The Chronicle Review

Michael Sandel Wants to Talk to You About Justice

Taking his popular Harvard course to public television may raise the scholar's profile and, just maybe, the tone of political discourse

Rick Friedman

Michael Sandel, Professor of Government of Harvard University, photographed in Memorial Hall, Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
September 28, 2009

Michael Sandel, a 56-year-old political scientist who teaches one of Harvard's most popular courses, "Justice," shrinks that university's cavernous Sanders Theatre down to a seminar room. An exaggeration, yes, but not by much. Sandel handles 1,000 students more adroitly than most teachers can a tenth, a fiftieth, that number.

Watch him present the infamous 19th-century law case The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, a staple of the literature but new to these students. From the lectern, the elegant Sandel—lean, white hair, three-button suit—tells the grim story, and he tells it hushed and urgent. In 1884 the British ship Mignonette foundered in the South Atlantic. The four crewmen, including the captain, escaped in a lifeboat, with only two cans of turnips for sustenance. One of the survivors was the cabin boy, 17, an orphan, who soon took sick after drinking seawater.

On the 19th day at sea, utterly desperate, the captain, Thomas Dudley, suggested drawing lots to determine who would be killed so that the others might survive by eating him. One man objected, and the plan was put off. The next day, however, the captain told the others to look away, offered a prayer, and slit the cabin boy's throat.

Four days later, the crew spotted a ship "as we were having our breakfast," the captain later wrote. Back in England, two of the three survivors were charged with murder.

By utilitarian logic—the greatest good for the greatest number—it's hard to object to the act. Yet many in the hall do object, and Sandel, stalking the stage, scanning the room, wants to know why. When one student suggests that the act would have been justified had the boy, Richard Parker, consented, Sandel replies, in an amused tone: "What would that scenario look like? Dudley is there, penknife in hand, but instead of the prayer, or before the prayer, he says, 'Parker, would you mind?'"

Students seem to think the proposed lottery would have justified the killing. Sandel probes: Can a fair process sanction something so abhorrent? And what if the loser changes his mind after the fact? What's more, doesn't the student who says "You shouldn't be eating human, anyway!" have a valid point?

Debates over ethical dilemmas like the British cannibalism case echo late into the night across Harvard. In the semesters Sandel teaches it, "Justice," officially Moral Reasoning 22, enrolls roughly one in six Harvard undergrads. They debate inequality, tax policy, affirmative action, gay marriage, abortion, and more, all while reading canonical political-theory texts: Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, John Rawls, Robert Nozick.

Sandel's lecturing style and mannerisms (a hint of a lisp; the way he lifts an arm, straining slightly against the cut of his suit, to point to students in the back rows) are by now reference points for 14,000-plus Harvard alumni. "I took 'Justice' in about '85, and it stuck with me at least as much as, if not more than, any other course I took as an undergrad," says David Laibson, now a Harvard economics professor.

Campus legend has it that Sandel provided the physical inspiration for Mr. Burns, the villainous nuclear-plant owner on The Simpsons, for which many Harvard graduates have written. Sandel's geniality and earnestness makes the association delicious even if the parallel ends at body type and male pattern baldness.

This fall a wider audience is invited to experience the Sandel phenomenon, as public-television stations across the country air a 12-episode documentary based on his course. Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? is a collaboration between Harvard and Boston's WGBH, which had been trying to leverage its proximity to the university to create fresh programming. Harvard, meanwhile, had been looking for a way to open up some of its academic offerings to the public. America's oldest university has been slow to experiment on that front, largely standing by as MIT, for instance, made many of its syllabi, tests, and videotaped lectures available online.

"I don't believe that it's possible fully to replicate the in-person classroom experience using new technology," says Sandel, who first taught "Justice" in 1980, "but one goal of this project is to see how close we can come." At the TV show's Web site,, viewers are encouraged to join in online conversations, to take polls on moral questions, and to start book groups. They will even have virtual access to some of Sandel's teaching assistants, who lead small classes that supplement the lectures. The content will be archived online, and the hope is that it will provide the raw material for high-school or college courses, and independent book groups, for years.

If the series offers an object lesson in how to elevate the tone of public discourse, all the better, its creators say.

