On Wednesday night (8th May), Prospect hosted an evening of conversation between Michael Sandel and AC Grayling at the Royal Geographical Society in London. There is an edited transcript below.
The event was divided into three parts. It began with a conversation between Sandel and Grayling, which spanned a wide range of subjects, including the relationship between markets and morality, justice, and the future of education.
Sandel then conducted one of his trademark Socratic dialogues with the audience, engaging them in an extraordinary debate about walrus hunting in Canada. Starting with this unusual topic, Sandel led audience members through a lively moral discussion. At the end, Sandel took questions from the audience.
Here are videos of all three:
AC Grayling: You were brought up mainly in California, educated at Brandeis and then at Oxford. You were a Rhodes scholar there and stayed on for your doctorate, and you were supervised for your doctoral studies by Charles Taylor. What influence still persists from your time talking to Charles Taylor?
Michael Sandel: I had a wonderful time at Oxford and Charles was at the centre of a small but compelling group of heterodox, moral and political philosophers who stood outside the then mainstream of purely analytic philosophy, which was largely utilitarian.
I came late to philosophy—I had studied politics as an undergraduate. So I was first enticed, almost forced, to study Kant by Alan Montefiore. Then after I had done that, with Charles I studied Aristotle and Hegel, and then with Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza. All of these thinkers were in a way counter-cultural, at odds with the mainstream.
I found it all fascinating, and the influence this had on me was to question some of the overly individualistic assumptions that informed contemporary moral and political philosophy, including those of Rawls. Also, to question the idea that debates about justice and rights can be neutral with respect to conceptions of the good life.
Grayling: I know you don’t like the label “communitarian” but that is of course one that’s associated with Charles Taylor’s views. You did mention the overly individualistic view of things. This is tremendously important because a large part of what you’ve thought, especially in talking about the marketisation of our society, has really been a lament for the sense of community.
So there is a sense that the label, although you don’t quite like it, does somewhat describe the position you come from—and it would be a Charles Taylor sort of position.
Sandel: The reason I’m a bit uneasy about the communitarian label is that it’s sometimes thought to stand for the idea that whatever values happen to prevail in any given community at any given time are the right ones, the ones that should be enshrined in law. And I don’t think that.
There is a sense, you’re quite right, that the term fits. But it’s in the sense that suggests that it’s not reasonable, it’s not possible in some cases, and not desirable in others, to try to reason about justice or rights or the good society by stepping back from the particular identities that shape citizens.
Grayling: You urged against Rawls’s idea that somehow you could think about how you would like to see society organised if you were ignorant of where you would be in society. Your point is you can’t start from there—you’ve got to start from where you are located.
This is a theme in a great deal of what you have written and said. It naturally enough raises questions in the minds of those who do have an interest in conceptions of autonomy, individual liberty and the rest, that they lie in tension with the idea that we are already connected and, to use a wonderful word coined by Bishop Berkeley, embrangled in society.
How are we going to deal with the difficulty that there seems to be an irresolvable conflict between, on the one hand, the interests that individuals have in their own lives and projects and so on, and these commitments that they cannot escape from?
Sandel: Well this is a question that goes right to the heart of what Sophron called the liberal communitarian debate. I’m very much in favour of rights and liberty and freedom. The question is how to define our rights, the rights that matter and should be protected, and how to define what it means to be free.
Take the right of freedom of speech. There are some who say that the moral basis of freedom of speech is that government should be neutral with respect to the content of people’s speech and respect the fact that it is the speech of a freely choosing self.
I would put the case of freedom of speech differently. It deserves special protection for two reasons. First, respecting freedom of speech is essential to democratic life. Democratic life matters not just because it satisfies individual preferences, but because it makes us better. It enables us to develop our human capacities more fully if we participate in self-government and deliberate about important public questions.
The second reason goes beyond civic virtue and suggests that we are free when we actively participate in public deliberation and develop the full range of our human faculties. So you might call this an Aristotelian defence of freedom of speech because it does refer to a certain conception of the good life and maybe even virtue.
Grayling: The way you set that up is that the reason central civil liberties like freedom of speech matter is that it makes for a good society, that if people are fully participating, are fully informed and take part in the conversation then society will flourish as a result.
Sandel: And they will be better individuals.
Grayling: Some people could read Aristotle as saying that it’s better that society is good so that individuals within it can flourish. In other words, the direction of emphasis is towards the flourishing of the individual. Whereas the other direction of emphasis is to accord individuals these civil liberties so that society can be a good one. I’m wondering which direction we’re moving in with you.
