Michael Sandel
Professor of Government, Harvard University

Where does our instinct for philosophy come from?

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Humans have a yearning to think beyond themselves.

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: Where does our instinct for philosophy come from?

Michael Sandel: I think it comes … I think the hunger for public life of larger meanings comes from the fact that it’s not easy to create a life wholly within the terms of individual self-interest or self-seeking. Or even a life of individual … individualism plus family life. There is, I think, a desire on the part of most people – especially those of us who are fortunate to live in democratic societies – not just to cultivate our own garden and to live a comfortable family life, but also to participate in shaping the courses that govern our collective thought; and to have a say – a meaningful say – in the collective destiny. And once we’re pitched into a wider civic life … once we lift our gaze from our own private pursuits and the well-being of our families to the … to the public, or to the common good, then the values we care about … the hopes and aspirations we have for the common good will unavoidably follow. Now some political philosophies say we should keep … we should try to cabin or bracket our deepest moral and spiritual convictions … our vision of the best way to live a life. “Keep those in the private sphere” – within our families, within our churches, synagogues, mosques – and live a public life that is casting holy, secular, universalist terms. But I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t even think it’s even necessarily desirable to insist that many women who care deeply about moral and sometimes religious questions park those convictions at the side of the road before entering the public sphere. It’s not possible, in many cases, to decide public questions, public controversy, without drawing on some substantive moral conviction. But I also think there is … I think it … life.  

Recorded on: 6/12/07


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