Michael Sandel on the Partially Examined Life Podcast Talks About the Limits of a Free Market Society


Har­vard pro­fes­sor Michael J. Sandel is one of our most famous liv­ing philoso­phers. His course, Jus­tice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (avail­able via YouTube, iTunes, or Har­vard’s web page) has been enjoyed by more than 14,000 stu­dents over 30 years, and was recent­ly offered as a Mas­sive Open Online Course.

In July, the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast dis­cussed Sandel’s first (and most aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly influ­en­tial) book, 1982’s Lib­er­al­ism and the Lim­its of Jus­tice, in which he argued that soci­ety can’t be neu­tral with regard to claims about what the good life amounts to. Mod­ern lib­er­al­ism (by which he means the tra­di­tion com­ing from John Locke focus­ing on rights; this includes both Amer­i­ca’s cur­rent lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives) acknowl­edges that peo­ple want dif­fer­ent things and tries to keep gov­ern­ment in a mere­ly medi­at­ing role, giv­ing peo­ple as much free­dom as pos­si­ble.

So what’s the alter­na­tive? Sandel thinks that pub­lic dis­course should­n’t just be about peo­ple push­ing for what they want, but a dia­logue about what is real­ly good for us. He gives the famous exam­ple of the Nazis march­ing in Skok­ie. A lib­er­al would defend free speech, even if the speech is repel­lent. Sandel thinks that we can acknowl­edge that some speech is actu­al­ly per­ni­cious, that the inter­ests of that com­mu­ni­ty’s Holo­caust sur­vivors are sim­ply more impor­tant than the inter­ests of those who want to spread a mes­sage of hate.

You can lis­ten to the dis­cus­sion of Sandel’s views below or at the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life web­site:

A week lat­er, a fol­low-up episode brought Sandel him­self onto the pod­cast, pri­mar­i­ly to speak about his most recent book, What Mon­ey Can’t Buy: The Moral Lim­its of Mar­kets. A more pop­u­lar work, this book con­sid­ers numer­ous exam­ples of the mar­ket soci­ety gone amok, where every­thing from sex to body parts to adver­tis­ing space on the side of one’s house is poten­tial­ly for sale.

Sandel helped us under­stand the con­nec­tion between this and his ear­li­er work: In remain­ing neu­tral among com­pet­ing con­cep­tions of what’s real­ly good for us, lib­er­al­ism has made an all-too-quick peace with unfet­tered exchange. If two peo­ple want to make a deal, who are the rest of us to step in and stop it? Lib­er­al think­ing does jus­ti­fy pre­vent­ing sup­pos­ed­ly free exchanges on the grounds that they might not actu­al­ly be free, e.g. one side is under undue eco­nom­ic pres­sure, not mature or ful­ly informed, in some way coerced or incom­pe­tent. But Sandel wants to argue that some prac­tices can be mere­ly degrad­ing, even if per­formed will­ing­ly, and that a moral­ly neu­tral soci­ety does­n’t have the con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus to for­mu­late such a claim. Instead, as exem­pli­fied by his course on jus­tice, Sandel thinks that moral issues need to be a part of pub­lic debate. By exten­sion, we can’t pre­tend that eco­nom­ics is a moral­ly neu­tral sci­ence that mere­ly mea­sures human behav­ior. Our empha­sis on eco­nom­ics in pub­lic pol­i­cy crowds out oth­er pos­i­tive goods like cit­i­zen­ship and integri­ty.

For addi­tion­al back­ground, lis­ten to the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life’s ear­li­er dis­cus­sion of John Rawls, the father of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism who is Sandel’s main tar­get in his dis­cus­sion of lib­er­al­ism. You could also watch Sandel’s lec­ture on Rawls from his Jus­tice course.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er runs the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast and blog, which has just hit episode 100 with a spe­cial live-in-front-of-an-audi­ence dis­cus­sion of Pla­to’s Sym­po­sium, now avail­able on audio or video. You can access the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast via iTunes or the PEL web site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What’s the Right Thing to Do?: Pop­u­lar Har­vard Course Now Online

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Actress­es Lucy Law­less & Jaime Mur­ray Per­form Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Pod­cast

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