Sandel brings ethics discussions to Amp, CLSC


Michael Sandel

Aaron Krumheuer and Suzi Starheim | Staff Writers

A longtime visitor to Chautauqua’s Amphitheater, Harvard University professor Michael Sandel returns to ask the question: What’s the right thing to do?

Sandel will speak twice today. He will give a morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater, as well as a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle lecture at 3:30 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy. Sandel’s lectures come to Chautauqua nearing the end of the Week Two theme of “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good.”

Each of today’s lectures will focus on applied ethics and themes from Sandel’s recent New York Times best-selling book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? They will be followed with a book signing. Sandel’s Justice is the second selection of the week for CLSC’s 2011 Season.

Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker said having Sandel at Chautauqua near the end of the Week Two theme will greatly benefit audience members.

“Every now and then, we have the opportunity to be in the presence of a really great teacher,” Becker said. “That’s what this is.”

Becker said Sandel is able to evoke deep thought in those who attend his lectures because of his ability to make moral reasoning seem understandable and less difficult.

“He manages to engage you as if you are talking one-on-one,” Becker said. “He gives concrete examples and wants audiences to think along with him.”

Sandel, a professor at Harvard since 1980, has received the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize and is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University.

In addition to his most recent book, Justice, Sandel has also written Liberalism and the Limits of Justice; Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy; Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics; and The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

Sandel is a 1975 summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Brandeis University and earned his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 1981 as a Rhodes Scholar. He was recognized in 2008 by the American Political Science Association for his excellence in teaching and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As a Harvard professor, Sandel teaches courses such as “Ethics, Economics, and Law,” “Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature” and “Globalization and Its Critics.” He also established the undergraduate course “Justice,” which is the first Harvard course available for free online. This course has now enrolled more than 15,000 students.

While this isn’t Sandel’s first time speaking to a Chautauquan audience, he said it is something he looks forward to greatly.

“I’ve been privileged to speak in Chautauqua’s glorious Amphitheater many times over the years,” Sandel said in an email. “I know of no more thoughtful and reflective audience anywhere in the world. Chautauquans are committed to ideas, to civic life, and to moral and spiritual reflection. Coming to Chautauqua always feels like coming home.”

Sandel’s ability to get his audience to think is a big part of the reason he is such a popular lecturer in Chautauqua, said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education.

“He is going to cause people in the audience to think deeply about applied ethics in general and about the issues of government and the common good,” Babcock said. “They will probably go home with their ideas unsettled, which means they’ll be thinking about his lecture long after Friday.”

At the heart of his lectures, and his book Justice, Babcock said, is the belief that morals should be a public debate, not a private one.

“We try to have him here very frequently because he’s such a deep thinker on the topic of applied ethics,” Babcock said. “He causes people to ask themselves, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’”

Justice is based off Sandel’s Harvard undergraduate course of the same name. It is an ethical exploration, delving into some of the most divisive debates of our age, including immigration, Wall Street bailouts, same-sex marriage, free markets and religion in politics.

Throughout the book, Sandel employs the Socratic method to get to the heart of the moral framework of various arguments. He introduces several philosophical models, such as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism, and plays them against one another, making point and counter-point.

“I read it twice, actually. … Each time, I was just really impressed with how apt the cases and instances are (Sandel) brings in,” said Philip Safford, a former professor from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who delivered a Brown Bag review on the book on Wednesday at Alumni Hall. “It’s very, very readable, and his teaching itself is accessible. Obviously, he’s very successful at engaging his students just as he engages the reader.”

Despite its lofty subject matter, the book is full of practical case studies accessible even to novices to philosophy, yet the penetration into current events is still appealing to those well versed in Aristotle and John Rawls.

“It’s dealing with issues in all our lives, whether it’s affirmative action or surrogate parenting or genetic engineering. … These are things we face, and to see them all in one little book is really quite impressive,” Safford said. “You realize, wow, we live in a very complex society, with all kinds of ethical challenges.”

Sandel said that although he has been to Chautauqua several times before, the Week Two theme could not take place at a better time for him and for Americans as a group.

“In my lecture, I will ask what we can do to elevate the quality of our public discourse,” Sandel said. “Many Americans are frustrated with the shouting matches and bitterness that characterize our political debates. Some people say the problem with our politics is that we talk too much about morality in public life. I disagree. I will argue that the cure for what ails us is not less moral argument in politics but a deeper engagement with the moral and spiritual convictions that we, as citizens, bring to public life. I will argue for a new politics of the common good.”