Michael Sandel doesn't look like the sort of person who could hold a boisterous audience in thrall. And yet his every lecture packs Harvard's capacious Sanders Theatre to the limits of the fire code. His Harvard course titled "Justice" is the most popular in living memory, and a book and video of the same name have become international best-sellers.
There's a reason for the popularity - Sandel uses concrete situations, Socratic-style, to explore knotty philosophical questions. Was it fair for the rich to be allowed to buy their way out of military service during the Ciil War? If not, then how should we think about the all-volunteer army? Would it be fair for universities to auction off a number of places to the highest bidder? What if all the money west to extra scholarships for the poor?
Questions like these have led to Sandel's latest book, What Money Can't Buy. Yes, he notes, we all agree that money shouldn't buy some things, such as human beings. But, stangely, a spirit of "market triumphalism" has survived the financial crisis. Surrogate wombs, prison-cell upgrades, citizenship, police protection, imported kidneys, the right to kill endangered species, the right to pollute, the right to drive in the car-pool lane - all are available on terms dictated by markets, and by markets alone. "Do we want a society where everything is up for sale?," Sandel asks. "Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?"
In America, the answer too often is: Forgot to ask.
- commentary by Cullen Murphy