Sandel: I see those two considerations as reciprocally constitutive. They’re mutually dependent because the way in which participating in self-government helps the individual is not just that it’s an instrument to enable each individual to have a say and therefore get what he or she wants from public policy. The activity itself is character building. When we concern ourselves with public affairs, and when we take responsibility for the fate of the community as a whole, we exercise human faculties that would otherwise lie dormant.
Grayling: I’m very sympathetic to that view but I can hear two different kinds of critics responding to it. One critic might say that the best kind of society from the point of view of the individual flourishing is the minimalist society. This might be your bog standard Republican who wants government to get out of the way.
In the other direction you might have someone say that a good society is one that compensates for the failings of the individuals within in it. Famously, Churchill said democracy was the least bad of a lot of bad systems. But he also said that the strongest argument against democracy was two minutes of conversation with any voter.
Sandel: He might have said two minutes of conversation with any politician.
Grayling: Even better. So you have two different criticisms that would say this reciprocal constitution could fail in either direction.
Sandel: It could. I think the real test about what kind of liberty one adheres to is whether one thinks that part of the rationale of politics and political participation is to form our characters and to make us better than we would otherwise be. That’s why I admit that this account of liberty does rest on a contestable account of human flourishing and virtue.
Grayling: That’s very interesting. We must come back to it because of course in your discussion of the marketisation of society in What Money Can’t Buy, you end by pointing out how corrupting of our civic life it would be if everything could be bought or sold.
Before we do, the motivation for what you say in that argument is predicated on the disenchantment you have with economics and economists. Perhaps you could explain what it is about them that has made you fed up.
Sandel: Some of my best friends are economists. When I started graduate school, I started out thinking I would do PPE and study philosophy and economics since I’d studied politics before. My project with economics was to see if I could include within the economic model a concern for equality, or whether equality as a normative consideration had to be brought in from outside those models. So I strayed from that project, although I feel like I’ve come back to it, in a way, 35 years later.
In the old days, back with Adam Smith and the classical economists, economics was understood, I think rightly, as a branch of moral and political philosophy. In the 20th century, economics established itself as an autonomous discipline and presented itself as a value-neutral science of social life and human behaviour. This is how economics is largely taught today.
I think it’s a mistake to view economics as a science. When economics concerns itself with traditional economic topics, such as employment, inflation, how to avoid recession, foreign trade, banks and stocks, then it is easy enough to see how it’s possible to think of economics that way. But when economics enlarges it’s ambition and undertakes to explain the whole of life, then I think it’s less and less plausible to think of it as a value-neutral science.
When economic reasoning and markets govern not just things like toasters and cars but family life, personal relations, health, education and civic life—when economics tries to explain and inform every domain of life—then it has to enter into morally contestable choices, although it does so often without fully owning up to it.
Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they don’t touch or taint the goods they exchange, and this may be true enough if we’re talking about material goods. If you give me a flat-screen television or sell me one, the flat-screen television will work just as well either way. But the same may not be true when it comes to using market mechanisms or cash incentives, for example, to motivate young students to study harder. Cash for good grades or high test scores—many US schools districts have tried this as an experiment. In Dallas, Texas they pay eight-year-olds $2 for each book they read. From the standpoint of traditional economic analysis, the only test is: does it work? Does the number of books read increase? What has actually happened is that the grades have not increased in most of these experiments.
But the real question is: what lesson is being taught by offering cash for grades or studying? My worry is that the lesson being taught is that reading is a chore, the kind of work to be done for money. And if that’s what’s being taught, the market mechanism is not neutral—it changes the meaning of the activity and crowds out attitudes and norms that we care about.
Grayling: However much economics tries to portray itself as value-neutral it isn’t, because another thing you’re concerned about is that economics assumes that consenting adults are the party to these deals they make with one another. So if I want you to advertise my book and I pay you enough to have it written on your forehead, that would be an example where the question of analysis would be, “is the person renting out their forehead coerced by their economic circumstances?” This is something that makes you anxious.
Sandel: There are two objections I would raise. One of them is exactly as you say. We need to ask whether the people entering into these deals are acting truly voluntarily or are they in effect coerced by the necessity of their circumstances. This is a question that arises in debates about whether there should be a free global market for organs for transplantation—kidneys, for example.
