An interview with Harvard professor Michael Sandel

Professor Michael Sandel, photo: Wikimedia Commons
Professor Michael Sandel, photo: Wikimedia Commons
Professor Michael Sandel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

St Andrews Citizen: Do you have any input into some of the issues in Scotland and Fife at the moment – are you aware of the forthcoming referendum in Scotland? Do you have any comment?

Michael Sandel: I do think it’s fascinating, in a number of countries around the world there are a number of independence movements, and the future of the nation-state is increasingly being questioned; paradoxically in the age of globalization. There are more and more movements for forms of self-determination more particular than what nation-states can provide, so this worldwide trend may reflect the fact that countries and peoples are wrestling with notions of collective identity at a point where the globalizing impulses of our time may prompt people to think about forms of identity that are less expansive than global institutions can provide. So power is increasingly is moving beyond the nation-state or global institutions, but at the same time there are movements to relocate aspects of decision-making closer to home.

SAC: Do you think perhaps globalization is reaching a tipping point, wherein people are feeding globalization and looking for a label they can relate to?

MS: Yes. There are certain important purposes for which we do need to cultivate global identities, for example to contend with climate change; we need to build and strengthen a global ethic, a sense of shared responsibility, for the purposes of the planet.  So for some purposes we need more universal identities, but at the same time we can’t live our lives only with universal global identities. We need forms of identity closer to home, and I think this is reflected around the world in various attempts to work this out.

The Saint: The question of identity is an interesting one; much of the response to the independent movement in Scotland by the Conservative government has been in economic arguments: you can keep the pound, which is better for you, you have unrestricted access to English capital, which is good for you, so in a way they are responding to questions of identity with economic arguments, what’s in your rational self-interest. At what point do you think interests of identity overcome or transcend economic or rational interests?

MS: I wouldn’t attach the adjective ‘rational’ to economic questions alone – I think other social and political impulses besides economic ones can also be rational. I would not reserve rational for purely market or economic arguments. But I think make a good observation, that it’s a mistake to try to cast the debate about independence in strictly economic terms alone, just based on the sense that I have talking to people and following the debate. My impression, from a distance, admittedly, is that economic arguments by themselves will not decide this question. Questions of identity need to be addressed by both sides.

SAC: As you might be aware, St Andrews is celebrating its 600th anniversary as an amazing institution, but it also stands accused of elitism in some respect – related to your talk, what shouldn’t money be allowed to buy – it may the case that institutions that have this reputation are providing something that money is buying. It has incredibly high entrance standards, and it has started cherry-picking the best from the schools if they apply from the comprehensive secondary school system. But there is the argument that for someone to achieve that standard the children have to be tutored, which requires money that is over and above the services provided by the state.

MS: Before coming to that question, am I right in thinking that in Scotland, university is free?

SAC: Yes.

MS: That seems to me a very important principle that leans against tendencies of elitism. It is true that admissions standards are demanding, and so any selective university that has high admissions standards, including my own, could be said in that sense to be ‘elite.’ The question of fairness that you raise is really about how fair is the opportunity of students to compete for places. I think providing free tuition is one of the most important measures of fair opportunity. There are relatively few places in the world that provide free university tuition. This is a precious tradition and gift, and it’s quite unusual. But then there is, as you say, still the question about whether people from all economic backgrounds can compete fairly to achieve the standards required for admission. This is a problem everywhere where students apply to university, and achieving genuine fair and equal opportunity depends on the strength of the state schools that equip students to compete for places; this is admittedly a challenge but it is challenge faced by every country with universities that have demanding  entrance standards.

The Stand: I was interested in the main goal of the talk; if it is to sort of instill morals and give a framework to a relatively individualistic market like the finance sector which inherently gains on other people’s losses, is it not trying to instill morals on something which is inherently immoral?

MS: Part of your question might be addressed in the lecture itself; but what I hope will become clear is that it’s not that I’m trying to instill morals in the people who come, or in the financial sector… It may be difficult, but that is not my primary goal. My primary goal is to help prompt public reflection and debate on what should be the role of money and markets in our society.

So even before we get to the question of whether or not we can instill morals in the financial sector, we have to ask what should be the role of finance in a good society. What should be its relation to what is often called the ‘real economy’, wherein people make and produce and buy and sell goods and services… My own view is that this is the great ‘missing debate’ in contemporary politics. My own view is that this is the great missing debate in contemporary politics. We’ve not thought about nor debated explicitly that very question, during a time when the role of markets and of market thinking have come to dominate more and more aspects of life. So that’s mainly what I am trying to do, and once we answer those broader questions, we may be in a position to ask whether or not we can instill ethical behavior in the financial industry, and do we need stronger regulations on financial markets. Those are important questions but I am mainly suggesting we need to step back and ask an even broader question: what the role of markets should be.

