Michael Sandel – The Art of Theory Interview

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, and is one of the most influential political theorists of our time. Jonathan Bruno and Jason Swadley sat down with him recently in Cambridge with 12 questions on the craft of political philosophy.

Art of Theory: What brought you to study political theory?

Michael Sandel: I began with an interest in politics. I was a political junkie as a kid, and still am. But it wasn’t until graduate school that I became interested in political philosophy as such. That’s where I first read Kant, and Kant I found terribly challenging and intriguing. I began graduate school in 1975. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice had come out four years earlier, so I read that for the first time in graduate school.

In fact, the first winter vacation in graduate school at Oxford—they had these six-week breaks between terms—I went with some friends to the south of Spain and took along a bunch of books and sat and read them: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Somehow Spain, which was a little less cold and damp than Oxford, was more conducive to reading.

Art of Theory: Describe your arrival at Harvard in 1980.

Sandel: Political theory had a strong tradition here, represented by the then-senior figures, who were Judith Shklar, Harvey Mansfield, and Michael Walzer, and in the philosophy department John Rawls and Robert Nozick were teaching. And so there was great ferment, great interest in political theory and political philosophy.

I was introduced to Rawls through Judith Shklar, who was a friend of his. She told him my dissertation was largely about his book and that I was coming to be an Assistant Professor in political theory in the Government Department. And shortly after I arrived the phone rang in my office and the voice at the other end said, “This is John Rawls; R-A-W-L-S…” as if I might not recognize the name. [Laughter] He was inviting me to lunch; that’s when I first met him. He was very kind and generous. Nozick and I also spoke on occasion and were on friendly terms.

Art of Theory: You mentioned your dissertation, which became Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. The so-called “liberal-communitarian” debate became a staple in philosophy courses all over the world. How do you see that debate today?

Sandel: I think there are two versions of the debate, one of which has stalled and is not so interesting, and another that is more interesting and continues to animate discussion. The stalled, uninteresting version sees the debate being between those who place more weight on individual rights and those who place more weight on community, as if it’s a matter of competing values.

That’s not a very interesting version of the debate, though that’s the way many people cast it, as if the critics of Kantian/Rawlsian Liberalism were against rights, or favored defining rights simply by whatever values prevailed in a given community at a given time.

I think that was the misunderstanding of what the critique was about, and it led to a very narrow and uninteresting debate about rights vs. community. I think that’s lost its steam and rightly so.

But the other strand of the debate that was always of greater interest to me was the broader question of political philosophy, which is this: is it possible to define and to defend rights without presupposing any particular conception of the good life?

So the debate about the priority of the right over the good can be understood in these two ways: at the level of rights vs. communities (the uninteresting way, to my mind) or at the level of how rights are defended, how justice is defined, and whether it’s possible to do so in a way that avoids taking sides among competing conceptions of the good life.

That second version is the more important debate, and the term “communitarian” doesn’t quite capture it because it isn’t a matter of whether you’re for or against rights or community. It’s a matter of how theories of justice are argued and whether those arguments can be detached from contested moral and spiritual conceptions, conceptions of the best way to live.

That strand of the debate is alive and well, and very much at stake in our public life, and has led to a lot of interesting work within political theory.

Art of Theory: Tell us about your “Justice” course, which is an institution at Harvard now and has been seen by millions on PBS and online.

Sandel: I taught “Justice” for the first time the first year I came here in 1980 and initially it was a bit more focused on contemporary thinkers. Since then I’ve incorporated more of the classical thinkers, but it always involved moving back and forth between philosophical texts and contemporary issues, legal and political issues that raise philosophical questions.

I was drawn to that style of teaching because, when I started teaching, it was fresh in my mind what it was like to be a student. I think that is the heart of good teaching, having or summoning that memory.

I was not taken with political theory when I was an undergraduate. I found it abstract, distant, remote, and difficult just looking at the texts. I wasn’t quite up to it then. So, when I began to teach I had vividly in my mind this question: What would have kept my attention as a student? This was what was behind the design of the course.

The first year I think there were 100 students, then maybe 300 the second year, then 400, and then it leveled off around 800 to 1000.

Art of Theory: Now that you’ve reached an even wider audience through the public television series and the Internet, what have you learned about the relationship of the political theorist to the wider world? What responsibilities go along with that?

