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Michael Sandel:

A Broader Vision for Generational Justice


A Broader Vision for Generational Justice


In this exclusive interview Harvard University professor Michael Sandel reveals the story behind his personal romance with politics, and his passion for re-establishing a place for ethics in public discourse.



A Broader Vision for Generational Justice

By Fuyuan Hsiao, Ming-Ling Hsieh, Yuan Chou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 512 )

"Growing up, I was always interested in politics. I was a political junkie," declares Michael Sandel, Harvard University professor of philosophy and author of the thoughtful bestseller Justice. Seated on a curvilinear red sofa in a navy blue suit and bright blue tie, Sandel spoke to CommonWealth Magazine of his passion for politics, his blue eyes glowing like a flame under the muted lamp light.

This renowned Harvard professor has stirred renewed interest in ethics through his interactive approach to education, and the flames of fresh thought he is spreading have fueled a philosophical fire in countries round the world.

His "Justice" classes at Harvard were the first courses in the university's history to be developed as a television program. Now available for free viewing on the Internet, they have allowed his classroom to expand beyond Boston and encompass the world. His readership, as well, spans the globe. In East Asia his books have sold over a million copies. China, in particular, has been swept with an appetite for his ideas. In 2010 China Newsweek named Michael Sandel the "most influential foreign figure" of the year.

He has thoroughly ruminated on the free market ideology that has seized the helm of human development over the past several decades.

"We've lived a period of three decades on an unquestioned faith that markets are the primary instrument of achieving the public good," Sandel says. "We have drifted from having market economies to becoming market societies."

As a result market values pervade every aspect of life, overriding all forms of debate, crowding out ethical thinking, and hollowing out public discourse.

Governments and corporations constantly reiterate the importance of "respecting the market mechanism," and this has eroded many of society's values that cannot be bought at a price, and its concepts of fair play. "This is why so many people are frustrated with politics and political parties," Sandel suggests.

Three hours after arriving in Taiwan on December 9, 2012, Michael Sandel sat down for an in-depth conversation with journalists from CommonWealth Magazine.

Following are highlights from this interview.

Q: A lot of people have asked you about media monopoly. Our survey shows that of the top 15 richest people in Taiwan, about one third of them own a media company. And in America, it's only two. Many media tycoons own other businesses as well, and use those to cover the cost, which causes unfair competition. You said we always fall into thinking that economic efficiency defines the common good, but media is also the common good. What is the moral reasoning about monopolies in the media?

A: I would begin with the principle you just cited from the book. It's important to prevent market forces from dominating institutions that are essential to the common good of the society. The media serves an important public function. So I think it is important to guard against monopolization of the media. This is an area where market forces can, if unchecked and unlimited, do damage to public life. The media is at the center of dialogue, debate, and should be open to competing voices and disagreement. So this is one example of the general concern I express in the book, about making sure market forces don't overreach their proper bounds. And in this case there is a public interest in a free and open media.

Q: Should businessmen own the media? Is that right or wrong?

A: I don't know the details of the situation in Taiwan, but I know there is a debate about monopolization. I think the main goal should be, that there are many voices, a full range of political opinions represented with access to the media. How best to achieve this, varies from one society to the next. In my own society, we need to do more to avoid the concentration of media power in a few hands. But how to do it in Taiwan, you would know better than I would. I'm concerned with the principle, which is that market forces need to be restrained in the area of the media, because monopolization of the media, or having power concentrated in the hands of the few, can undermine an important public good.

Q: There was an incident which stemmed from this. A college student, who headed some recent student protests against a merger, was invited to the legislature to express his views. He criticized the Minister of Education, who was present, very harshly on how the protests were dealt with. He called the Minister dishonest and disingenuous. The university the student belongs to was quick to issue an apology, which prompted another backlash against the university and the establishment in general.

Now, we'd like to hear your views on messy public discourses such as this. On the one hand, the student felt he had cause for grievance, and the evidence to back up his accusations. On the other hand, it could be argued that he was being disrespectful to a public official.

