The Celebrity Political Philosopher
Michael Sandel is one of the most influential modern-day political philosophers. The prominent figure has been described as having the “global profile of a rockstar” 1. He has delivered speeches on some of the most interesting and controversial moral and political issues pertinent to our lives not only in lecture halls, but in stadiums.1 His books, which cover a multitude of topics including justice, financial markets, and ethics have been translated into over 27 languages.2 So, what has made Sandel such a popular figure?
Sandel has revolutionized the way that we think about traditional economic markets; while typically, they are positioned as being detached from social spheres, Sandel has argued that market thinking and institutions have crept their way into multiple aspects of modern life and that they deserve some critical analysis.3 He seeks to use philosophy to enhance the perspective of sects that he believes do not spend enough time thinking about the moral implications of their mechanisms, whether it be to do with stem-cell research, immigration, the current COVID-19 crisis, or politics.
On their shoulders
For millennia, great thinkers and scholars have been working to understand the quirks of the human mind. Today, we’re privileged to put their insights to work, helping organizations to reduce bias and create better outcomes.
Perfection May Not be Ethical
“First, individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the general good, and second, the principles of justice that specify these rights cannot be premised on any particular vision of the good life. What justifies the rights is not that they maximize the general welfare or otherwise promote the good, but rather that they comprise a fair framework within which individuals and groups can choose their own values and ends, consistent with a similar liberty for others.”
- Michael Sandel critiquing liberalism in his paper “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self.
As science continues to make advances and develop new procedures, Sandel began to question the ethical component of genetic mutation. In his 2009 book The Case Against Perfection, Sandel explores moral quandaries that the promise of biomedical science brings to light. Although biogenetics can help us treat and even prevent a number of diseases, it also brings the possibility of genetically editing out imperfections in our genes to get the perfect “designer baby”. His book acts as a response to the uneasiness that these possibilities instilled in people but who found it difficult to articulate their apprehension.5 For Sandel, these possibilities represent the need to bring spiritual notions back into the question of science and morality.
Sandel worries that the temptation to enhance human nature through scientific technologies risks a kind of mastery and dominion over life that fails to understand the beauty of human character and its achievements and powers.5 He urges people to understand that a desire for perfection overshadows the natural abilities and gifts that are bestowed upon individuals. We can see his religious upbringing playing a role in his views regarding bioethics, as he suggests that children need to be understood as a blessing rather than something we should be toying around with.6 He believes that children are God’s creation and humans should not try and obtain this same kind of divine power. The book examines other scenarios where genetic modification is used to seemingly ‘enhance’ humanity, including when athletes either use drugs or genetic modification to give them more desirable traits for their sport.6
“In the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”
- Michael Sandel in What Money Can’t Buy 
Sandel continued his critique of genetic engineering in a later 2014 article for the Atlantic with the same title.7 He takes a deeper dive into four examples of bioethics that already circulate: muscle enhancement, memory enhancement, growth-hormone treatment and reproductive technologies that enable parents to choose the sex (and other genetic traits) of their children. Although many modern philosophers shy away from the topic as it verges on theology, for Sandel, there is no area of our lives in which we shouldn’t discuss the philosophical and moral implications of our actions.7
His Critique Against Liberalism
Sandel is often called a communitarian, although he himself doesn’t fully identify with the term.8 Communitarianism is a social and political philosophy that emphasizes citizenship, civic virtues and the common good; in other words, communitarianism believes in communal effort.9 It opposes traditional liberalism which prioritizes individual rights and freedoms over the common good. Although Sandel believes that we need to place a greater emphasis on the collective, he rejects the part of communitarianism that suggests people need to blindly conform to hierarchy or tradition.8
Sometimes, hierarchies and traditions must be challenged. Sandel is instead interested in how people figure out how to live together even when they have different opinions and values about what the common good is. His own stake in communitarian ideals has more to do with criticism of excess individualism prevalent in the U.S., which he thinks needs to be replaced by greater importance on the moral ties of family and community. 8 The book that first got Sandel’s name on the map was a critique of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Rawls’ book suggested that the main task of government is to distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources necessary to allow individuals to lead freely chosen lives.10 In his 1982 critique Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Sandel argued that Rawls relied too heavily on conceptions of individualism in his theories of morality and justice. Sandel suggested that our selves are greatly influenced and shaped by various communal attachments and therefore they should not be sacrificed for personal gain or freedom. Sandel’s critique suggested that politics should not only be about securing conditions to make autonomous choice possible but also that it should promote social attachments vital to the self.10 Sandel’s emphasis on community has been a prominent part of his career.
