Philosophy of a ‘real’ world

Prof. Michael J. Sandel, author of Justice, conducts the hugely popular course of the same name at Harvard Univer-sity, which attracts over 1,000 students every year. He was in Mumbai on Tuesday to deliver the Infosys Prize Lecture 2012, where he spoke to Rohini Nair about his involvement with “public philosophy”.

Q: Academics are often believed to live in isolation from the real world, but the questions you ask about justice and ethics are all based on real life situations. Do you think that is a responsibility other academics should bear?
A: I don’t want to tell other academics how to do their work [laughs]. There is room within philosophy for those who want to study it in abstract terms alone. I’ve always been drawn to relating philosophical ideas about justice, about rights, about the common good, freedom, equality and inequality — to the real world, to the dilemmas we encounter in the real world, and in politics. I’m attracted to the idea of public philosophy, and having philosophy inform what we do, and engage with what ordinary men and women think and argue about and care about. I believe deeply in that mission. I suppose you could describe it as a mission of trying to promote public philosophy.

Q: You’ve said one can judge a dissertation by the questions asked. Your method of teaching has been called Socratic as you question students to challenge their assumptions. Is asking the right questions a skill people can develop?
A: I think it’s definitely a skill that other people can develop, and I hope it’s something that my students will develop by the time they finish the course, and something that I hope readers will develop by the time they finish the book (Justice). Because the book is presented in much the same way: Asking questions, not telling the reader what to think but inviting them to reflect critically on his/her own assumptions, convictions and beliefs and to challenge them. It’s truly a chance for readers and students to find out what they believe in and why. And that’s what’s exhilarating about it, because you’re never quite sure if you’ll come out with your convictions intact, or if they’ll be revised, shaken. And that’s the exhilaration of doing political philosophy, if you do it in a way that connects with the lives of the people.

Q. You’ve incorporated a lot of classical thinkers in the course, along with the contemporary ones. What does it say about us?
A: I think it suggests that the questions are recurring, persisting human questions that occur and puzzle us even though we live in a very different world from ancient philosophers. My project in a way is to encourage readers to think of present day situations, the idea is to question/think about them in the company of the great philosophers.

Q. You’ve served on US President Obama’s council on bioethics. Have questions of ethics changed over the years? And has the concept of the “good life” changed with them?
A: I think that the fundamental ideas of good life and alternatives have remained largely the same, by which I mean the ideals are the same. But the questions have changed. By which I mean, we’re now debating stem cell research, genetic engineering. We’re debating whether it’s ethical if new biotechnology should be used to enhance, not just cure medical conditions, but to make people stronger or to choose the sex of your child. Modern technology raises novel questions, but the ethical issues in principle go back a long way when we’re debating these questions. How to apply them exactly, especially in the area of biotechnology, can be very challenging. But I find it fascinating precisely as it’s a new setting, and the questions seem new, but the more you think about them, the more you raise some questions that go way back — about values, about the good life and about the relation between parents and children and generations. So what the famous philosophers had to say stays relevant even in the age of a genetic revolution.

Q: Two events in your life played an important role in choosing a career in Political Philosophy — the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr and discovering Political Theory during your time at Oxford. Could you talk about that a little bit?

A: Well, as for the political events, the ‘60s were a time of great ferment and protest in politics. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968, and in retrospect, they both were exemplars in the kind of public discourse that we’ve been talking about. Both discussed politics in explicitly moral terms, and as a result were able to inspire in way that other politicians who were more technocratic, don’t. Since their death, we’ve tended to have political figures who were less inspiring. It seemed during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama might be such a figure because of the kind of moral and philosophical debate he was able to raise during his campaign. And he’s not succeeded in translating that into his governing, that’s still a challenge. Maybe if he’s elected to a second term, he may be able to redeem that promise.

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