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Harvard political philosopher presents morality in economics (VIDEO)

[/media-credit] Harvard University professor Michael Sandel was a guest a part of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series.
Speaking on the issue of what money can buy, political philosopher and Harvard University professor Michael Sandel was a guest a part of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series addressing an audience at the William Saroyan Theater on Jan. 15, with his lecture entitled: “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.”

Sandel led with the question ‘what should be the role of money and markets in our society?’ After asking this question, he gave two examples of markets stepping in to non-traditional spheres. The first example was of a website known as which allows buyers to hire someone to stand in line for them to get into the public viewing section of Congress, or even Supreme Court sessions.

The second example was also a website and it was called This website allows buyers to pay someone to write a wedding toast which they can then deliver as their own for a cost of $149.

According to Sandel, such invasions of the market into social life cause a greater rift between the rich and poor.

“Putting a price on everything sharpens the sting of inequality,” Sandel said. “It makes things harder for those who don’t have money. Then, inequality matters more than it otherwise would.”

Sandel did not directly state what should be done about these pressing matters of market ethics, but he did offer a few pieces of advice on the issue.

“What lesson can we learn from this range of examples? There are two implications [of the examples],” Sandel said. “One, is the way we do economics. We have to ask what values we care about and want to encourage and what will be the effect of introducing a monetary incentive. The second is for the way we direct our public discourse.”

Sandel believes the issue of the ethical boundaries of the market need to be discussed in public settings among the general masses. Sandel then turned the discussion over to the audience. After talking about proposed and experiemental programs to give students monetary incentives for meeting set scholastic goals, he allowed other people in the audience to tell why or why not such a thing should be done.

Following several minutes of varied discourse among those in the theater, Sandel hit home with his main point.

“These days we shy away from hard moral questions in fear of disagreement,” Sandel said. “The only way to decide where markets belong is to have a debate about value, and that will take us on to morally contested terrain. But we need to develop habits to engage in public discourse to elevate the terms of our politics and things that matter including justice, the common good and what it means to be a citizen.”

Wrapping up the session with a metaphor, Sandel compared the lack of public discourse with the advent of sport stadium ‘skyboxes.’

“The same manner in which a rich man evades the common people in a stadium by buying a skybox, so do the rich evade the common people in every aspect when markets enter society,” Sandel said. “When the wealthy are distanced from the poor by status there is no discussion between them. When there is no discussion, inequality ferments.”

Sandel finished his lecture by explaining his views on Democracy and what it has to offer for the common good.

“Democracy does not require perfect equality,” Sandel said, “but it does require that people from different walks of life encounter one another. This is how we come to care for the common good.”

For more information about Michael Sandel or to watch whole lectures from his “Justice” series visit “Harvard University’s Justice with Michael Sandel.

This writer can be reached via Twitter: @JohnathanNyberg. Follow The Feather via Twitter: @thefeather.

For more features, read the Jan. 21 article, Resource bar: One-stop shop offers students support.

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