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Michael Sandel

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Michael Sandel
Sandel in 2012
Michael Joseph Sandel

(1953-03-05) March 5, 1953 (age 71)
Alma mater
Notable work
AwardsAmerican Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
School Republicanism
InstitutionsHarvard University
ThesisLiberalism and the Problem of the Moral Subject (1980)
Doctoral advisorCharles Taylor[1]
Doctoral studentsYascha Mounk[2]
Other notable studentsKetanji Brown Jackson
Main interests
Notable ideas
Communitarian critique of liberalism

Michael Joseph Sandel[3] (/sænˈdɛl/; born March 5, 1953) is an American political philosopher and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where his course Justice was the university's first course to be made freely available online and on television. It has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world, including in China, where Sandel was named the 2011's "most influential foreign figure of the year" (China Newsweek).[4][5] He is also known for his critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice in his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002.[6]

Early life and education


Sandel was born in 1953[7] into a Jewish family, which moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen.[8] He was president of his senior class at Palisades High School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University with a bachelor's degree in politics in 1975. He received his doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1985, as a Rhodes Scholar, where he studied under philosopher Charles Taylor.[9]

Philosophical views


Sandel subscribes to a certain version of communitarianism (although he is uncomfortable with the label), and in this vein he is perhaps best known for his critique of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Rawls's argument depends on the assumption of the veil of ignorance, which Sandel argues commits Rawls to a view of people as "unencumbered selves". Sandel's view is that we are by nature encumbered to an extent that makes it impossible even hypothetically to have such a veil. Some examples of such ties are those with our families, which we do not make by conscious choice but are born with, already attached. Because they are not consciously acquired, it is impossible to separate oneself from such ties. Sandel believes that only a less-restrictive, looser version of the veil of ignorance should be postulated. Criticism such as Sandel's inspired Rawls to subsequently argue that his theory of justice was not a "metaphysical" theory but a "political" one, a basis on which an overriding consensus could be formed among individuals and groups with many different moral and political views.[10]





Sandel joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in 1981.[11] He has taught the Justice course at Harvard University for two decades. More than 15,000 students have taken the course,[12] making it one of the most highly attended in Harvard's history. The fall 2007 class was the largest ever at Harvard, with a total of 1,115 students.[13][14] The fall 2005 course was recorded, and is offered online for students through the Harvard Extension School.[citation needed]

An abridged form of this recording is now a 12-episode TV series, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, in a co-production of WGBH and Harvard University. Episodes are available on the Justice with Michael Sandel website.[15] There is also an accompanying book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and the sourcebook of readings Justice: A Reader.

The popularity of the show is attributed to the discussion-oriented format (the Socratic method)—rather than recitation and memorization of facts—and to Sandel's engaging style, incorporating context into discussion; for example, he starts one lecture with a discussion of the ethics of ticket scalping.[16]

The BBC broadcast eight 30-minute segments from the series on BBC Four starting on 25 January 2011.[17]

In April 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a three-part series and later podcast presented by Sandel titled The Public Philosopher.[14][18][19] These followed a format similar to the Justice lectures, this time recorded in front of an audience at the London School of Economics. Across three programs, Sandel debates with the audience whether universities should give preference to students from poorer backgrounds, whether a nurse should be paid more than a banker, and whether it is right to bribe people to be healthy.



Sandel is currently teaching his Justice course on edX.[20] On April 29, 2013, the philosophy department faculty of San Jose State University addressed an open letter to Sandel protesting the use of MOOCs (massively open online courses) such as his Justice course.[21] Sandel publicly responded: "The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."[22]

Other teaching


Sandel also co-teaches, with Douglas Melton, the seminar "Ethics and Biotechnology", which considers the ethical implications of a variety of biotechnological procedures and possibilities.



Sandel's politics are "squarely on the left" according to the UK left-leaning newspaper The Guardian in 2020. According to an interviewer: "In 2012, he added intellectual lustre to Ed Miliband’s renewal project for the Labour Party (UK), speaking to that year’s party conference on the moral limits of markets... helped inspire Miliband’s critique of “predatory capitalism”".[23]



Sandel is the author of several publications, including Democracy's Discontent and Public Philosophy. Public Philosophy is a collection of his own previously published essays examining the role of morality and justice in American political life. He offers a commentary on the roles of moral values and civic community in the American electoral process—a much-debated aspect of the 2004 US election cycle and of current political discussion.