But the broadcasts, along with a tie-in book of the same name and a substantial book tour, also represent Sandel's chance to break through to a new level of intellectual influence. For while he is in large part a classic teacher during the course, defining difficult terms like "deontology" or summarizing the views of the late libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, he also has a distinctive conception of justice to sell. Judged by the policies he winds up advocating, Sandel is a man of the left or center-left. But in theoretical terms, he believes that modern liberalism represents a hollow view of the world, one that refuses to take up discussions of the best way to live. It is all too content with defending the right of citizens to do whatever they please, as long as they hurt no one else.

The main weakness of liberalism, he says in an interview, "is the attempt to be nonjudgmental with respect to substantive moral and religious conceptions, the attempt to be neutral toward competing conceptions of the good life.

"My main quarrel with liberalism is not that liberalism places great emphasis on individual rights—I believe rights are very important and need to be respected," he says. "The issue is whether it is possible to define and to justify our rights without taking a stand on the moral and even sometimes religious convictions that citizens bring to public life."

He speaks often of "virtue" and "the good," which can make him sound a bit like William Bennett. That's not an accident. Left-wing squeamishness over moral and religious judgments has handed conservatives a political gift, Sandel thinks.

In his course and in the new book, he presents political philosophy as having three major strands over the past several hundred years: utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill), contractual or "procedural" liberalism (Rawls), and a liberalism grounded more deeply in Aristotelian theories of virtue. The last, however, is a distinctly minority viewpoint, shared by Sandel and a handful of intellectual compatriots, including the McGill University emeritus professor Charles Taylor and Notre Dame's Alasdair MacIntyre.

Rawls, the late Harvard philosopher and author of A Theory of Justice, one of the most influential political-theory texts of the 20th century, looms large in Sandel's criticisms of liberalism. Rawls envisioned the creation of a just society as a two-part process. First, a structure had to be devised to ensure that no citizen would infringe on another's rights and that each citizen had enough resources to pursue his or her life's goals. To create that structure, Rawls imagined a rational debate among idealized individuals; famously, these idealized figures would debate behind a "veil of ignorance," unaware of where they'd end up in the new society, and so very likely inclined to protect society's least well-off. A basic assumption was that citizens would have quite different ideas of what "the good life" might entail. Rawls wrote that a citizen might conclude that the good life was to stare at beautiful blades of grass as often as possible; so be it.

Sandel doesn't think questions about the good life can, or should, be set aside in that way; at every stage, they must be part of the debate over how societies should work. And he aims higher than grass-gazing.

Another point of contention: Many liberals today argue that religious citizens must translate their views, for the purposes of civic debate, into terms that all citizens can understand. Sandel wants "a more faith-friendly idea of public reason."

"Martin Luther King drew explicitly on Christian themes," Sandel says. "The 'Letter From Birmingham Jail,' which is one of the great documents of the civil-rights movement, drew explicitly on his Christian faith. I don't think that makes it a less valuable contribution to public life than secular arguments against segregation."

With fame comes controversy, as Sandel is discovering. He met some resistance at a recent Harvard event, the first formal public discussion of his book, featuring the columnist Peggy Noonan, Harvard Law's Lani Guinier, and the historian Niall Ferguson.

After Sandel summarized his idea of justice, Ferguson was the first to reply. "I'm not sure you're ever going to get me to be enthusiastic about 'virtue,'" he said. "I just see Robespierre every time you use that word—the embodiment of republican virtue, sending people to the guillotine."

The exchange touched upon some key questions raised by Sandel's work. Can one stress the importance of group solidarity without reigniting the ethnic and religious tensions that liberalism was designed to ameliorate? Can the notion that some ways of living are better than others, and that politicians and judges should make such judgments, be resuscitated without breeding intolerance or coercion?

Michael Sandel did not intend to become a political philosopher, even as late as 1975, when he had begun his graduate studies at Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar coming from Brandeis University.

At first it was the give-and-take of policy debate that attracted him. Sandel grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and moved, at 13, to West Los Angeles, making Gov. Ronald Reagan a distant neighbor. As president of the senior class at Pacific Palisades High School in 1971, Sandel wanted Reagan to discuss politics onstage with him at the school. Sandel hand-delivered an invitation, along with some jellybeans, to Reagan's Southern California house, and, surprisingly, the governor said yes. A contemporary picture shows a longhaired but neatly coiffed Sandel dressed respectfully in tweed coat, dress shirt, and tie, notebook in hand, alongside the future president. Alas, Sandel says, "I didn't lay a glove on him."