A: I think you used a good phrase when you said messy public discourses. I think public discourses are often messy. What you are describing here is something that often arises in public discourse. On the one hand, we want students of all political persuasions to be active in politics, to make their voices heard. At the same time, political discourse goes best when there may be strong disagreements but those disagreements are expressed with mutual respect and civility. Often when passions run high, people may disagree about what counts as civility. But I think activism by young people, university students, is something to welcome and encourage, even while it's also important to have public discourses on the basis of mutual respect. It's never easy to draw these lines.
Q: To further complicate matters, some are accusing the media of blowing this out of proportions, to shift attention away from the merger in question. Has the student painted a bull's-eye on himself? Would it have been wiser for him to have held his tongue, even if he was within his rights?

A: I don't know enough about it to give advice. But it sometimes happens that you distract attention from your cause in this way. We should recognize there is always going to be a tension between vigorous and passionate activism on the one hand, and the need for civility and mutual respect on the other. And that's what creates the messiness of public discourse.

Q: To reason in public about big questions is a civil skill that needs to be nurtured. It does require a highly developed culture of dialogue. In Taiwan, we don't have that tradition of reasoning in public about big questions. So how can we nurture both children and adults to engage in public dialogue?

A: It's a great question. Developing a culture of dialogue and reasoned public discourse is not easy, but it's a deeply important skill. It's also a habit of mind, so it's important, as you said, to develop a culture of reasoned public discourse.

I think these are skills and habits of mind that, ideally, need to be cultivated and nurtured beginning at an early age. Thinking back, in my own family, we have two sons, and from when they were 4 or 5 years old, we would sit together at the dinner table every night, and engage in discussion. As they grew older, it was about what happened at school, things they thought were fair or unfair that happened in the classroom with the teacher or another student. And later, as they became older, it was about what happened in the news, and politics, encouraging them to read the newspaper. So partly it's a skill and habit they can develop in the family and at school at an early age.

Within universities, I think the university has a responsibility to provide opportunities for students to take courses in moral and political philosophy, to learn how to debate. This can begin in high school and before. So I think schools, universities have a role to play, but also families.

And the media has a role to play too, because the way the media conducts public discourse, or provides a forum for public discourse, can contribute to the expectations. So you are right. It is a set of skills, and also a habit of mind, it's a matter of developing a culture. I think many institutions in society need to contribute: family, school, university, the media. And political parties and politicians should set an example. But very often they are the last to learn the habit of reasoned public discourse, which is why the institutions of civil society are so important.

Q: Can you give some examples of how the family can cultivate the skill of dialogue?

A: The best example I can think of is what goes on at the dinner table – having common meals with adults and children, not excluding the children from the general conversation. It's a way to encourage young people to have opinions, and to know that their opinions will be taken seriously. If they are taken seriously around the dinner table at home, they will develop ways of reasoning and arguing and debating in school. If they do it in school, they can do it in the university, and then they can read and inform themselves more deeply. But I think it can start at early age.

Or in reading stories, stories that raise questions that can be discussed, that can be interpreted in more than one way. This need not be only politics or anything to do with government, but competing ways of reading a legend, a story, a myth, interpreting what the hero did, there can be a certain open-endedness to the interpretation. These are discussions that can begin very early, at home or at school. And later you can address matters of the news, public affairs, politics and philosophy, political philosophy.

Q: Is that possible in a society of tiger moms? Can we make dialogue peacefully around the dinner table?

A: I think it's a skill that good parents should think about in the example they set with their children. I think if from an early age, young people feel their opinions are taken seriously, they will realize that they need to learn enough to form opinions and to answer questions. That's the beginning of civic education. I try to do it in my classes and lectures and books. In the books, I don't tell the reader what to think about every question, I try to provide a philosophical framework that invites readers to discuss the question with themselves and with others. The same in the lectures, I don't tell people how to think about this or that, but I create a framework for a civic dialogue, to bring philosophy to bear on a civil dialogue, on concrete questions on which people disagree.

Q: You were a political journalist for a very short time. How did that experience shape you? You also covered Watergate – can you talk about that?

