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Editors note: Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel visits the London School of Economics for a series of public discussions in which he deconstructs contemporary ethical dilemmas. Hugh Levinson talks about working with The Public Philosopher. You can hear the programme on Radio 4 at 9am on Tuesday 3, 10 and 17 April 2012.

It's great spending time with a rock star. Everyone's gazing at you, or rather at your new best friend. Teenagers wait yearningly for their chance just to ask nervously for an autograph or even - OMG! - pose for a photo with their hero. It's hormone city. It's exciting. It's wild. And who is the rock star? Mick Jagger? Bruce Springsteen? Or perhaps a newbie like Ed Sheeran?

Well, actually he's er…Michael Sandel. Not a man to strap on a Telecaster or that likely to crowd surf, but a rock star all the same. A rock star of political philosophy.

We were at the London School of Economics to record the first in a series of discussions titled The Public Philosopher. We knew that Michael Sandel, who's a professor at Harvard, had something of a following. After all, he had had a fantastic reception when he delivered a memorable series of Reith Lectures in 2009. But even in those three years, things had changed.

The first sign was when the tickets were released. The twittersphere went insane. "Anyone who doesn't apply on Tuesday is daft," one fan tweeted. "Got a ticket for LSE Michael Sandel Lecture! #wooooo" wrote another.

There were 2,500 ticket requests in just a few hours. The application was window was hurriedly closed before things went too nutty. When we arrived at the venue, there was a long, long queue for return tickets, and the LSE was forced to open up two overflow rooms.

So why the excitement? It has a lot to do with Michael Sandel's remarkable teaching style - or what he sometimes calls "committing acts of public philosophy."

He starts with a current controversy and then throws it out to his audience, via a series of deceptively simple questions. "What do you mean by that? Who disagrees? Tell us why that's bad? Who has an answer to that question?" and his favourite: "What do you think?"

At the LSE, one question he addressed was whether universities should give preference to applicants to poorer backgrounds.

One audience member called Lucy argued that they should. So Michael Sandel posed a scenario where he was an applicant who had done well, but wasn't admitted because of preferences given to poorer students.

"What do you say to me Lucy?" he asked.

Lucy began: "Well I think that if the other person got…"

Sandel interrupted "No, no talk to me..." And by challenging her managed to extract what he described as Lucy's "radical thesis".

Through this exciting, interactive style he gets to the roots of the philosophical notions we hold - often unconsciously - about notions like fairness and the public good. No wonder that the televising of his Harvard series of lectures on justice have been a massive internet hit and won him a global following.

So that's why he gets rock star treatment in London. But as he rather abashedly told me, that's nothing. You should see what happens when he goes to Tokyo….

Hugh Levinson is Editor of The Public Philosopher on BBC Radio 4

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by Darren Gouldas

    on 17 Apr 2012 22:44

    'An expansion of the debate'

    Michael Sandel has tethered us into the question of 'pay' by various means:

    Firstly by examining directly the fairness of the means of access to 'high pay' (or the good life as he referred to it), i.e. through higher education.

    Then (secondly) by questioning the markets position as dictator of the pay we receive as employees.

    And today (at least on the radio) - thirdly - by posing an interesting moral conundrum with regards to the manner in which we pay for our health.

    Now I'm particularly interested in Michael's choice of 'pay' as leitmotif to these three debates because I'm convinced it is this that is actually the next critical issue for humanity to face. This idea being the source of much commotion in the world as exemplified by the recent 'Occupy' movement and, in this way, being a potential source for the responsibility for many of humanities woes - economically, politically and psychologically. In my mind, and I'm sure too that of many many others, the moral and philosophical question of how we pay each other is paramount to the progress of the species. To me, the issue will one day become as blatant as that of the question of human slavery, gender discrimination, race discrimination, sexual discrimination, religious discrimination and humanities abuse of the 'natural' world. The human species has been blessed with the power to reason and has, thankfully, stepped up to this challenge again and again. And so, with regards to the issue of pay, I feel we must now step up once again - as with the aforementioned issues - to attend to this matter as well. But, as with those previous issues, I believe that we collectively have difficulty seeing the true nature of the problem before it has been 'outed', so to speak. And it is only through the slow input into the public arena - through patient and open debate that these issues will develop to a point of clarity for all. Take tonight's dilemma for example. I, personally, find it patently clear that the question of paying someone to be more healthy in order to save the impact on the governments purse in the long term equates directly to the issue of pay in its entirety. For, yes, we think of ourselves as free 'dignified' individuals (to quote our NHS doctor) making choices - freely - in this world in which we live. But the slightest philosophical examination of this concept scratches away the veneer of this ('colloquially' at least) presumed truth. The reality, of course, is that we are all constantly under 'coercion', all constantly being guided by the hand of 'incentive', all constantly being 'bribed', if you will, to follow the precepts of the system that we, in the large majority, find ourselves embroiled within. That system being the trade of our effort as people of this world for reward. Now to my mind the notion of the removal of the vast red tape, that constitutes the organisation of this system, is the holy grail of our time - one far off it would regrettably seem - but one that we should enjoy the challenge of striving towards (the time, energy, stress, etc. to be potentially saved being, perhaps, near incalculable in its profundity). For as Michael quite (astutely) playfully described to us with his 'thank you note discussion' at the end of today's lecture ... and considering how we appear to be creatures capable of such high degrees of sensitivity, compassion and understanding ... the really big philosophical question, for each and every one of us, is whether being 'paid' to do ANYTHING is of any moral value at all.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by oapcyclist

