Harvard Scholar Michael Sandel Asks “What’s the Right Thing to Do?”

Michael Sandel engages with SMC student Will Hawley during the community forum.In today’s America, there’s no shortage of opinions, from talk radio to political TV and angry blog posts. But Michael Sandel would argue that there’s a real shortage of the kind of reasoned public dialogue and debate that are necessary for democracy.

Sandel, a Harvard professor of government, has made it his mission to address this problem. His Harvard course, called simply “Justice,” has been taken by more than 15,000 students, and more than 100,000 have viewed the online version. In his best-selling books, including “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” and “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” he pursues the same passion.

On February 25, he shared his concerns about the state of public discourse in our nation during an interactive presentation at Saint Mary’s College entitled "Liberal Arts and the Common Good: Justice and Citizenship." Speaking to a large crowd at the Soda Center, he said, “We’ve lost the ability and habit of reasoning together and arguing together about moral questions.” And unlike many pundits who complain that there’s too much morality in today’s politics, Sandel argued that there’s really too little.

Modern-Day Socrates

Then he delivered a master class in moral and civil inquiry. Like a modern-day Socrates, he tossed out ethical questions and asked audience members to take a stand and defend their beliefs. Pacing back and forth across the stage, he employed pointed questions and analogies to pull apart some vexing moral issues.

Sandel signed copies of his latest book and spoke with students after the presentation. For instance, he asked, is it fair to pay another person to go to war for you – a common practice when the draft was instituted during the Civil War. Many in the audience objected to the idea. Then the inquiry began, with both Sandel and audience members chiming in: How is this different from our modern-day volunteer army? Are enlistees with limited financial or educational resources really exercising free will? And how does it differ from a mercenary army?

Another question dealt with an even more sensitive topic – whether it was right to hire surrogates to bear children, and whether the growing practice of outsourcing this service to India – the so called “Rent-a-Womb industry – is acceptable.

The implicit, but unstated, question was always: Where do we draw the line? And then, what really are our beliefs, and what can we agree on? 

The response from the audience was fascinating – a bit like Seminar on steroids – as young and old alike proceeded from certitude through doubt to what the Greeks called aporia - that befuddled state that might be summed up as: “Gee, I thought I knew what I  believed but now I’m not so sure.”

Drilling Down to Deeper Issues

The dialogue not only allowed audience members to question their beliefs about these issues but, more importantly, unearthed some important questions about principles that Americans hold dear, like the supremacy of individual freedom and the free market, and put them under the microscope. Sandel believes that in our society, the lure of individual freedom and free-market capitalism has become so strong that these values have drowned out all other considerations, including civic duties, moral imperatives and the greater good.  

“Economic arguments have crowded out moral and political arguments,” he said. “We’re letting market values decide these questions for us.”

What Sandel proposes is a return to democracy as practiced by the Greeks or the Founding Fathers. “We need a more reasoned public debate that engages directly with the meaning of ‘good’ and the good life,” he said. “That’s what makes for a healthy democracy.”

In response to a question from the audience about how to reignite intelligent debate about civic issues, he freely admitted that our political parties and most media outlets have failed. Instead, he said, we should turn to social movements, religious communities and particularly higher education, because it “cultivates in students not only the virtues of citizenship and awareness of the world around them but also the skills of critical argument,.not just to win an argument but to figure out what we believe and why.”

A Perfect Fit for Saint Mary's

Indeed, Sandel’s presentation seemed particularly fitting for Saint Mary’s, which seeks to keep the ideal of civil inquiry alive through the Collegiate Seminar program. Dean Steve Woolpert of the School of Liberal Arts, who invited Sandel to speak at the College, said Sandel’s approach “ties in to the College’s belief in the power of the liberal arts to prepare responsible citizens and impart the skills of democracy to future generations.”

“Our society is becoming more fragmented and disengaged, turned off and disaffected,” he noted. “The questions Michael Sandel raises, like what’s the right thing to do, and what is our responsibility to one another, are intimately connected to a healthy democracy.”

By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Photos by Max Crowell

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