A: Growing up, I was always interested in politics. I was a political junkie. Even as a young child I liked to follow elections and campaigns. I watched the news on television. My father was a businessman. But it was not so much from my parents. I don't know how I came by it. Well, my uncle loved to debate. I loved to debate with him, so maybe that was why I was interested in political debates and campaigns. I was interested in political journalism. I worked for a short time as a journalist, during the summer of my college years. I was an intern at the Houston Chronicle, but it was the Washington bureau. This was the summer when Congress was debating whether to impeach Richard Nixon, which hadn't happened for 100 years. It was a historic moment. I had the opportunity to cover the congressional hearings, the Supreme Court arguments. It was amazing for a 21-year-old to be this close to a historic event, and to write about it every day for a newspaper. It was really a dream come true.

I also wrote for the college newspaper, and I was the news director for the campus radio station. So I covered campaigns. I had a press card. I followed the presidential campaign in 1972. I interviewed the candidates. I thought nothing was more exciting. The 1972 election was Richard Nixon and George McGovern. McGovern was an anti-Vietnam war candidate, so I interviewed Mr. McGovern.

And I also interviewed Ronald Reagan. I invited him to come to our high school classroom, because I was the president of the class, and he came and had a debate there.

In college, while working for the radio station, I wrote him and asked if he remembered me, because of the jellybean story. And I said, "I want to interview you." And when I was back home for winter break, he said he did remember me, so I brought a tape recorder, and sat in his home and interviewed him. This was when he was still governor of California, before he became president. As I look back, he had no reason to give an interview to a campus radio station in Massachusetts. But somehow he was willing to do it. He was very polite. Even though I disagreed with him politically, he was very open and respectful.

So these were my early experiences with journalism. When I graduated from college, I thought I might like to do that, or to enter politics, or to become an academic. In graduate school, I thought I'd spend half a year or so reading about philosophy, just to fill in my background, to understand politics better. I thought it'd take one term to read from Plato and Aristotle all the way to now, but it took a little longer than that. It took two terms, and before I knew it, I was spending four years studying moral and political philosophy, and I became deeply interested in it, and haven't quite escaped since. I began teaching political philosophy in 1980 at Harvard.

But I haven't lost contact with these earlier interests, in politics or political journalism. So in the most recent two books, I try to write about philosophical questions and relate them directly to the questions we confront every day, in our public and personal lives.

The Justice book was of that kind, and What Money Can't Buy involves very concrete but I hope easy-to-understand dilemmas about buying and selling, about what money should and should not be able to buy. Questions about markets and money that arise in our public debate, but also in our personal lives.

When I was a kid, we went to an amusement park, and part of the experience was waiting in long lines. Everyone had to wait for the popular rides.

Today, in most parks you can pay to go to the front of the line. This is a very small example, and some might think it's not too serious, but it's money extending its reach into a small aspect of life. But I think it's symbolic of something bigger, which is the tendency of markets and money to reach into spheres of life previously governed by other values. Like in the amusement park, waiting like everyone else in line.

So I use these very concrete examples from everyday lives to illustrate philosophical themes, and particular themes about what should be the role of money and markets in our society.

So although I wound up doing philosophy and not running for office, and not being a journalist, I've always retained my interest in the world and public affairs. And I try to bring philosophy into contact with the world, so that philosophy is not a subject for scholars alone, but to make it inviting and accessible for readers who want to think through their own values, their own way of conducting their lives, and their families. And citizens who want to think about big ethical questions that come up in public life.

Q: People today say politics is impoverished. All over the world, we see weak leadership, so people don't want to talk about politics, and look down on politicians. So why should we care about it? How can we make it more meaningful again?

A: I think one of the reasons there is such frustration with politics and political parties, is because the terms of public discourse have been emptied of larger meaning, including questions of justice, the common good. And so politics today – and this is true around the world – people find politicians and parties are not addressing the questions that matter most. They are shrinking from discussions of big moral and ethical questions in politics. One reason is, I think, we've lived through a period of what I call "market triumphant-ism."

Politics has too often become preoccupied with economic questions, narrowly conceived. This has made politics technocratic and managerial, which is uninspiring.