The Saint: Building off of that, in your book, you give a good example. You give the example of people paying others to wait in line for them. What’s most piercing about that example is what they are waiting in line for – they are waiting in line to observe a Congressional hearing. So something that is quite a civic honor, to witness and interact with your democracy, that civic experience has been commoditized. From an ethical intuition we can see why that’s problematic, when people who can pay can get greater civic access, and that may decay those values. But what argument would you propose to people who might say that both people in this scenario are leaving that transaction happy?

MS: Well, just because two consenting adults make a deal to buy or sell something because they believe it will make each of them better off, doesn’t mean that arrangement is rational or morally defensible, because it’s a moral and civic question. So the mere fact that people make a voluntary exchange in market settings doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good or just thing – unless you believe, as some pure laissez-faire free-market economists maintain, that markets by themselves can define justice or the common good. I think that’s a mistaken assumption that we’ve not questioned closely enough in recent decades. It’s a kind of faith, really, the market faith that whatever results from market exchanges must be just or that market mechanics are the primary instrument for defining and achieving the public good. It’s that assumption that I am questioning, and that I think we need to question in our public debate.

The Saint: You also see these phenomena in the news media; in the US you have Fox News on the right, which has their niche market, and you have MSNBC on the left, which also has their niche market, and they have programming that appeals to people’s political beliefs. So even public debate has been commoditized in that people are sold what they want to hear, because that brings in advertising revenue.

MS: That’s exactly right.

The Saint: That’s a very powerful force. How do you think you could encourage a debate that would change people’s behavior in what they choose to consume? Or, alternatively, make those who sell the good restrain themselves by some notion of journalistic integrity?

MS: Speaking first about politics, I think money plays too big a role in politics. This is especially true in the US, where the Supreme Court has struck down laws were intended to limit the amount of money, at least to some degree, in political campaigns, on the grounds that money is speech, that it is a violation of free speech…The result is that huge amounts of money, from special interests, can flow to political campaigns and candidates. This essentially puts politics and policy up to the highest bidder. The Supreme Court has made these rulings in the name of freedom of speech. They think that campaign expenditures represent a kind of speech – which, I think, is a mistake, and as a result, money dominates politics to a greater and greater degree.

You mention the media. The answer to dealing with this is, I think, will vary from country to country – but I think in the US, we should require the networks to provide free television time to candidates to get their message out. That would limit the role of money; much of the money is spent on procuring television time. But I think you ask a broader question, Tom, about whether journalism has been commoditized, turned into an extension of the market. I think that there are a number of ways to try to deal with this; one is to try to build up public non-commercial broadcasting systems, of which Britain has a strong tradition of doing in the BBC. In the US we don’t have that tradition unfortunately, so more of the television coverage is market-driven in the way you say…Where there are commercial networks, requiring they provide free time to candidates and parties is another way of limiting the reach of markets in this way. We in the US have certainly struggled with this problem, have failed to solve it adequately, and its corrupting our politics…I also think the media has a higher responsibility to regard public affairs and news coverage not just as a way of gaining ratings but also a public service. This really goes to the purpose of news, newspapers, and of television and radio media. If you look at the history of journalism it’s a constant struggle between the journalistic ethic to report the truth so citizens can be informed in their judgments, and the market aspects of journalism.

SAC: You’ve been described as having a following like a rock star, which is unusual for an academic or a philosopher. What do you think causes this kind of appeal, what is different about your appeal?

MS: Well, I invite the audience in the lectures to be participants, to respond to questions. I don’t just lecture at them from a text. It will be an opportunity for the students and the other participants to engage in discussion… I think it’s partly the subject matter. The subject I teach is political philosophy; in some ways it’s an abstract subject…but, they are topics that bear very directly on the lives we live and the debates we have every day. So I try to connect those big questions of political philosophy with very concrete arguments and debates and ethical dilemmas that we face in our personal lives and public life. What I find is that around the world there is a great hunger to engage in public discussion and debate about big questions that matter. Including questions of values and ethics.

One of the reasons I feel there is this hunger is that for the most part is that people don’t feel like they are getting it from politicians and political parties. I think in democracies everywhere there’s a frustration with politics and political parties, and I think the reason for this is that public discourse in recent decades has been empty. It’s been hollowed out of larger meaning. Political discourse is given over to narrow, technocratic, managerial talk, going back to your point about much of the debate over Independence being focused on economic talk. It doesn’t really address big questions about justice, equality and inequality, the common good, and what it means to be citizen. These are the big questions, and they are questions of values that people want public life to be about. So these lectures try to provide an occasion for reasoning together about these big questions, and I think that’s what people have responded to.


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