“Markets are useful instruments for organizing productive activity. But unless we want to let the market rewrite the norms that govern social institutions, we need a public debate about the moral limits of markets.”
- Michael Sandel in Justice 
Over 20 years after his critique of Rawls, Sandel continues to publish work advocating for a diminished understanding of the benefits of individualism. In September of 2020, Sandel published The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good which proposes that individualism and liberalism might be some reasons behind the increasing polarization of people in the U.S.11 He suggests that individualism leads people to believe that their success is all their own doing and that therefore, other people’s failure is also due to their own doing. The rich continue to succeed with no care (and even a distaste) for those failing, which causes greater inequality. Instead, Sandel proposes we reframe our idea of success to understand that luck has a lot to do with it and that we should stand in solidarity with our peers.11
The (Non-Existent) Limits of Money and the Market
Often, when economists discuss money and financial markets, they are not overly concerned about the morality of its implications in different sectors of life. Traditional economics is especially uninvolved with ethics, only interested in the way that consumers make choices based on maximizing utility. For traditional economics, the right choice is the one that gives people the greatest satisfaction following their economic decisions. However, Sandel believes that money has taken too great a place in our everyday lives and that market principles have encroached themselves in areas where they shouldn’t.
In his book What Money Can’t Buy, published in 2012, Sandel suggests that markets are not morally neutral mechanisms and that economics therefore needs to pay attention to the ethical implications of its field. Sandel’s book was spurred by some controversial features of life insurance. Although life insurance is supposed to mitigate the economic impact felt by dependents of an individual after they pass away, it has surpassed this role. In the book, Sandel outlines the story of a Walmart employee who collapsed after helping carry a television to a customer’s car and then died a week later. It was not this man’s family that received money from an insurance company - instead, Walmart received $300,000 because of a life insurance policy they had on their employees. This scenario is not unique - it is known as dead peasant’s insurance.
“Economics wants to present itself as a value-free science. And there is an allure to that idea, but it is impossible to defend.”
- Michael Sandel in an interview with The Guardian 
Sandel shows that this is an example of how market thinking penetrates an industry in which it has no place, at least ethically.12 In his book, he writes that “over the past three decades, markets - and market values - have come to govern our lives as never before.” 12 He asks other intriguing ethical questions about market encroachment in the book, like whether it is ethical, or beneficial, to pay children to read books or to get good grades (which could lead to the overjustification effect).13 Is it ethical to pay people to be part of clinical trials or to donate their organs? Should we be able to buy our way into jumping the public queue?14 All of these questions are based on Sandel’s attempt to answer one overarching question: what are the moral limits of markets? Although Sandel isn’t completely against markets, he believes that they should only impose their values in certain circumstances and fields. Although market values can be efficient, he shows that these come at the cost of morality. For Sandel, there are some things which money shouldn’t be able to buy.
Michael Sandel was born in 1953 in Minneapolis into a Jewish family. Religion still plays an important role in his and his family’s life, as he has said religion provides a framework of morality for young minds.15 In his youth, Sandel enjoyed going to baseball games. He felt like he was part of a community at the diamond and he regrets the commercialization of sports as an example of market values becoming too embedded within other social spheres.15 His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 13 and Sandel attended Palisades High School where he became President of the student body.
“Change has to take root in people’s minds before it can be legislated. My faith in the reversibility of the idea that everything is up for sale is challenged every day. But against that is real hunger for some other way of organising things.”
- Michael Sandel in an interview with The Guardian 
From a young age, Sandel was a risk-taker, made evident by the fact that at the age of 18, Sandel challenged Ronald Reagan to a debate. At the time, Reagan was the governor of the state of California and lived in the same town as Sandel. Likely to Sandel’s surprise, Reagan agreed to the debate where he won-over 2,400 left-leaning teenagers.16 It was the first of many debates that Sandel would engage in throughout his life. After his stint with Reagan, Sandel chose to pursue politics at college. While at college, Sandel has the opportunity to intern for the Houston Chronicle and by chance, was able to cover the (now-famous) Watergate hearings. While he had originally intended to pursue political journalism, he believed that he would never be able to experience anything quite as exciting as the Watergate hearings in that field.17 He obtained his degree in 1975 from Brandeis University, where he gave the commencement address.18 He then went on to study welfare economics as a Rhodes scholar at Balliol College.17
Again, another chance occurrence made Sandel change career tracts. Philosopher Alan Montefiore suggested that he spend his holiday gaining a theoretical grounding for his studies, which is when he read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. 17 Thus was born Sandel’s passion for philosophy, which was enhanced by his interactions with a leading thinker in political philosophy who taught at Oxford, Charles Taylor. Taylor was a proponent of communitarianism as well and influenced much of what Sandel wrote in his critique of Rawls.17
Fast forward to today, and Sandel now teaches political philosophy at Harvard. He delivers the course “Justice” every year, which 15,000 students have attended to date, making it one of Harvard’s most popular classes.19 It is also the first Harvard course to be made available online, likely following Sandel’s own approach to political philosophy; that it must be applied outside the classroom. The course has been seen by millions of people worldwide and earned Sandel the title of “most influential foreign figure of the year” in China in 2010.19 To bridge the gap between academia and the market, Sandel has also served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.2 Sandel married a fellow Harvard colleague, Kiku Adatto, a professor of sociology and government.20 The two have two sons together who are now grown up.
