Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?
In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes on one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets?
In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life—medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be?
In his New York Times bestseller Justice, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating, with clarity and verve, the hard moral questions we confront in our everyday lives. Now, in What Money Can’t Buy, he provokes an essential discussion that we, in our market-driven age, need to have: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society—and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don’t honor and that money can’t buy?
You probably missed the recent special issue of China Newsweek, so let me bring you up to date. Who do you think was on the cover—named the “most influential foreign figure” of the year in China? Barack Obama? No. Bill Gates? No. Warren Buffett? No. O.K., I'll give you a hint: He's a rock star in Asia, and people in China, Japan and South Korea scalp tickets to hear him. Give up?
This news will not come as a surprise to Harvard students, some 15,000 of whom have taken Sandel's legendary “Justice” class. What makes the class so compelling is the way Sandel uses real-life examples to illustrate the philosophies of the likes of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill.
Sandel, 58, will start by tossing out a question, like, “Is it fair that David Letterman makes 700 times more than a schoolteacher?” or “Are we morally responsible for righting the wrongs of our grandparents' generation?” Students offer competing answers, challenge one another across the hall, debate with the philosophers—and learn the art of reasoned moral argument along the way.
Besides being educational, the classes make great theater—so much so that Harvard and WGBH (Boston's PBS station) filmed them and created a public television series that aired across the country in 2009. The series, now freely available online (at http://www.JusticeHarvard.org), has begun to stir interest in surprising new places.
Last year, Japan's NHK TV broadcast a translated version of the PBS series, which sparked a philosophy craze in Japan and prompted the University of Tokyo to create a course based on Sandel's. In China, volunteer translators subtitled the lectures and uploaded them to Chinese Web sites, where they have attracted millions of viewers. Sandel's recent book—Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?—has sold more than a million copies in East Asia alone. This is a book about moral philosophy, folks!
Here's The Japan Times describing Sandel's 2010 visit: “Few philosophers are compared to rock stars or TV celebrities, but that's the kind of popularity Michael Sandel enjoys in Japan.” At a recent lecture in Tokyo, “long lines had formed outside almost an hour before the start of the evening event. Tickets, which were free and assigned by lottery in advance, were in such demand that one was reportedly offered for sale on the Web for $500.” Sandel began the lecture by asking: “Is ticket scalping fair or unfair?”
But what is most intriguing is the reception that Sandel (a close friend) received in China. He just completed a book tour and lectures at Tsinghua and Fudan universities, where students began staking out seats hours in advance. This semester, Tsinghua started a course called “Critical Thinking and Moral Reasoning,” modeled on Sandel's. His class visit was covered on the national evening news.
Sandel's popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.
At Tsinghua and Fudan, Sandel challenged students with a series of cases about justice and markets: Is it fair to raise the price of snow shovels after a snowstorm? What about auctioning university admissions to the highest bidder? “Free-market sentiment ran surprisingly high,” Sandel said, “but some students argued that unfettered markets create inequality and social discord.”
Sandel's way of teaching about justice “is both refreshing and relevant in the context of China,” Dean Qian Yingyi of Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management, explained in an e-mail. Refreshing because of the style and relevant because “the philosophic thinking among the Chinese is mostly instrumentalist and materialistic,” partly because of “the contemporary obsession on economic development in China.”
Tsinghua's decision to offer a version of Sandel's course, added Qian, “is part of a great experiment of undergraduate education reform currently under way at our school. …This is not just one class; it is the beginning of an era.”
Sandel is touching something deep in both Boston and Beijing. “Students everywhere are hungry for discussion of the big ethical questions we confront in our everyday lives,” Sandel argues. “In recent years, seemingly technical economic questions have crowded out questions of justice and the common good. I think there is a growing sense, in many societies, that G.D.P. and market values do not by themselves produce happiness, or a good society. My dream is to create a video-linked global classroom, connecting students across cultures and national boundaries—to think through these hard moral questions together, to see what we can learn from one another.”
“For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport,” The Nation’s reviewer of Justice remarked. In his acclaimed book—based on his legendary Harvard course—Sandel offers a rare education in thinking through the complicated issues and controversies we face in public life today. It has emerged as a most lucid and engaging guide for those who yearn for a more robust and thoughtful public discourse. “In terms we can all understand,” wrote Jonathan Rauch in The New York Times, Justice“confronts us with the concepts that lurk...beneath our conflicts.”
Affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service, the moral limits of markets—Sandel relates the big questions of political philosophy to the most vexing issues of the day, and shows how a surer grasp of philosophy can help us make sense of politics, morality, and our own convictions as well.
Justice is lively, thought-provoking, and wise—an essential new addition to the small shelf of books that speak convincingly to the hard questions of our civic life.
Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament. The promise is that we will soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may enable us to manipulate our nature—to enhance our genetic traits and those of our children. Although most people find at least some forms of genetic engineering disquieting, it is not easy to articulate why. What is wrong with re-engineering our nature?