He went on to Brandeis, where he took one political-theory course his freshman year and found the texts dense and off-putting. His senior thesis was on the decline of political parties in recent American history. At Oxford he had thoughts of studying welfare economics, but a professor, Alan Montefiore, suggested that Sandel needed to take a step back and read some more-abstract works first. He was skeptical but toted four of them on a midterm vacation to Spain: Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, and The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt. He's been sifting through the implications of those works ever since.

It was a heady time at Oxford. Charles Taylor arrived to take up a chair in political philosophy and quickly became a mentor and intellectual hero. Ronald Dworkin was teaching philosophy of law.

Sandel's first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982), argued that Rawls had tripped right out the gate by imagining that human beings could be considered apart not only from all social ties, but also from the ideals that gave their lives purpose. To imagine such a decontextualized human being, Sandel argued, "is not to conceive an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth."

In subsequent works, notably Democracy's Discontent (Harvard University Press, 1996), Sandel expanded his criticism of liberalism's hollowness to take in much of contemporary society. In one striking chapter, he suggested that the difference between New Dealers and Goldwater libertarians involved chiefly means, not ends. Both thought the purpose of government, and economics, was to provide enough resources so that people could pursue their own idea of the good life. In contrast, Sandel offered up the vision of Robert F. Kennedy, who remains a touchstone for the professor. In a 1968 speech at the University of Kansas, quoted in Sandel's new book, Kennedy said: "Gross domestic product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. … It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

Sandel hears echoes of RFK in the rhetoric of President Obama—a former community organizer who speaks frankly of his reliance on his faith, espouses national service, and calls on Americans to embrace causes larger than themselves—and holds out hope that the new president marks a turning point in liberal politics, one that takes account of the public weal.

Sandel's students provide counterevidence to the theory (put forward by the federal judge and legal scholar Richard Posner, among others) that moral argument doesn't change minds, that morality sits deeper in the psyche than reason can reach. Ali Zaidi, who took "Justice" in the fall of 2005, when the course was filmed, entered Harvard with a conservative, bootstrap mentality, he says. By 2008 he was campaigning for Obama, and now he works in the federal Office of Management and Budget. "I wouldn't put all the credit or blame on that course," he says, "but certainly it was profoundly influential in the way I thought about my politics, and in the way I understand my place in the broader community."

"Justice" is hardly a political-indoctrination camp, however. Sandel makes a point of giving students with dissenting views a hearing. In the TV series, for example, it's clear that most students are hostile to the libertarian worldview. So, to counter that bias, Sandel assembles a cadre of all-star libertarian students, dubbing them "Team Libertarian." After they ably field numerous questions, the class applauds.

Sandel has also, several times, invited N. Gregory Mankiw, who leads Harvard's other megacourse, "Principles of Economics," EC 10, to discuss markets and morality. Mankiw has explained why he and other economists oppose laws against "price gouging," even during emergencies like hurricanes. (They argue that high prices increase the supply of goods and steer them to the people who value them the most.) Sandel endorses existing price-gouging laws on the grounds that they discourage citizens from trying to exploit one another—in other words, they foster virtue—and says the economists lack empirical evidence for their claims.

(EC 10 can seem like the anti-"Justice": Sandel thinks a broad cross section of society should serve in the military, for reasons of solidarity and civic pride; Mankiw tells his class to thank Milton Friedman for freeing them from the draft.)

Alex Harris, a standout on Team Libertarian and now a student at Stanford Law, says he experienced no discrimination in Sandel's course. "In fact," he says, "I think you tend to do better when you have an uncommon view you defend using novel arguments."

For many people, the attraction of the TV series will be Sandel's deft case studies and his Socratic polish. His broader argument may well be lost on them. He offers up such tantalizers as: Can a monetary figure be placed on human life? How can Shakespeare's superiority over The Simpsons be proved? (Is Shakespeare superior?) If we own our bodies, as secular libertarians argue, does that mean consensual cannibalism is OK?

Many of his examples do, it is true, place pressure on individualistic liberalism, which he thinks does not leave room for group solidarity. In 1984, for example, Israel went out of its way to help Ethiopian Jews who had fled to Sudan to escape famine. Should Israel have rescued all the Ethiopian refugees, regardless of their ethnicity and faith—or, as Sandel believes, did ethnic and religious ties inspire the altruism in the first place?

A high-profile contemporary controversy in which Sandel thinks liberal neutrality fails is same-sex marriage. Liberals often suggest that the legality of same-sex marriage ought to be defended on the grounds of equal treatment of citizens. Yet as long as the state chooses to involve itself in marriage, he contends, citizens, legislators, and judges cannot avoid debating morality. They must debate the telos, or ultimate purpose, of marital unions. If freedom were all that was at stake, conservatives would be correct that there would be no grounds for banning polygamy.

