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Professor Michael Sandel on the 2009 Reith Lectures

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Jennifer Clarke Jennifer Clarke 09:04, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Like so many of his predecessors, the 2009 Reith Lecturer Michael Sandel says he was "honoured and excited" when he was first asked to accept this year's Reith wreath.

Professor Sandel spent four years at Balliol College, Oxford, as a graduate student, and says he was therefore aware of what he calls the lectures' "storied tradition" from an early age.

But there is also a more profound connection between this year's laureate and the Reith Lectures' stated goal of stimulating public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

A highly respected political philosopher, much of Professor Sandel's work has explored themes of democracy, public philosophy and the erosion of community and moral values, areas he felt were "a good fit with the Reith tradition".

Since that earliest graduate research begun at Oxford, Professor Sandel has been adamant that his work would not remain isolated in the metaphorical academic ivory tower, but would keep one foot resolutely in the real world:

"What I have tried to retain is a connection between the abstract ideas with which political philosophers deal, and the implications of those ideas for the actual workings of politics and the lives of citizens."

He wants his work to have a direct impact on policymakers and politicians - indeed he considered standing for political office early in his career, but says ruefully that political philosophy got him "hooked" and has never since released its grip.

So the theme of this year's lectures - "A New Citzenship" - draws on a lifetime's thinking about justice, democracy and notions about what might and should constitute an idea of the "common good". We need to decide, he believes, what kind of government we want, and actively fight for it.

And he believes the current geopolitical fragility (not to mention the UK MPs' expenses scandal) makes this the perfect time for such a debate.

Indeed, he argues that the fate of democracy itself is at stake: "Unless we find a way to rejuvenate, to reinvigorate, public discourse, so that it addresses things that matter, including large moral questions, I think the frustration with politics will continue and deepen."

"Democracy should ideally be an opportunity for citizens to deliberate about the common good," he adds, "rather than to be distracted entirely by the misbehaviour of politicians."

An accomplished and celebrated lecturer, Professor Sandel relished the opportunity to explore these themes with the live audiences at each of his four lectures. But he is also looking forward to engaging with the wider audience beyond:

"Radio programmes directed not only of course to those sitting in the hall at the time but also to the general public in Britain - and through the World Service to those around the world - seem to me a really wonderful and unique opportunity to provoke discussion."

Professor Sandel is clear he does not have definitive answers to the questions his lectures will pose; but in many ways simply having the debate is the most profound response he could hope for.


  • Comment number 1.

    On Morality in Politics
    In an otherwise scintillating presentation Professor Sandel's weakest answer was his last on climate change. The moral question arises with every carbon transforming activity. What is the purpose of the activity, what virtues does it honour? Our society faces the challenge of how to collectively reason on the merits of, for example taking a flight across the world to deliver a lecture, in the balance with the carbon it contributes to the atmosphere. On which activities shall we expend carbon and on which shall we exercise carbon austerity?

  • Comment number 2.

    The second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative; "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end" seems central to his argument if, instead of exclusively 'humanity', all living things and natural resources are given the same status. The word 'merely' is essential, natural resources can be used as means to useful human ends and have intrinsic value and value according to other (non-human) relationships. Capitalism/ markets treat everything as means to an profitable end, minimising or denying the 'end in itself' or intrinsic value, whilst maximising the means to a profitable end. Peter Helm's argument that 'intergenerational equality' and 'neutrality' were sufficient moral arguments for climate change policy fails by falling into the same trap; ie. that natural resources are valuable only insofar as they are equitably distributed and are around for future generations i.e. they are means to human ends. The religious question is interesting because (amongst a lot of contradictory positions in the bible) there is a strong religious committment to intrinsic value (its God's world, not ours) and virtues which have been overwhelmed by contemporary rights based ethics (capitalist ethics) and dumbed down popular theological criticism.
    Well done Michael!

  • Comment number 3.

    Prof Sandell is a case study of all those tortured feeble minded social workers of weak characters you' ve ever known who became juvenile delinquents. Like the teacher in Bennett' s The History Man he has become a "re-educated" victim of his own pupils so the question he raises is the one of discipline in delinquent environments.

  • Comment number 4.

    Consumers can be catalysed into responsible actions, as recent single-issue campaigns have proven, but momentum towards responsible citizenship has yet to emerge.
    Large supermarkets arent helping here. In the wake of the global financial crisis there has been a proliferation of recession-busting messages from major retailers. They want to offer value in hard-pressed times. They want to be the consumers friend. But this is not the same thing as being the citizens friend.
    At a time when market dogma looks discredited, the supermarkets have responded by offering more market dogma.
    It would be good to see an end to the false distinction between value (me-centred actions) and responsibility (we-centered actions).
    Both Tate & Lyle and Cadburys Dairy Milk recently converted all of their production to Fair Trade at no extra cost to customers, so it can be done.

  • Comment number 5.

    All Professor Michael Sandel on policial philosophys,more importance to Humanism is laudable.
    Now a days.Social services to many persons by big film personalities.church goers,writers,lawyers are worth to understand of their inner urges.
    Generally,common people will laugh on these eminent scholars words in the beginning.But,later onwards,when they started questioning on government slow activites like health care,educational reforms,bribery in some official circles,corporate adventurism all makes us atleast for recognition of sayings,writings from Michael Sandel,famous editors like The Telegraph,The Guardian,CNN,and from BBC!s sincere efforts of broadcasting world news now and then.

  • Comment number 6.

    Why do you think that the position Professor Michael Sandel advocates, a way of moral reasoning by debating and judging the common moral good that we should share in our society, is not prevalent yet even after the obvious failings seen when market forces or utilitarian stances have been used to attempt proceeding on modern moral dilemmas?

    In many non democratic nations or in the Islamic world moral reasoning about the good is already defined by single principles, rules or maxims in their religious and political beliefs that they simply plug in every time there is a disagreement. Here we see that they have societies that don’t accord a liberal conception of respect to fellow citizens with whom they disagree and so certain ideals of society go unrealised.

    I put it that moral reasoning by debate is an ideal for a pluralist society that we should aspire to, however it is a difficult practise to realise because it contradicts a natural one that is rooted in our very existence as humans. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the origin of morality and the explanation for it certainly has to do with culture but far preceding a time when we had any libertarian reasoning behind it. The tendency for animals to favour their kin was because they shared genes. This is then generalised to a sort of being good to everybody because when we lived in tribal groups everybody you met was likely to be your kin. A similar process occurred for reciprocation and this gives a psychology of feeling pity, empathy, sympathy and is made even more persuasive when filtered through subsequent complications of human culture. So the utilitarian process of natural selection, where our early ancestors didn’t make any qualitative distinctions between the worth of preferences, guided and crafted modern morality rooted with things like altruism towards kin and potential reciprocators but then it has filtered through centuries of culture so now we have moral and political philosophy.

    Do you agree that it is evolutionary anti-Darwinian to debate moral reasoning and as such it is very difficult for us to proceed with doing so, much in the same way that the use of contraception is anti-Darwinian and is still seen as taboo practice in many cultures, though we now think of this as being an outdated view we should overcome?


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