What ought one do?

'Whether we are arguing about MPs' expenses or assisted suicide, we need to engage with the moral ideals underlying our political debates'

Writing in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman says that according to a well-worn urban legend, Michael Sandel, ex journalist come political philosopher, was the inspiration for the character of Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons — the heartless, cackling nuclear power plant owner who thinks nothing of bribing safety inspectors, or blocking out the sun so that his customers will be forced to use more electricity. There is a certain physical resemblance. (Several Simpsons writers took the Justice course as undergraduates, and presumably basing such an amoral villain on someone so concerned with morals was part of the joke.)

But watching Sandel deliver a public lecture in a 4,000-seater open-air amphitheatre at the Chautauqua Institution, a religious studies centre in upstate New York modelled on ancient Greece, more flattering parallels spring to mind: he is Socrates, or maybe Aristotle. Sandel doesn’t spurn the comparison. “Aristotle was on to this,” he says, of his belief that his audience’s moral intuitions are as important as any theory he might wish to impart. “He thought that ordinary opinion wasn’t just something that stood in need of correction. It was the starting-point of philosophy.”

When Sandel delivered his well-received 2009 Reith Lectures* [Of Markets and Morality], there was a slight sense that he was preaching to the converted, telling London’s left-leaning elites what they wanted to hear. Markets, he argued, had colonised too much of society, spreading unchecked into healthcare, education and military matters with unforeseen moral consequences. It is a modern-day article of faith – shared by Blair and Clinton, as well as Thatcher and Reagan – that markets are essentially neutral, an efficient mechanism for distributing resources, whether as a means to rightwing or leftwing ends.

Yet the truth, Sandel said, is that they subtly distort any sphere of life they enter, altering people’s motivations and values. As an illustration, he told the story of an after-school centre that tried to eradicate the problem of parents turning up late for their children by levying a fine: after they did so, parental lateness actually increased, because parents came to see the fine as a fee they chose to pay in return for extra childcare. The same problem, Sandel suggested, applies to carbon emissions trading. Destroying the planet stops being a moral offence, and becomes a mere cost of doing business.

Read full interview by Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian Online …

* The BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.