In the 2003 court decision that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, Sandel hears two strands of liberalism wrestling: the proceduralist and the virtue-minded. First, Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, cited a passage from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that epitomizes what Sandel objects to: "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." But then she went on to engage the moral and substantive issues: She rebutted the view that marriage is centrally about procreation, noting that heterosexual couples with no interest in having children can wed. And she concluded that marriage "is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family." To deny marriage to same-sex couples would reinforce a "destructive stereotype" that gay partnerships are "inherently unstable and inferior." That argument isn't neutral about morality, Sandel notes approvingly.

Of course, it also shows that some liberals have been doing more or less what Sandel advocates all along: engaging the moral dimensions of policy.

There is, in fact, no shortage of liberals who think that Sandel caricatures liberalism. Would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., really, as Sandel claims, have to rework his rhetoric, under today's rules of liberal neutrality, to eliminate the references to Christianity?

Joshua Cohen, a professor of political science, philosophy, and law at Stanford, doesn't think so. He argues that King already spoke to a broad public. "Whenever King makes one of these arguments about racial equality," says Cohen, "you will always see a whole series of arguments. He will say something about his religious convictions. He would make an argument from the Declaration of Independence. There was always an appeal to our political tradition." That is a far different matter, Cohen observes, from making an argument grounded purely in one faith—different, for example, from citing Thomas Aquinas on when a fetus is "ensouled" and therefore fully alive.

Others point out that, contrary to what Sandel sometimes says, such liberal ideals as religious toleration, equality before the law, and representative democracy assume a dense network of social relations. Among those critics is the New York University law professor Stephen Holmes, whose scathing 1993 book The Anatomy of Antiliberalism included Sandel in a category he called "soft antiliberal."

"Soft antiliberals malign liberalism verbally, but when faced with practical choices reveal a surprising fondness for liberal protections and freedoms," Holmes wrote. (More provocatively, he wrote that soft antiliberals "demilitarize the ideals of 'virtue' and community, using these watered-down terms where their predecessors would have invoked 'manliness' and 'das Volk.'")

In the end they are toothless, he concluded. "Look, I would like a society in which people didn't watch TV but watched Shakespeare," Holmes says today. "But, first of all, it isn't going to happen, and, second, I wouldn't want the government strong enough that it could make that happen." Without the coercive power of the state, talk about the good life is just something that sounds nice in a seminar.

One can debate the good life, however, without calling the police on the citizens who lose the argument, says Charles Taylor, of McGill—and the argument can still matter. Sandel's philosophy, Taylor contends, is not far from that of de Tocqueville, who rejected abstraction and looked at how real democracies, like the United States, worked. And one way they worked, Taylor says—and Sandel concurs—was by producing a sense of solidarity among their citizens, in part through voluntary associations and other group-based allegiances.

"If everyone thought the thing to do was stare at a blade of grass, you wouldn't have a functioning society," Taylor says. "So it's not just an issue of whether you should send someone in and shake them up and send them to jail and recondition them. That's not the only issue. Of course you let them be! But what do you try to inculcate in your educational system? What do you try to inculcate in your society, in terms of virtue?"

What, indeed? Sandel proposes a greater commitment to public service, in particular military service. And a recognition of the limits of markets: He would curtail the reach of the economistic mind-set into such areas as childbearing, organ donation, and education (don't pay kids for A's). In general he advocates a major assault on economic inequality, not so that the poor can spend more, but so the nation can afford more and better common resources like schools, parks, libraries, and museums.

At this point, of course, Sandel runs headlong into that other set of adversaries: pro-market types, whether liberal-libertarian or conservative.

The professor gets a bit touchy at criticisms of alleged "illiberal" tendencies in his work. But one can't help wondering if all this polemical energy on the left—whether directed at him or generated by him—is to some degree misdirected. As he makes the rounds, arguing for his version of virtuous liberalism, it might make sense for him to expend less firepower on Rawlsian liberals, who, after all, like him, oppose inequality, and more on the scholars who defend inequality. "I think what makes the course exciting," he says, "is the risk entailed by challenging one's own moral and political convictions." Can Michael Sandel take on that challenge himself, now that he's on a stage much bigger than Harvard?

Christopher Shea, a former senior writer for The Chronicle, writes The Boston Globe's Brainiac column.