in small city-states anymore and so must craft a form of governance suited to a global order, says Michael Sandel.

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.

Question: What do you see as the greatest challenge of the modern age?

Michael Sandel: My teaching and writing, taken together, are about the shape and condition of our public life; about the prospect of self-government under modern conditions; and about the challenges and obstacles that the project itself … faces in a global age. And I think that there are two primary obstacles. One of them has to do with the scale of the global economy. Going all the way back to Aristotle, political thinkers had often thought that effective self-government and citizenship has to have its roots in very particular places. In Aristotle’s case, that meant a … But we don’t live in small city states anymore. We live in a world where the economy is governed by global forces. And so the question is, can we devise institutions and practices of self-government that enable men and women to be effective citizens in a world where the …, between nations even, are eroding in significance? So that’s, I suppose, the biggest challenge.

And a second challenge is something that really is the power and the momentum behind markets and market-oriented ways of thinking. The specific project has always depended on finding … on finding ways of keeping markets in their place, in their proper sphere … which has to do with the buying, and selling, and trading of good and commodities. And in contemporary life, what we find is that markets are spilling over their traditional spheres and boundaries and invading other parts of life that are properly governed by their values. So one of the things I’m trying to think about is how we can develop public effort that can demarcate the proper bounds markets, which are great tools that, too often, come to be regarded as ends in and of themselves.

Recorded on: 6/12/07


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