Where can we learn more?
Committed to applying philosophy outside the realms of academia, Sandel has made his Harvard 12-part lecture “Justice'' public and can be found here. He also wrote a book with the same title that continues to think through complex and controversial issues having to do morality. Additionally, Sandel has recorded a host of videos for BBC. His first series of lectures was titled “The Public Philosopher” and covers a range of topics spanning all the way from analyzing the morality of democracy to whether popular pub games are ethical.
In a newer series, “The Global Philosopher”, Sandel leads discussions with leaders and thinkers from across the global on the ethical component of issues like climate change and success. Sandel has also delivered a number of TED talks. In his first from 2009, Sandel probes a series of questions about the morality of justice and what role it plays in our own lives. His second laments the lost art of the democratic debate, whilst his third advances many of his ideas about the interference of markets into all aspects of life which he began in What Money Can’t Buy.
His last TED talk in 2020 was all about his most recent book, The Tyranny of Merit. Two books that we haven’t yet mentioned are Sandel’s 1998 book Democracy's Discontent and Public Philosophy. Democracy’s Discontent examines the American political landscape at the time, but his ideas about how politics’ loss of civic voice has led to polarization are still relevant today. Public Philosophy is a collection of Sandel’s essays on the role of morality in politics, spanning from topics like LGBTQ+ rights to assisted suicide.
- Sandel, M. (2013, May 14). Michael Sandel: I want politics to be about big things. Interview by T. Frank. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-radio-and-tv-22516173
- Michael J. Sandel Bio. (n.d.). Scholars at Harvard. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://scholar.harvard.edu/sandel/bio
- The Moral Limits of Markets. (2010, April 20). Harvard Magazine. https://harvardmagazine.com/2010/04/moral-limits-of-markets
- Goodreads. (n.d.). Michael J. Sandel Quotes. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/90763.Michael_J_Sandel
- Sandel, M. J. (2009). The case against perfection: Ethics in the age of genetic engineering. Harvard University Press.
- Antonios, N. (2011, April 18). The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (2007), by Michael J. Sandel. The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/case-against-perfection-ethics-age-genetic-engineering-2007-michael-j-sandel
- Sandel, M. J. (2014, April). The Case Against Perfection. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/04/the-case-against-perfection/302927/
- Sandel, M. (2017, January 1). Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel. Interview by G. Schneider. Egon Zehnder. https://www.egonzehnder.com/insight/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel
- Etzioni, A. (2011, August 4). Communitarianism. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/communitarianism
- Communitarianism. (2020, May 5). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/communitarianism/
- The Tyranny of Merit. (2016, June 14). US Macmillan. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374289980
- Lanchester, J. (2012, May 17). What Money Can't Buy by Michael Sandel – review. the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/17/what-money-cant-buy-michael-sandel-review
- Goodreads. (n.d.). What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13221379-what-money-can-t-buy
- Montanye, J. A. (2013). Book Review: What Money Can’t Buy The Moral Limits of Markets. The Independent Review, 18(1). https://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?id=951
- Sandel, M. (2013, April 27). Michael Sandel: This much I know. Interview by T. Adams. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/apr/27/michael-sandel-this-much-i-know
- Sandel, M. (2020, September 6). Michael Sandel: 'The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit'. Interview. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/06/michael-sandel-the-populist-backlash-has-been-a-revolt-against-the-tyranny-of-merit
- Anthony, A. (2012, April 8). Michael Sandel: master of life's big questions. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2012/apr/08/observer-profile-michael-sandel
- Famed professor Michael Sandel '75 to deliver 'Justice' March 1. (2010, February 26). Brandeis NOW. https://www.brandeis.edu/now/2010/february/sandel.html
- Friedman, T. L. (2011, June 14). Justice Goes Global. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/opinion/15friedman.html
- Kiku Adatto Bio. (n.d.). Scholars at Harvard. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://scholar.harvard.edu/kikuadatto/bio