But I also worry on another, independent ground. Even if it is voluntary rather than through economic desperation, there is the question of whether the tattoo ad on the forehead is degrading. It’s a question that arises classically in debates about prostitution. There’s the worry about coercion, or implicit coercion. But even if that objection is met there’s still the question of whether it’s morally objectionable because it’s degrading.
Grayling: Paying somebody to wait in line for you, for example, for a congressional hearing. This doesn’t do anyone any harm and this is someone who might need some money. Certainly, people who are drawn into sex work, that’s troubling—but it’s not always easy to draw a line. Drawing a line involves some kind of value judgement and then the inevitable question arises: whose values? And I take it part of your answer is that it’s got to be our values, that somehow we have to reinvigorate a conversation in society about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. The big question is, how the heck do we do that?
Sandel: What makes the argument from corruption or degradation more difficult than the argument from coercion is that it raises precisely this question: whose values should inform us when figuring out what’s degrading and what isn’t?
The objection to paid line standing does involve the degradation argument, the idea of it being demeaning, but not necessarily in the case of it being demeaning of the person who has the job. Here it’s different from the tattoo or the surrogate mother. It’s demeaning of the institution of the government that allows this kind of ticket touting to govern access to Congress or Parliament or the Supreme Court. It’s demeaning of representative government to put access up for auction in this way.
We’ve seen these long queues where people pay for someone to get them the first new iPad or iPhone. I think that’s different, because that’s a commercial product. You’ll then say, “OK but that restates precisely the question as it’s a value judgement.” I agree it is and you rightly want to know whose judgement should govern. I would say ours, but the hard question is how should we reflect on those values?
If we take the arguments from degradation or corruption seriously, as I think we have to if we are to define the moral limits of markets, we have to reason together in public about the right way to value goods, whether the goods at stake are the integrity and dignity of the human person or the proper way of governing access to institutions that represent government.
Grayling: There’s an obvious connection between your interest in the concept of justice and these issues. Questions about what’s just have always been front and centre of the great moral arguments. What do you take those forms of justice to be? Is it distributive or is it some other conception?
Sandel: Justice is an important virtue of social institutions. I don’t think it’s the only virtue—there are other virtues to do with community, fellow feeling, solidarity, self-government, the scope for and the quality of public deliberation, all of which may have some bearing on justice, but which may also have independent moral importance.
Part of my argument in the book on justice and the book on markets is that we can’t entirely discuss these sets of questions independently of one another. What counts as a good society unavoidably embroils us in questions of virtue and the good life. It can’t altogether be separated from whether the distribution of incoming wealth and power and opportunity in that society is fair, even recognising that fairness isn’t the only thing that matters.
Grayling: Your lectures at Harvard have famously become available to everyone in the world online. MOOCs [massive open online courses] look as thought they’re going to transform education worldwide.
But there has been a push back on two fronts. One is that if these massive courses have tens of thousands of students taking them, and they do essays, there just aren’t enough professors to go around to mark them, so they’re graded by software. So there’s one question mark that pops up in people’s minds: is being taught by a computer OK?
Then the second thing is you’ve been challenged recently by an entire philosophy department at San Jose State University, who said, “you’re just about to put us out of a job because if our college just has your lectures online, they won’t need us.”
Where is higher education going?
Sandel: As an experiment we put my justice course online and on television globally a few years ago, just to see what might happen and what might be the educational uses of this new technology.
The effect was beyond anything we could have imagined. They tell us that tens of millions of people have been watching them. For me, the most rewarding part of the experiment is simply providing free and global access to the Harvard classroom, or to any classroom, so that anyone, anywhere, including someone in an Indian village or in a remote part of China or Africa who has access to the internet, can see it and can hear about Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, follow the lectures and engage in the online discussion if they want to. For me it’s a way of giving expression to the idea that higher education should be seen and treated as a public resource and not as a private privilege.
But as far as the push back, I would emphasise that I don’t think an online course can replace the experience of students and teachers gathered in person and deliberating together as part of an academic community. And I hope that even financially pressed colleges and universities won’t assume that it can.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Question: You’re probably aware, Michael, that there’s been much discussion in political circles recently with respect to the morality of tax avoidance. What answer would you give to this issue?
Sandel: I’m against tax avoidance. I think that countries need to work together to find ways to reduce tax havens that drain important resources from the public treasuries of societies that have democratically enacted certain tax rates and tax laws.
