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Interview with Michael Sandel

We Need Public Discourse on Big Ethical Questions

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We Need Public Discourse on Big Ethical Questions

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Bestselling author of “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?”, philosopher, & professor at Harvard University, Michael Sandel, gives a keynote speech at the Fulbright Thought Leader Forum in Taiwan on 6/2. He talks about "Leadership and Ethics" in the 21st century.

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We Need Public Discourse on Big Ethical Questions

By Kwangyin Liu
web only

Bestselling author of “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?”, philosopher, & professor at Harvard University, Michael Sandel, gives a keynote speech at the Fulbright Thought Leader Forum in Taiwan on 6/2. He talks about "Leadership and Ethics" in the 21st century. "Justice", Sandel's open course in Harvard University, is the very first class in Harvard that is available online. It had millions of viewers and created a global phenomenon.

In the following excerpts of CommonWealth Magazine’s interview with Michael Sandel, he explains his observations about the changes in attitude towards markets.

Q:It has been five years since the book "What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets" was published. Have you observed any changes in attitude towards markets anywhere? Why do you think this is so?

I have not observed many explicit changes in attitudes toward markets in the five years since What Money Can’t Buy was published. But there are some indirect signs of change.  Today, we are witnessing a widespread frustration with politics, politicians, and political parties in democracies around the world.  The rise of populism in Europe and the U.S. reflects a backlash against a market-driven version of globalization that benefited those on top, but left ordinary people feeling disempowered.  Some of the anger against rising inequality takes ugly forms, such as hostility toward immigrants, and strident nationalism.  But it also reflects some legitimate grievances—against the failure of elites to deal with inequality, and with the loss of social esteem suffered by ordinary citizens when market thinking and market values dominate social life and human relationships. 

Q:Why should we think about the limits of markets when we live in market societies? 

In What Money Can’t Buy, I distinguish between having a market economy and becoming a market society.  A market economy is a tool, a valuable and effective tool, for organizing productive activity.  But a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale.  It’s a way of life in which market values invade every aspect of life—family life and personal relations, health, education, politics, law, civil society, the media.  My argument is not against market economies.  It is against the growing tendency of allowing ourselves to become market societies. 

We need a public debate about where markets serve the public good, and where they don’t belong—where they may crowd out non-market values worth caring about.

Q:The term "skyboxification" sounds similar to "product differentiation", which many people would consider a good thing. Are you suggesting that it is better for us to have fewer choices? Why?

I should first explain what I mean by “skyboxification,” a term I use in What Money Can’t Buy.  When I was young, I loved to attend the baseball games of my home team, in Minnesota.  In those days, going to a baseball game, or any professional sports stadium or arena, was a class-mixing experience.  CEOs sat side-by-side with ordinary workers.  Everyone had to eat the same soggy hot dogs, and wait in the same long lines for the toilets.  And when it rained, everyone got wet.  It made for a sense of community, as every rooted for the home team, with shared happiness in victory and shared sorrow in defeat.

Then, things changed.  During the 1990s and early 2000s, most professional sports stadiums created luxury skyboxes, where VIPs and the affluent could watch the games in air-conditioned comfort high above the common folk in the stands below.  It was no longer true that everyone shared the same experience; it was no longer even true that everyone got wet when it rained.  I confess that I have watched some baseball games from luxury skyboxes, and it is a pleasant experience.  But the class-mixing aspect of attending a sporting event is lost, or at least diminished.  This would not matter if it only happened at sports stadiums.  But a similar segregation by class has been occurring throughout our society.  I call it the “skyboxification” of civic life.  People of affluence, and people of modest means, increasingly live different lives.  There are fewer public spaces where citizens for all walks of life gather. 

This can only be called “product differentiation” if one believes that community and social cohesion are products.  But I think it is a mistake to think of our sense of shared community as a commodity, or a market good.  It is a moral and civic good.  I understand what you might mean when you say that “skyboxification” increases people’s choices.  But at best, skyboxification increases choices for those who can afford to buy their way out of shared experiences.  It doesn’t increase everyone’s choices.  More important, the cumulative effect of skyboxification deprives everyone—rich and poor alike—with the sense of community and shared citizenship that democracy requires. 

Q:You argue that the offering of money changes the nature of social practices. For instance, some companies pay to have positive media coverage, resulting in a loss of trust from readers. How can we in the media de-corrupt the system? 

This is an important example of the way money and market values can corrupt social practices such as journalism and media coverage.  The result, as you suggest, is the loss of trust from readers.  To restore trust, it is important to insulate the editorial side of newspapers and the media from the business side.  Advertisers should not be able to influence reporting or editorial judgments. 

There should be a “wall of separation” between reporting and advertising.  If the media is corrupted by market influences, both journalism and democracy suffer.

Q:You stressed the importance of building a sense of community and common good. However, some argue that with social media growing, the common good is becoming less relevant as everyone sees and cares about only what's happening in his or her own community. How dangerous is this trend and how should we address that? 

Social media does have a tendency to reinforce the opinions of like-minded people.  It reduces the likelihood of encountering opinions different from our own, and makes more difficult the project of building a sense of community and the common good.  This trend is damaging to democracy, which requires that we encounter opinions and arguments with which we disagree.  We need forms of media and forums for discussion that reach the society as a whole, not only narrow segments of society. 

Traditional newspapers, magazines, and radio and television networks tend to reach a broader range of the population, but they are under growing financial pressure.  The internet could be a place for widely shared public discourse, but too often it is dominated by commercial forces and advertising, which seek more narrowly targeted audiences.  We need to think creatively about how to create online platforms for a substantive kind of public discourse.  One of the reasons we created on online site for my Harvard Justice lectures (www.justiceharvard.org) was to open access to the Harvard classroom, and to try to encourage reasoned public discourse on big ethical questions that people care about.

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