What do you believe?

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.
  • Transcript


Question: What do you believe?

Michael Sandel: Well if I were to describe my political philosophy, I would say that is has two dimensions, two aspects. One of them is that it’s a mistake for those who wind up on top in market societies like ours to think that the benefits that flow from the exercise of their talent in a market society are somehow theirs; that they’re morally deserved; that they’re somehow a reflection of their superior virtue. And so if we look at the inequalities within American society that even the graver, more dramatic inequalities around the world, I think the greatest moral challenge of our time is to try to try to bring to bear the enormous affluence that a great many very fortunate people have achieved around the world to address the crushing poverty in which a great many people around the world live. I think that generations from now, we will look back on our time and ask, and wonder how we could have abided so … how we could have permitted crushing poverty to afflict so many people in many parts of the world when there was such staggering wealth. So that would be my first – the gap between the rich and the poor on a global basis. And the second would be that … well it goes back to something that we’ve been discussing, which is it’s not possible or desirable, I don’t think, to create a compelling public philosophy – whether it’s within the United States, or whether it’s a global public ethic – that can inform, and animate, and inspire our relation with societies around the world. I don’t think it’s possible to create that by trying to extract from our particular cultures, moral traditions, and religious faiths. I think that the way to a global public ethic – or for that matter to a … society within the United States is not to try to extract from the deep differences, and moral and spiritual convictions that we find … . Instead, I think with that global public ethic, it has to be created from … by drawing upon those particular traditions, and cultures, and faiths; not to find one very thin strand that’s some kind of a common denominator. That would be very thin and unsatisfying to everyone. It’s like trying to design a universal prayer that would offend no one if it were to be said on sentimental occasions or in schools. Not that; but a global public effort that draws on and contends with the rich particular traditions – cultural, moral, and religious traditions – that locate people in the world; that give them a sense of place in the world. So that would be the … the second ingredient, or the second feature of what I suppose I would call my public philosophy or political philosophy … .

Recorded on: 6/12/07