Lectures turn to ethics, economics in Week Four 2013

Jen Bentley | Staff Writer

The best teachers make students find answers on their own.

In Week Four of 2013, Michael Sandel will turn Chautauqua’s Amphitheater into a classroom, employing the Socratic method on a crowd of thousands and sending microphones into the audience for direct questions and discussion.

“He is the only person that we will let do that,” said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, in regard to Sandel’s interactive approach.

Sandel has plenty of experience with the technique, as he is a distinguished professor of government at Harvard University. His ethics class, “Justice,” is one of the most popular undergraduate courses at Harvard. In it, Sandel uses the Socratic method in the university’s famed Sanders Theatre.

The week’s theme is “Markets and Morals: Reimagining the Social Contract,” and constitutes Chautauqua’s annual “applied ethics” week. Sandel’s most recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, inspired the theme. It will explore whether there are certain realms that should not be subject to sale, and if so, what those areas are.

Along with Sandel, committed speakers include David Brooks, op-ed columnist for The New York Times; George Packer, staff writer for The New Yorker; and Trevor Potter, former Federal Election Commission chairman and general counsel for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaigns. Babcock plans to enlist a business leader as the fifth participant.

“We are surrounding (Sandel) with people who won’t agree with him,” she said.

Several of the speakers will most likely offer conservative or capitalistic reasoning to counter Sandel’s ethics-minded economics. What Money Can’t Buy analyzes the expansion of modern economics into areas including medicine, politics and personal relationships. He argues that markets are intruding into and changing all aspects of our lives and society, instead of just the economy.

The week will also hone in on new interpretations of the social contract, considering both economics and social responsibility. Both speakers and Chautauquans will grapple with tough questions.

“What is the contract? Is it a buy and sell?” Babcock said. “What is the responsibility of the ‘haves’ — either personally, or societally or governmentally — towards a fair and equitable market situation?”

She also suggested that the week’s discussions would feed into Week Nine’s focus on health care.

No matter what conclusion Chautauquans come to in Week Four 2013, it is sure to be what Babcock called “civil discourse to the max.”