Sandel gave the 2009 Reith Lectures on "A New Citizenship" on BBC Radio, addressing the "prospect for a new politics of the common good".[24] The lectures were delivered in London on May 18, Oxford on May 21, Newcastle upon Tyne on May 26, and Washington, DC, in early June, 2009.[25]

He is also the author of the book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012), which argues some desirable things—such as body organs and the right to kill endangered species—should not be traded for cash.[26] In the book, Sandel argues that stimulating a market-oriented approach in people may lead to relaxation or even corruption of their moral values.[27]

In his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit Sandel makes a case for overhauling western neo-liberalism, citing Michael Young's work as a precedent (Young popularized the term "meritocracy"), and developing a line of thought shared with Daniel Markovits's The Meritocracy Trap.[28] Elite institutions including the Ivy League and Wall Street have corrupted our virtue, according to Sandel, and our sense of who deserves power.[29] Ongoing stalled social mobility and increasing inequality are laying bare the crass delusion of the American Dream, and the promise "you can make it if you want and try". The latter, according to Sandel, is the main culprit of the anger and frustration which brought some Western countries towards populism.[30][31]

In various reviews of the 2020 book: the Evening Standard headline was: "Diagnosis but no cure for the ills of an unfair society",[32] in Kirkus Reviews "Sandel’s proposals for change are less convincing than his deeply considered analysis."; in the British Education Studies Association: "We must abandon the elitism of the university degree. .. Of course, higher education is a good thing, even ‘a common good’. But the university should return to its role of defining and creating knowledge, not credits.[33] " In the Harvard Magazine review: "But even if equality of opportunity were attainable, which Sandel doubts, he thinks meritocracy would be neither desirable nor sustainable: even a perfect meritocracy has multiple flaws that make it unjust.";[34] The Wall Street Journal headlines: "Review: The Cream Also Rises: The meritocratic ideal makes elites arrogant and threatens communal solidarity. Identity-based policies make the problem worse."[35]

Personal life


Sandel is married to fellow Harvard professor Kiku Adatto.

Public service


Sandel served on the George W. Bush administration's President's Council on Bioethics.

Awards and honors



External videos
video icon Booknotes interview with Sandel on Democracy's Discontent, May 19, 1996, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Sandel on Democracy’s Discontent, February 26, 1997, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Sandel on Public Philosophy, February 23, 2006, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Sandel on Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, November 9, 2009, C-SPAN
video icon After Words interview with Sandel on What Money Can't Buy, April 13, 2012, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Sandel on What Money Can't Buy, November 17, 2012, C-SPAN
  • Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1998. ISBN 9780674197459.
  • Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press. 1998. ISBN 9780521567411.
    • French translation: Le libéralisme et les limites de la justice. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1999. ISBN 9782020326308.
    • Spanish translation: El liberalismo y los límites de la justicia. Barcelona: Gedisa. 2000. ISBN 9788474327069.
  • Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2005. ISBN 9780674023659.
  • The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2007. ISBN 9780674019270.
    • German translation: Plädoyer gegen die Perfektion : Ethik im Zeitalter der genetischen Technik. Berlin: Berlin Univ. Press. 2008. ISBN 9783940432148.
    • Spanish translation: Contra la perfección. Barcelona: Marbot. 2013. ISBN 9788493574444.
  • Justice: A Reader. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. 2007. ISBN 9780195335125.
  • Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2010. ISBN 9780374532505.
    • Translated into Chinese, German, Spanish, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Vietnamese editions; see the article on the book for the full citations.
  • What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. ISBN 9780374203030.[42]
  • The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. ISBN 9780374289980.

