Harvard’s celebrated political philosopher weighs in on Brexit, the state of economics and the value of arguing everything overby Tom Clark / May 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
You might have thought you could rely on a Harvard professor to despair at the “had enough of experts” mood of today’s politics.
But Michael Sandel—philosopher, author and a celebrated convenor of challenging debates—is careful not to dismiss the sentiment too quickly. “I think the political animus behind the mistrust of experts is that, under cover of expert technocratic knowledge, decisions are being made that are smuggling in values without allowing the public to debate those values.”
Of course, Sandel explains, one doesn’t want to lapse into a “foolish embrace of ignorance in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.” But, he continues, it’s important to distinguish “legitimate scientific knowledge” from that form of “technocratic expertise” that “claims to be value-neutral” while making inherently political decisions about, say, health, education or the environment. “The name of expertise,” he says, is invoked to justify controversial judgments that ordinary citizens are quite right to feel ought to be “contested.”
“Contesting” is what Sandel has been encouraging in his Harvard classes for many years. Students are encouraged to wrestle with big questions—and each other—to expose, and appreciate, the differences in values that underlie their different judgments about whether, for example, people should be allowed to sell sex, or for that matter their kidneys. (One of his thousands of former students is, rather incongruously, whispered to have based The Simpsons’ evil arch-capitalist, Mr Burns, on the perennially ethically-serious Sandel).