I think one of the reasons is, we have been in the grip, in many of our societies, in the grip of a market-driven approach to public life. You might say, economics has crowded out politics in recent decades. This has emptied public discourse of larger meanings and bigger questions. And yet people want public life to be about questions of values, ethics, and the common good.

So I think what we need to do to revitalize the public discourse is to ask some fundamental questions that have been neglected in recent decades, like the role of money and markets in a good society, where markets serve the public good, and where they do not belong.

We've drifted, I think, in recent decades. These days there are few things money can't buy. We have drifted from having market economies to becoming market societies. And I think we need to pay attention to the difference between the two.

A market economy is a tool, a valuable and effective one, for organizing productive activity. They have brought rising prosperity and affluence to countries around the world. A market society is different. It's a place where almost everything is up for sale. A market society is a way of life where market values and relationships begin to pervade every sphere of life, from family life to personal relations, to civic life, health, education, even amusement parks!

We've drifted from having market economies to becoming a market society. This is something I think we need to step back and question. Because very often, when market thinking and market values begin to dominate outside the sphere of material goods, into the area of health, education, family and civic life. Then market values can crowd out important non-market values. We see it happening. Take one example from education. In a number of American school districts, they are doing experiments, trying to motivate academic achievement, by paying children to get good grades – 50 dollars for an A, 35 dollars for a B.

Q: We have it in Taiwan, from within the family.

A: So here's an example. Paying students to get good grades or read books, whether by the school or the parent. The goal is a perfectly good goal, trying to motivate children to do well in school and read books. In Dallas, Texas, they pay 8 years old, 2nd graders, 2 dollars for every book they read. Whether done by the parent or the school, the goal is a worthy goal. You may think the means can be effective, it's using a financial incentive. Economics teaches us, adding incentives increases the behavior you seek. But sometimes, this is a good example of how market thinking can crowd out other values. What are we really trying to teach children when we do this? We are hoping ultimately they will learn not only to read more books, but to learn to love reading for the intrinsic satisfaction of reading. That's our ultimate goal. Getting them to read more books, is a means to that end. But in the example in Texas, and in Washington, New York, Chicago, paying for grades or reading books. Paying for grades has not improved the grades so far. Paying to read books has caused them to read more, but it has led them to read shorter books.

The real question is, what lesson does the cash incentive teach, when the parent or school offers grades for reading? The danger is that the lesson being taught is, that you should study or read books to make money, we will pay you money for this chore. If this is the lesson being taught, even if the child studies harder or reads more books, they may find it harder to develop a love of reading and learning for its own sake. So, if that happens, the market value, the cash, may actually undermine or damage the attitude, the intrinsic love of reading and learning, which is what we wanted to cultivate as parents or teachers. So this is an example of how a market mechanism, a cash incentive, may teach the wrong lessons, and crowd out, or even corrupt the intrinsic love of learning and reading.

If this is true, if market values and thinking sometimes crowd out non-market values, like the love of reading, then we have to broaden out the economic question, and ask what are the values and attitudes we are trying to encourage, and will using the market mechanism help or hurt that larger goal?

Q: In Taiwan, we are reforming our civil service retirement system. In the old framework, civil servants get more benefits than ordinary people. They retire earlier and get bigger pensions. What is the right thing to think here? Do civil servants deserve more than the general public?

A: This is a question that arises any time there is a dispute or debate about pay – not only pensions, but what counts as fair pay. There are big philosophical questions underlining such debates.

Q: They retire young and get a better pension, so people think it's unfair.

A: I can see how it's a subject of controversy. It would be presumptuous of me to offer a solution. But to frame it as a public dialogue would be to gather people of conflicting opinions on the question. And to invite them to explain why they think, why their conception of fairness should lead to one solution or another about pensions. And in conducting that dialogue, there are some who say it's unfair that civil servants have higher pensions than people in the private sector. Others may say, certain promises and expectations were made at an earlier time. Then the discussion can begin. But the discussion has to be framed in a way that recognizes and acknowledges the concept of fair pay and compensation, that people on all sides bring to the debate.

