What is a life well-lived?

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 is a life well-lived?

Michael Sandel: Well a life well lived would be, it seems to me, first of all to include some element of reflection – critical reflection; what one believes about fundamental moral questions, about obligations to one’s fellow citizens and beyond. But it should be the kind of reflection that draws upon the moral traditions and histories that one inhabits. And so I don’t think there … there is a certain ideal of intercultural dialogue that people have that say, “Let’s try to precipitate out of all of our differences … the things we can agree on, and live by that commonality.” I think that’s a … commonality, because it doesn’t really connect very deeply with what people care about in the first place. So I think a life well lived is a life of reflection on one’s own moral convictions and traditions. And not only reflection in the sense of thinking, but also learning. You know, it’s not really possible to have a dialogue across civilizations or cultures unless the participants have some deep, serious understanding of their own traditions. That, I think, is the biggest obstacle now to understand … mutual understanding among civilizations and cultures. It’s not just that we don’t know enough about other societies. It’s that we don’t know enough about our own traditions to carry on a serious dialogue with different societies, different cultures, different religious faiths. So I think the life well lived depends on reflection and learning about one’s own traditions; and doing so in a way that has opened the door; … wider horizons. And so I think a life well lived, the shape of that, I think, can vary from one historical period to the next. Because if we go back to the theme in the city state, to be alive to the wider world …, that is what comparative politics or sociology consists of; then today, to reflect seriously on one’s own way of life with an openness to wider horizons requires being alive to the world as a whole; and to the Confusian tradition, and to the Islamic tradition, as well as to the Hindu and Christian and Jewish traditions; and to the secular enlightenment traditions. But I think it has to begin by a serious understanding of one’s own traditions; national traditions; religious traditions; historical traditions. And the reflection can proceed outward from there. And also, I suppose the other element to a life well lived is not just a matter of reflecting and attending to other ways of life; it’s also, I think, a life of active engagement in what the Greeks call “the life of the city”; today we would call it “the life of the world” … actual engagement and participation in civic life, whether it’s local, or whether it’s national, or whether it has some global dimension.

Recorded on: 6/12/07