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Michael Sandel (1953 – fl 2013) is an American political philosopher at Harvard and an early adopter of online teaching. To argue about justice is unavoidably to argue about virtues, about substantive moral and even spiritual questions.

Sandel Michael

Michael Sandel, philosopher of morality and law

Sources of quotes: GoodReadsBrainyQuote, TED,


Quotations from Michael Sandel 

The responsibility of political philosophy that tries to engage with practice is to be clear, or at least accessible.

Philosophy is a distancing, if not debilitating, activity.

To argue about justice is unavoidably to argue about virtues, about substantive moral and even spiritual questions.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of ordinary life.

I almost became a political journalist, having worked as a reporter at the time of Watergate. The proximity to those events motivated me, when I wound up doing philosophy, to try to use it to move the public debate.

I am fortunate to have enough money not to have to worry about the necessities of life. Beyond that, I try to think about money as little as possible.

I find this in all these places I’ve been travelling – from India to China, to Japan and Europe and to Brazil – there is a frustration with the terms of public discourse, with a kind of absence of discussion of questions of justice and ethics and of values.

My main quarrel with liberalism is not that liberalism places great emphasis on individual rights – I believe rights are very important and need to be respected. The issue is whether it is possible to define and justify our rights without taking a stand on the moral and even sometimes religious convictions that citizens bring to public life.

One of the appeals of markets, as a public philosophy, is they seem to spare us the need to engage in public arguments about the meaning of goods. So markets seem to enable us to be non-judgmental about values. But I think that’s a mistake.

The simplest way of understanding justice is giving people what they deserve. This idea goes back to Aristotle. The real difficulty begins with figuring out who deserves what and why.

When I arrived at Harvard, I wanted to design a course in political theory that would have interested me, back when I was started out, in a way that the standard things didn’t.

Whether you’re a libertarian liberal or a more egalitarian liberal, the idea is that justice means being non-judgmental with respect to the preferences people bring to public life.

First, individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the general good, and second, the principles of justice that specify these rights cannot be premised on any particular vision of the good life. What justifies the rights is not that they maximize the general welfare or otherwise promote the good, but rather that they comprise a fair framework within which individuals and groups can choose their own values and ends, consistent with a similar liberty for others.

Kant’s notion of autonomy stands in stark contrast to this. When we act autonomously, according to a law we give ourselves, we do something for its own sake, as an end in itself. We cease to be instruments of purposes given outside us. This capacity to act autonomously is what gives human life its special dignity. It marks out the difference between persons and things.

The commitment to a framework neutral among ends can be seen as a kind of value … but its value consists precisely in its refusal to affirm a preferred way of life or conception of the good.

Markets are useful instruments for organizing productive activity. But unless we want to let the market rewrite the norms that govern social institutions, we need a public debate about the moral limits of markets.

And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Other animals can make sounds, and sounds can indicate pleasure and pain. But language, a distinctly human capacity, isn´t just for registering pleasure and pain. It´s about declaring what is just and what is unjust, and distinguishing right from wrong. We don´t grasp these things silently, and then put words to them; language is the medium through which we discern and deliberate about the good.

Self-knowledge is like lost innocence; however unsettling you find it, it can never be ‘unthought’ or ‘unknown’.

If the spirit of their intercourse were still the same after their coming together as it had been when they were living apart,’ Aristotle writes, their association can’t really be considered a polis, or political community.
‘A polis is not an association for residence on a common site, or for the sake of preventing mutual injustice and easing exchange.’ While these conditions are necessary to a polis, they are not sufficient. ‘The end and purpose of a polis is the good life, and the institutions of social life are means to that end.

A growing body of work in social psychology offers a possible explanation for this commercialization effect. These studies highlight the difference between intrinsic motivations (such as moral conviction or interest in the task at hand) and external ones (such as money or other tangible rewards). When people are engaged in an activity they consider intrinsically worthwhile, offering them money may weaken their motivation by depreciating or “crowding out” their intrinsic interest or commitment.

The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be

A better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral convictions citizens bring to public life, rather than to require that people leave their deepest moral convictions outside politics before they enter.

There is a tendency to think that if we engage too directly with moral questions in politics, that’s a recipe for disagreement, and for that matter, a recipe for intolerance and coercion.

Right at the heart of market thinking is the idea that if two consenting adults have a deal, there is no need for others to figure out whether they valued that exchange properly. It’s the non-judgmental appeal of market reasoning that I think helped deepen its hold on public life and made it more than just an economic tool; it has elevated it into an unspoken public philosophy of everything.

It might be argued that a genetically enhanced athlete, like a drug-enhanced one, would have an unfair advantage over his unenhanced competitors. But the fairness argument against enhancement has a fatal flaw: it has always been the case that some athletes are better endowed genetically than others, and yet we do not consider this to undermine the fairness of competitive sports. From the standpoint of fairness, enhanced genetic differences would be no worse than natural ones, assuming they were safe and made available to all. If genetic enhancement in sports is morally objectionable, it must be for reasons other than fairness.

Some see a clear line between genetic enhancement and other ways that people seek improvement in their children and themselves. Genetic manipulation seems somehow worse – more intrusive, more sinister – than other ways of enhancing performance and seeking success. But, morally speaking, the difference is less significant than it seems. Bioengineering gives us reason to question the low-tech, high-pressure child-rearing practices we commonly accept. The hyperparenting familiar in our time represents an anxious excess of mastery and dominion that misses the sense of life as a gift. This draws it disturbingly close to eugenics… Was the old eugenics objectionable only insofar as it was coercive? Or is there something inherently wrong with the resolve to deliberately design our progeny’s traits… But removing coercion does not vindicate eugenics. The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent a one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.


COMMENTS on the Quotations from Michael Sandel

See my book review of What Money Can’t Buy, by Michael Sandel

Some see a clear line between genetic enhancement and other ways that people seek improvement in their children and themselves. Genetic manipulation seems somehow worse – more intrusive, more sinister – than other ways of enhancing performance and seeking success. Sandel seems oblivious to the fact that his personal associates from his entire adult life at Harvard are the success stories of modern genetic modification. What I mean is not direct genetic manipulation, like Craig Venter has developed, or chemical enhancement of performance, like Lance Armstrong has engaged in, which Sandel worries about, but the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests). The SAT is now in its third generation as a selection criterion for inbreeding super-IQ performers at Harvard and other elite schools, and the reported IQ of the children of this process is already a full standard deviation above the public average IQ of 100. The regression to the mean for these selected people is no longer to the public mean, but to the mean of their select group. Harvard is no longer just a school for the mentally elite and monetarily elite, but of an inbred super-elite. The evolutionary process has no know upper limit.

When people are engaged in an activity they consider intrinsically worthwhile, offering them money may weaken their motivation by depreciating or “crowding out” their intrinsic interest or commitment. This phenomenon has now been experimentally demonstrated, and after the fact seems obvious. It seems to be an internal thing, when we don’t want to do something, paying us will encourage us to do more of it, but if we do want to do something, paying us will discourage us from doing it, because it debases our feelings of personal virtue.

Language is the medium through which we discern and deliberate about the good. To this I would add additional praise to the women who select the qualities we discern as morally good and by their choices over the millennium women have inserted these qualities into the human DNA. It is because of the selection by our women that we easily learn to speak and to become moral beings.


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