See also



  1. ^ Sandel, Michael. "Michael Sandel and AC Grayling in conversation".
  2. ^ Newman, Lainey A.; Zheng, Ruth (May 7, 2018). "'Intellectual Powerhouse': Yascha Mounk Examines the Future of Democracy". The Harvard Crimson. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Retrieved August 10, 2022.
  3. ^ "Korea's New Security Paradigm". Asan Foundation. April 4, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2020.
  4. ^ "Michael J. Sandel". scholar.harvard.edu. Retrieved November 25, 2023.
  5. ^ "Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy".
  6. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 3, 2011.
  7. ^ Casper, Scott E. (2013). The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History. Oxford University Press. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-19-976435-8.
  8. ^ "Michael Sandel: This much I know". The Guardian. April 27, 2013. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
  9. ^ "Michael Sandel: master of life's big questions | Observer profile". the Guardian. April 7, 2012. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  10. ^ "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical" Archived 2018-07-12 at the Wayback Machine, by John Rawls
  11. ^ "Michael Sandel wins Asturias Award in Social Sciences". Harvard Gazette. June 11, 2018. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  12. ^ Friedman, Thomas L. (June 15, 2011). "Opinion". The New York Times. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  13. ^ Makarchev, Nikita. "Sandel Wins Enrollment Battle." The Harvard Crimson. September 26, 2007.
  14. ^ a b Anthony, Andrew (April 7, 2012). "Michael Sandel: master of life's big questions". The Observer. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  15. ^ "Justice"—On Air, in Books, Online, by Craig Lambert, September 22, 2009.
  16. ^ Tomoko, Otake (September 19, 2010). "Thinking aloud". Japan Times.
  17. ^ "BBC Four - Justice". BBC.
  18. ^ "Series 1, The Public Philosopher - BBC Radio 4". BBC.
  19. ^ "The Public Philosopher - Downloads - BBC Radio 4". BBC.
  20. ^ "Justice". edX. May 23, 2018.
  21. ^ "'An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U.'". The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2, 2013.
  22. ^ "Michael Sandel Responds". The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2, 2013.
  23. ^ Coman, Julian (September 6, 2020). "Michael Sandel: 'The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit'". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  24. ^ BBC Radio 4 Programme details for Start the Week, 25 May 2009.
  25. ^ Plunkett, John (February 5, 2009). "Michael Sandel to deliver Radio 4's Reith Lectures". The Guardian.
  26. ^ A summary and critical review of Sandel's book is available in the September/October 2013 issue of Philosophy Now magazine, accessible here.
  27. ^ Elías, Julio J., Nicola Lacetera, and Mario Macis. 2015. "Sacred Values? The Effect of Information on Attitudes toward Payments for Human Organs", American Economic Review, vol. 105(5), pages 361-365, May.
  28. ^ "The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits". The Objective Standard. December 18, 2020. Retrieved July 24, 2021.
  29. ^ "Michael Sandel: Why the elites don't deserve their status". UnHerd. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  30. ^ The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. ISBN 9780374289980.
  31. ^ Coman, Julian (September 6, 2020). "Michael Sandel: 'The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit'". The Guardian.
  32. ^ Glover, Julian (September 10, 2020). "Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit: More diagnosis than cure". Evening Standard. Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  33. ^ "The Tyranny of Merit: What's become of the common good? by Michael J. Sandel – The British Education Studies Association". educationstudies.org.uk. Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  34. ^ Lenfield, Spencer Lee (October 2020). "No One Deserves a Spot at Harvard: Michael Sandel makes the case against meritocracy". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  35. ^ Swaim, Barton (January 5, 2021). "'The Tyranny of Merit' Review: The Cream Also Rises". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  36. ^ "Michael J. Sandel, DPhil". hsci.harvard.edu.
  37. ^ Hill, Andrew (September 13, 2012). "Biographies and economics dominate". Financial Times. Archived from the original on December 10, 2022. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  38. ^ "The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers". Foreign Policy. November 26, 2012. Archived from the original on November 30, 2012. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
  39. ^ "Utrechtse eredoctoraten voor filosoof Michael Sandel en psychobioloog BJ Casey". Utrecht University. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  40. ^ Tecnologías, Developed with webControl CMS by Intermark. "Michael J. Sandel - Laureates - Princess of Asturias Awards". The Princess of Asturias Foundation.
  41. ^ "'Rock star philosopher' Michael Sandel receives honorary doctorate from Radboud University". Radboud University. May 11, 2023. Retrieved May 11, 2023.
  42. ^ "Insatiable longing". The Economist. July 21, 2012.