    on 17 Apr 2012 21:55

    Too much emphasis on the concept of equality of opportunity and not enough on the reasons for the structure of inequality. When the latter issue was raised by a female respondent after 30 mins Sandel (unusually) didnt ask her name or seem interested in what she had to say. Disappointing too that her contribution was edited out for the 30 min version at 9.30.pm.

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by Darren Gouldas

    on 12 Apr 2012 23:57

    Firstly - fantastic(!) to have this kind of debate so freely aired and calmly discussed by the public and a man of patience and insight.

    But! (secondly) - I felt a crucial area was jumped over... as follows:

    It was established that it is unfair that more pay is given to persons having the benefit of privileged opportunity - through parents education and monetary levels etc. and then, quite simply, by way of their intrinsic talent and further still even, with regards to a persons ability to manifest motivation itself. I thought this was very well argued for and, personally, can't agree more with the notion. (Please let's hear arguments against it!) But then Michael leapt us forward to a perfect meritocracy, missing out a huge area in-between and, in my opinion, the region where the real crux of today’s agenda lies. Furthermore (given a perfect meritocracy) it is beyond me to consider the very notion that we could measure a persons actual effort in terms of how hard they apply themselves to a task - in the light of how we know one person will perform a task with little effort whilst another take great effort. (But anyone who has a proposal for how to achieve this, again, please speak up!). So... with regards that crucial area between the two points I have the following thoughts:

    The market does seem like a very good arbitrator of 'worth' but we know it fails at times. Whilst the idea of some kind of a 'central body' determining these matters is obviously prone to subjectivity and so clearly is unsatisfactory. Measurement of effort (as discussed) is then, of course, fraught with difficulty - but, nevertheless, desirable. It strikes me then that a compromise is in order... one to deal with today’s world whilst we wait for the magic 'effort calculating machine' to materialize. This compromise, thankfully, is one that is already available, in that it exists - people use it today - just not that many people. What I'm referring to is 'one wage companies'.

    Lets start with a simple explanation of the set up: A one wage company pays its employees and directors etc. all equally, CEO to cleaner - on an hourly basis. But you are paid with a yearly salary (with agreed hours) and then for overtime if indeed necessary. As such you are reviewed by peer groups that can be rotated etc.

    Then the company competes in the market with other companies as per usual, in the same entrepreneurial manner as today - no change to the system required. If the company is successful it can raise the wage for all who work for it. In this way - every member of staff has an incentive to do a good job and work hard. Incentive to be a manager or a highly skilled technician etc. will then be based on an individual’s talent and aptitude for the task only.

    I'd advocate a kind of 'kite mark' to assist these companies - in a sort of 'cfc free' logo manner. So that the public can 'buy organic' - i.e. easily make the choice to support one wage companies.

    Now, I feel that this notion could be applied across all fields. For the idea that only large amounts of cash attracts 'the brightest and the best' seems to me a fallacy. We all know of academics who give away most of their wage to charity and very talented people who dedicate their lives to helping others or simply enjoying their privilege rather than chasing money. To which I can only presume, in the manner of philanthropic Victorian bankers, that there are persons out there who would enjoy, and be highly capable of rising to, the challenge of running a large bank without taking large remuneration for their efforts. Their simply must be!

    In this way - individual 'one wage' firms would compete with each other and other 'non one wage' firms with the discretion of 'natural selection' providing for obtaining the best results. And so it will be the market itself that will determine if the concept is of worth. Indeed, all institutions could work this way, not just those within markets. For example a government based entity like the NHS - whilst still providing the same 'health care for all service' could move, at the end of one tax year, from a hierarchy of wages to an evened out 'one wage'. Think how good the cleaning staff would become - for they'd feel as respected and essential as the rest of the staff, to which today we all know only to well that they indeed are ... for a surgeon is impotent to achieve without a properly clean hospital. And if my surgeon is motivated to operate on me in order to earn large levels of remuneration then let them go private. I myself can't imagine the best doctors being monetarily motivated - it goes against logic - and is no different to today really.