Sandel: I’ve always been drawn to political theory and political philosophy as a way of informing politics and the debates that go on in public life; I’ve always wanted to connect philosophical ideas with the public life we live and the arguments we have. This experiment was a way of pushing that idea further. We decided to make it available on public television and free online around the globe, and see what would happen.

And it’s been a fascinating experiment. I’ve been especially intrigued to see the reception in other parts of the world, and I was wondering to what degree they come at these questions from different cultural perspectives. What struck me, as I’ve done some traveling in connection since the book has been out, is that there seems to be an enormous interest in other parts of the world and, in particular, East Asia, in Western political theory and in this way of arguing about political theory and public questions. What interests me now is to explore these themes across cultures, and to explore the similarities and the differences.

I’ve been struck at the level of interest and even hunger for engagement with these questions. I think there’s a sense in many societies that public life and public discourse are impoverished, that they don’t often address the big questions of justice and rights and the common good that lie just beneath the surface of our political debate. There’s a great hunger everywhere for more direct engagement with these big questions in public.

Art of Theory: What have you learned pedagogically, in “Justice” and other courses you’ve taught, that professors new to the classroom should know?

Sandel: It’s very hard to hold students’ attention for 50 minutes. Especially on challenging material like political theory.

It’s certainly beyond what I could do to hold student’s attention if I read from a text. So, being able to lecture, to put across material without a text, is very important. There are small numbers of people who can read from a written text and hold the attention of students, but they are very few and I’m not among them.

I think the first thing is to learn the material well enough so that you could put it across without having to read any of it. And then having some kind of opportunity for students to argue back, not only to ask questions but to respond to the texts or to the professor’s view.

I think that adds a tremendous amount. It mobilizes students’ own imaginations and argumentative powers. And if the questions are good and the challenges are strong then other students learn by listening to that exchange.

Art of Theory: What features of our political life most puzzle you?

Sandel: I would say the largely arid terms of political discourse, the thinness of public discourse in the world’s leading democracies. That’s the single most striking and worrisome thing.

It’s partly the tendency, over the past three decades, of economics to crowd out politics. This has been an age of market triumphalism. We’ve come to the assumption that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. I think that is a mistaken notion and people are now beginning to question that.

It also has led to political discourse being preoccupied with technocratic, managerial, economic concerns. The broader public questions and ethical questions have been crowded to the side.

I think that this has been reinforced by a certain idea of toleration, a well-intentioned idea of toleration that says, “Given the disagreements we have on moral and spiritual questions, we should try to conduct our political debate without reference to them.” I think that’s also contributed to an emptying out of substantive moral discourse in politics, an emptiness people are eager to fill.

Such emptiness often provokes a backlash, so that narrow, intolerant and sometimes fundamentalist voices fill that void and have a persuasive force they wouldn’t otherwise have, if public discourse included open and direct engagement with rival moral views and moral conceptions.

Art of Theory: What remedies could be offered for that problem of thin political discourse?

Sandel: There are remedies at two levels.

At the level of political theory (and this is what I’ve tried to do in some of my work), we need to challenge the premise that a pluralist society, or a society based on mutual respect, must avoid or set aside substantive moral and spiritual questions or questions of the good life.

Also at the level of political theory, I think there needs to be a challenge to economistic visions of democracy.

At the level of political practice, I think we have to find ways of encouraging and nurturing the ability of citizens to engage more directly and in a morally robust public discourse. That requires a civic education that the political parties are not providing and that the media is not providing.

I also think educational institutions can be sites for civic education. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide students with an opportunity to develop their skills in public discourse and in moral and political argument.

Art of Theory: You’ve defended the place of religion in that discourse. Why?

Sandel: Well, I’m in favor of a more faith-friendly form of public discourse and public reason than is advanced by some versions of liberal political theory.

So, for example, one account of public reason that’s prominent is advanced by Rawls in one way and by Habermas in another. Both, despite their disagreements, share the idea that public reason should not depend on trying to persuade our fellow citizens of our preferred conception of the good life. I think that’s too narrow an account of public reason, because it requires people to leave their spiritual convictions or their secular, substantive moral convictions, at the door when they enter the public square.

I think that’s a mistake. I would favor a more expansive idea of public reason that welcomes all comers. That doesn’t mean that everyone can or will carry the day. But I’m not in favor of excluding arguments that may draw on faith traditions, for those who want to bring them to bear in politics.