Secret banking arrangements in the Cayman Islands, Switzerland and elsewhere provide a way for people to evade taxes. Some of the tax avoidance is done through loopholes that are in the tax codes itself. I think both forms are objectionable, not only because they exacerbate the budget crises, indeed the austerity and the pain that governments struggle with when they lack the resources that they would otherwise have under the law, but also because I think it’s a kind of civic corruption.
We should find a way collectively and globally of cracking down on that, and preventing that, because it’s corrosive of a democratic civic life. It’s not just a loss to the treasury.
Question: What part of equality do you espouse: equality of outcome or equality of opportunity? How does your view of equality relate to your notion of justice?
Sandel: Equality of outcome and equality of opportunity are often thought to be the two alternative ways of conceiving equality, and I’m not sure they fully capture the range of possibilities. I would be for a third kind of equality that might be described as equality of condition.
Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that men and women from different social backgrounds and different walks of life inhabit a common life, enough so that they realise that we are all in a common project. Just how much equality is necessary for that is a qualitative judgment.
To what extent do we have common spaces and public places that gather people together, that provide people access to the fundamental prerequisites of a good life? My worry is that against the background of rising inequality over the last three decades, allowing markets to dominate more and more aspects of life is corrupting that commonality. We find that people of affluence and people of modest means increasingly lead separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. This isn’t good for democracy and I don’t think, ultimately, that it’s a satisfying way to live, even for those of us who may inhabit the more privileged places of social life.
Question: Bearing in mind the abuses that took place in the run-up to the credit crunch, at what point do imbalances in information between market participants lead to markets becoming unacceptable?
Sandel: Privilege of access and privilege of information did play a role in the run-up to the financial crisis. One of the things that’s striking in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that despite the virtual meltdown of the global financial system, we have not really had a fundamental debate about the proper role of money and markets in our societies.
I think most of us expected that the financial crash would mark the end of an era of market triumphalism that goes back to the early 80s. An era defined by the faith that markets and market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. And although we had some debates about regulation of the financial industry, we didn’t really go beyond that. The market faith has had a remarkable staying power, even after the financial crisis, and I think it’s interesting to try to figure out why, and also an important question for our public life.
Question: Women do a lot of the unpaid work in society. I’ve tried to come up with how we could change society so that women are not taken advantage of. The market seems to be the only answer because it would put a value on their work. But I worry a lot about going down this road, because of the moral consequences and the limits of markets. How, other than a transaction that puts value and worth on something like childcare, can we address such an issue?
Sandel: It’s a great question, and not an easy one to answer because, as you say, much of what is traditionally regarded as women’s work is not commodified. In a market-driven society like ours, work that is not rewarded with money tends to be undervalued and unappreciated. And so there’s the temptation to think, just as you suggest, that commodifying what is traditionally regarded as women’s work in the household is a liberating alternative.
And yet we see marketising and commodifying roles to do with care, including care of children and care of the elderly. Those tend to be jobs that are poorly paid, and in fact are paid far out of proportion to what their moral importance suggests they should be paid. So it could be that simply commodifying what is traditionally regarded as women’s work would not solve the fundamental problem, which is that the roles of care are not sufficiently recognised, appreciated and rewarded in our society.
The real question is: how can we change that? Whether women perform those roles or men perform those roles, we need a public debate about it, because simply commodifying care-giving roles may perpetuate and entrench the under-appreciation of those roles if they are not remunerated in a way that indicates their true importance.
The appeal of the market faith isn’t just that markets deliver higher GDP or economic efficiency. The deeper appeal is that markets seem to be value-neutral ways of deciding social questions. They seem to spare us democratic citizens the hard work of reasoning together about contested values and judgments about the good life, and questions of care and their importance go directly to the question of the good life, and how we should value social roles.
We should resist the temptation to think that we can outsource moral judgment and civic judgment to markets. And that means that we need to grapple directly, not only as philosophers, but also in public life and in public discourse, with the hard questions, Anthony [Grayling], that you are putting to me: Is there a right way of valuing this or that good? And if there is, how can we possibly decide together, when we live in pluralist societies where we disagree about the good life, and virtue and how to value goods?
It is a mistake to think that leaving these questions to markets will leave them undecided. Instead, as we’ve seen, that will decide them for us, and that’s why we need to find our way to a morally more robust, admittedly more demanding, form of public discourse. Not because we’ll agree, but because it will engage more directly with the questions we have to decide if we’re to take democratic citizenship seriously. And it will also enable us to keep markets in their proper place.
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