    So imagine if you will, the camaraderie created and the jealousy removed whilst still providing for the reverie, excitement, motivation and incentive obtained from competition. The combination appeals to me greatly... the idea of humanity itself being allowed to 'self determine' whether it wishes to compete for the best products and services - whilst simultaneously, with regards to wages, ... leveling the 'paying field'.

    Please speak up with any flaws to this proposal - or indeed with any further embellishments to expand the concept.

    Many thanks for reading.

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  • Comment number 27. Posted by dai2

    on 10 Apr 2012 17:11

    1) I agree to some extent with jaystar: neither market works very well. In this country, as far as the NHS is concerned, there is effectively only one buyer (the NHS) and only one supplier (the union). With bankers, the owners (shareholders) are in a weak position relative to the management, and there is only a very limited supply of candidates for the top jobs in these very big banks since there aren't many banks to produce them.
    2) I didn't think like was being compared with like: ALL nurses are being compared with SOME bankers. Not all bankers get paid huge sums. And if there were an open market for nurses, I dare say there would emerge a small number of top nurses, who would command a large salary, as do top doctors even now.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by jaystar

    on 10 Apr 2012 11:11

    Should a banker be paid more than a nurse?

    A perfectly functioning market is the best way of setting the pay of an employed person (not perfect, but better than any other system). The problem is the market does not always function perfectly for various reasons eg monopoly, collusion.

    Where the Government is the monopoly employer, the market can't function properly.
    Bankers are an example where the the market is not functioning perfectly for reasons of collective self interest of the group involved.
    Footballers' pay is a result of problems in the TV and broadcasting market, and restrictive collaboration by Football clubs.

    The Government has a responsibility for taking steps to ensure as far as possible that markets function properly. Where this is not possible it should ensure that pay differentials are socially acceptable.
    What is socially acceptable is a political decision any government has to take. If it does not, it risks social breakdown.

    To limit pay differentials the Government can use the tax system, taxing the companies or organisation that pay salaries that abuse socially acceptable differentials.

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by sarah

    on 5 Apr 2012 14:57

    I thought I heard mainly British accents from students , one
    American , one Irish studying in America and some students from India .

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by Richard Jenkyn

    on 5 Apr 2012 06:42

    Your euphoria over this programme is entirely unjustified. Even Harry Redknapp could have done a better job. Sandel invited mainly American students to make comments from LSE when this should have been a discussion relevant to the UK and of interest to a Radio 4 audience. Perhaps the BBC would consider some UK "Polymaths" next time. How much did this US invitee cost us I wonder.

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by sarah

    on 5 Apr 2012 00:09

    the last comment read ..." what can be done...." to level the playing field for university entrance between the rich and poor , improving social mobility and enriching the discussion and representation in our universities and leadership positions . Surely one of the most comprehensive and effective ways of addressing the problem would be to fund State Education properly so that those attending state schools do not miss out on so much privilege and opportunity , and to pay teachers a realistic salary and reward them properly for the job they do , thereby attracting and retaining and motivating teachers . ( mostly a female dominated profession ..... ) This strikes me as a great value for money strategy to improve the the quality and diversity of university entrance . Teachers teach critical thinking , and a variety of other life skills , our society would be better off with stronger state sector education , and I simply do not believe that this would be too expensive . Education IS the basis of a thriving democracy , without strong state sector education , we are all the worser - off . By the way , I am a nurse , I've worked in Paediatrics for 30 years , AND I WILL BE TUNING IN !!!!!!!! I live abroad now , and I am disgusted by the classest attitude in British society when I visit the UK . Like many in my age group , I left because nurses are paid so badly in the UK and working conditions are horrendous ...and yes , we save lives , improve the quality of life , and death , we are mainly a female workforce , and totally underpaid and rushed off our feet . The haemorrhage of a skilled workforce of British Trained nurses continues , and the NHS is on its knees , such that when my Mum needed treatment for cancer there was not a bed because there were no nurses to run the bed ....... my family and the doctors and nurses at the hospital had to improvise to find a bed run by skilled capable nurses ......Education and health are part of social capital . Nurture it and society is better off , underfund it and we all suffer .

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by jn245

    on 4 Apr 2012 16:27

    *prevent parents from doing the best...

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  • Comment number 21. Posted by jn245

    on 4 Apr 2012 16:21

    ...That's why I enjoyed attending a discussion about a very complex issue, although I regret that shrill comments like mine stupidly simplified the problem somewhat. I fundamentally agree that no one should nor could ever stop preventing parents from doing the best that they can for their children. At the macro level though, if improving social mobility and wider access to university is something to aspire towards, what should we be doing differently?

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