There’s a tendency to think that this invites dogma into politics; that’s one of the reasons people think we should leave religious reasons outside of public discourse. I agree that dogmatic assertions typically are not valuable contributions to democratic discourse, but I don’t think religious communities have a monopoly of dogmatic assertions. There are plenty of dogmatic claims that are brought to bear by people coming from secular traditions.

So I’m in favor of reasoned public discourse, but I wouldn’t rule out in advance reasons that may reflect faith traditions or other substantive conceptions of the good life.

We can’t know what types of arguments can be accepted until we try.

This may be the main point of disagreement I have with Rawls and Habermas. We can’t stipulate in advance those reasons which could, in principle, be accepted or agreed to by everyone. We can’t specify criteria for possible acceptance by everyone without delving into some of the substantive moral disagreements. I would not use that requirement to prevent certain kinds of reasons or arguments from being brought to bear in politics.

Art of Theory: Tell us a little bit about your work process.

Sandel: At the moment I’m working on a book project that I’ve been working on for a long time, with many detours, on the moral limits of markets.

I have developed and tried out the broad philosophical ideas in teaching and in papers, but at the same time I want to relate the question of markets to actual examples of contested commodification. I have gathered from newspapers and other sources over many years intriguing examples of contested commodification today.

So the process by which I work includes working-out philosophical ideas in discussion with students and colleagues, and gathering concrete illustrations to connect the themes and to illustrate them. I have great file boxes full of clippings and examples. Bouncing philosophical ideas against a novel controversy can prompt important questions.

Art of Theory: Do you do you find yourself returning to canonical thinkers, whether ancient or modern, in the course of your work?

Sandel: All the time. I’m constantly finding that the contemporary debates raise philosophical questions that go all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and that’s part of the fun of doing political theory: being attuned to the arguments that take place around the world, reading newspapers alongside old books.

Art of Theory: What does excellent political theory look like to you? What sets it apart from the merely mediocre?

Sandel: Excellent political theory is determined by how interesting the question is.

I have found, over the years, in looking at Ph.D. dissertations that the single best predictor of what will be an excellent dissertation is the question it addresses. In political theory, more than in other academic subjects, the quality and interest of the work depends on the ability to identify an interesting and important question.

If you get it wrong then you can be very smart and conscientious and logical and a great researcher but it won’t be terribly interesting or even worthwhile. The single most important consideration is finding and choosing the right question, or the right set of questions.

If you put dissertations aside and look at the history of political thought and the lasting texts, they are the works that have taken on big, interesting, important questions; that’s what sets apart good, or even great political theory, from merely ordinary work.

After the question is chosen I am a methodological pluralist—a radical methodological pluralist—to the point where I don’t even think we could lay down any meaningful criteria for the right research method.

Now this may be different in other parts of political science (I doubt it), but choosing the right questions matters far more than the methodology. I think there’s a tendency today in political science generally, maybe to a lesser degree in political theory, for people to get it backwards: to let the choice of method determine the subject. I do think that has it radically wrong, and a lot of political science goes astray that way.

Art of Theory: How optimistic are you about the future of political theory as a field of study?

Sandel: I think there have always been, at least for the last forty years or so, attempts by some political scientists to claim that political inquiry could be put on so scientific and rigorous a footing that there would be no more need for political theory. But those attempts haven’t succeeded even remotely, and I don’t expect that they will.

I think the attempt to make political inquiry over in the image of the sciences is bound to fail. So I’m confident about the future of political theory as an academic subject, and what strengthens that confidence, apart from the intellectual conviction that normative questions persist and will persist, is that students persist.

Students of politics, whether undergraduates or graduate students, are drawn to the subject (for the most part) not because they’re intrigued and passionate about this or that method, but because they’re intrigued or troubled or worried or passionate about some political question or other: about how countries get along or fail to get along, about questions of war and peace, or globalization, or the role of markets, or about equality and inequality, or about what makes for successful democracies, or what enables people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds to get along or find themselves in conflict.

It’s impossible to address any of these questions without taking up big themes in political theory. What keeps universities and academic communities full of energy and curiosity and ferment and inquiry is the passion that students have for actual political questions. That means that, for them, political theory is indispensable.

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