In framing this question, it's important to recognize the disagreement, to allow each side to express their views about the pension question, but then to articulate the view of fairness and fair compensation that lies behind their opinion. And then to examine these competing ideas as they apply to pay, compensation and pensions. It's the kind of debate we have in the course that I teach, which was made available here. It's the kind of debate I hope to have Tuesday night at the lecture. It's not just a lecture, but an invitation for the audience to participate.

Q: A lot of young people are facing fiercer challenges, have fewer resources, and lack job opportunities. They think the older generation has taken all the benefits.

A: One of the biggest questions facing many societies has to do with justice between generations. This question arises whenever there is a debate about retirement benefits and healthcare for retirees, pensions and social security, and the safety net. It's an especially difficult question in societies where there are demographic shifts, creating more and more retirees, in relation to the number of employed people. These demographic shifts in many societies are putting a greater and greater strain on existing systems of social security and retirement pensions.

I think the first step is to frame it in larger terms, as a dilemma about justice between generations, then to have a serious public debate about competing conceptions of justice between generations. This may not produce universal agreement. But framing it in that way at least clarifies what is at stake, and enables the discussion to go forward from a larger perspective. And, if conducted well, that kind of debate could lead to a new way of thinking about the social contract between generations, because in many ways, that is what is involved.

Traditionally, the social contract between generations, we did not think about it in those terms, because the family was the primary place where the responsibilities between generations were worked out. In today's society, we have systems of healthcare, pensions, social security. So many of the dilemmas of the responsibility between generations have been transformed from the family as a whole, to the society as a whole. But that means we need to deliberate together about the mutual responsibilities, of one generation to the next, and those responsibilities go in both directions when we talk about the generations.

And so, it's not only a debate about tax and benefit rates. It's a larger debate about our mutual responsibilities, which includes opportunities for young people, and the moral obligation to support retirees, but also about how that can be reconciled with demographic shifts that make that kind of support difficult to provide if there are fewer people in the labor force relative to the retirees. It's one of the most important questions societies are going to be facing in the coming years.

Q: What issues have been occupying you the most recently?

A: Recently, the issue that has occupied my thinking and writing the most is the question of the new book, what money can't buy. The fundamental problem the book addresses is, what should be the role of money and markets in a good society? I think this is the great missing debate in contemporary politics, in many societies. We've lived a period of three decades on an unquestioned faith that markets are the primary instrument of achieving the public good. We've not really questioned that assumption. But as a result, markets and market values have in recent decades come to dominate many aspects of life, from personal relations, to family life, to health care, education, and civic life. There is a risk when this happens. When we don't question or debate the role of markets, then market values and thinking will crowd out political deliberations, moral deliberations in public life. And I think one of the effects has been, it has hollowed out our public discourse.

I think there is a great hunger among citizens for a better kind of politics, politics that engages more directly with large moral and ethical questions. I think one of the most important questions for us to discuss today as citizens is where do markets belong, where do they serve the public good, and where do we need to strengthen other values? We talked about the intrinsic love of learning in the area of education. There are similar questions in health and civic life – should we allow the buying and selling of votes, for example? Also in personal life – should there be a free market in organs for transplantation? Some economists say that would save lives. Others say it would objectify the human person, and lead people to think our bodies are a collection of spare parts. There are debates about paid pregnancy and surrogate motherhoods. Should blood for transfusions be bought and sold, or would that cheapen the act of donating blood?

So from personal to public life, the question of markets and where they belong is the great missing debate of our time. And that's why having written the book about justice, which also calls for greater moral engagement in public life, I wanted now in the new book to focus on the most neglected area in our public life, where we need to bring public discussions and moral reflections to bear on the question of just how far market thinking and values should extend. And recognizing that markets as economic tools have been very effective in producing rising standards of living and affluence. So the book is not against markets. It's an argument for keeping markets in their proper place. And to figure out what the proper place of markets is, we need a larger debate about the meaning of the good life and good society. So I hope the book will invite readers and citizens to bring this question about the proper role of markets to the center of our public discourse.

Interview compiled by Yuan Chou