The Case against Perfection explores these and other moral quandaries connected with the quest to perfect ourselves and our children. Michael Sandel argues that the pursuit of perfection is flawed for reasons that go beyond safety and fairness. The drive to enhance human nature through genetic technologies is objectionable because it represents a bid for mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements. Carrying us beyond familiar terms of political discourse, this book contends that the genetic revolution will change the way philosophers discuss ethics and will force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda.
In order to grapple with the ethics of enhancement, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the modern world. Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them. But our new powers of biotechnology make these questions unavoidable. Addressing them is the task of this book, by one of America's preeminent moral and political thinkers.
With stem cell legislation pending on Beacon Hill, proponents and opponents
have taken to the airwaves, as lawmakers and citizens struggle to think their
way through the ethical and scientific thicket. In Massachusetts, the real
debate is not about stem cell research as such, but about whether scientists
should be allowed to use cloning techniques to create embryos for stem cell
The bills passed this week by the Legislature would permit stem cell cloning;
Governor Mitt Romney would ban it. While much of the discussion has focused on
scientific complexities, the debate is at heart about ethics.
There are two main objections to cloning embryos for stem cell research—the "right-to-life" objection, and the "brave new world" objection.
The right-to-life objection regards the embryo as inviolable, as morally
equivalent to a fully developed human being. Since extracting stem cells from
the blastocyst (the cluster of cells that comprise the early embryo) destroys
it, those who consider the embryo a person regard such research as the taking
of a human life.
The brave new world objection worries less about the embryo than about where
our new scientific powers may take us. It fears that allowing scientists to
use cloning techniques for stem cell research will lead us down a slippery
slope to dehumanizing practices such as cloning human babies or growing
fetuses in the lab for spare parts.
How persuasive are these objections? The right-to-life objection raises hard
questions about the origins and sanctity of human life. But it is important to
notice that the right-to-life question is not really at issue in the debate
between Romney and the Legislature.
At first glance, Romney's opposition to stem cell cloning seems to be based on
the idea that the embryo is inviolable and should never be destroyed for the
sake of science. The principle at stake is that "no life should be exploited
for the benefit of another," Romney wrote in explaining his opposition to the
stem cell bill. "Every human being has inalienable rights, and first among
them is life."
But this principle is too broad for Romney's position. For if he believes that
embryos are human beings with inalienable rights, he should oppose all
embryonic stem cell research, not only research on cloned embryos. If
extracting stem cells from a blastocyst is morally equivalent to yanking
organs from a baby, then it is abhorrent no matter how the embryo came into
But Romney favors stem cell research on embryos left over from fertility
clinics, provided the parents consent. Given the rigors and uncertainties of
in-vitro fertilization, most fertility clinics create more fertilized eggs
than are ultimately implanted. The "spare" or "surplus" embryos are
typically frozen and ultimately discarded. Some argue that, even if embryos
are persons with inalienable rights, those already doomed might as well be
used for stem cell research.
As Romney reasoned in a radio ad that aired this week, "These embryos would
otherwise be destroyed."
The doomed embryo argument seems to offer Romney the distinction he wants: It
is ethical to sacrifice surplus embryos that will die anyway, but deplorable
to create embryos for the sake of research. But the distinction does not hold
up, because it evades the question whether the surplus embryos should be
created in the first place. The fact that US fertility clinics are allowed to
create and discard excess embryos is as much a policy choice as whether to
permit cloning for stem cell research.
If Romney believes that embryos are persons, he should condemn the creation
and destruction of excess embryos in fertility clinics as vigorously as he is
opposing stem cell cloning. If, on the other hand, he believes the creation
and sacrifice of embryos in fertility clinics is morally acceptable, it's not
clear why he doesn't consider the creation and sacrifice of embryos for stem
cell research also acceptable. After all, both practices serve worthy ends; in
fact, curing diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's is at least as
important as treating infertility.
There is nothing inconsistent in a principled right-to-life position that
opposes all stem cell research and all fertility treatments that create and
discard excess embryos.
But Romney can't have it both ways. He cannot oppose stem cell cloning on the
grounds that it violates the embryo's inalienable right to life and at the
same time defend fertility treatments that create surplus embryos and stem
cell research that uses them.
In the face of this difficulty, Romney might retreat to the brave new world
objection. Permitting scientists to use cloning techniques for stem cell
research, he might argue, will lead down a slippery slope of exploitation and
abuse—therapeutic cloning today, cloned human babies tomorrow.
The danger that embryo research will lead to exploitation and abuse is worth
taking seriously. But sensible regulations can prevent our sliding down the
Rather than ban cloning for stem cell research, the governor should join the
Legislature in banning human reproductive cloning, limiting the length of time
that research embryos can be grown in the lab, and restricting the
commodification of eggs to prevent the exploitation of women.
Such regulations are the friend, not the foe, of responsible science. They can
enable us to redeem the promise of biomedical advance while saving us from
slouching toward a Brave New World.
Michael J. Sandel teaches political philosophy as a professor of government at Harvard University. He is a member of the Weatherhead Center's Executive Committee.