In Switzerland, an immigration law required a certain town to resettle a number of refugees. Under the law, the town had to take ten people and would be fined if they did not. The town held a referendum to decide whether or not to comply. It chose to pay the fine. The question now is: did they do anything wrong?
This was the question Michael Sandel posed to his audiences on the ABC panel show Q&A last month. A leading political philosopher from Harvard University, Sandel was invited to visit Sydney by the UNSW Centre for Ideas. Described as a “rock-star moralist” by Newsweek, he is particularly famous for the free online course Justice, where he challenged people’s conceptions of right and wrong using the Socratic method (asking and answering questions in order to stimulate ideas and draw out presumptions). The lecture series has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world and is especially popular in China, South Korea and Japan.
His popularity is a manifestation of the rise of “public philosophers”—academics who promote philosophical engagement with the general public in a non-academic setting. Similarly, other public philosophers such as Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek and Peter Singer have drawn big crowds to their events in recent years.
As a philosopher, Sandel is known for his critique of consumerism and his advocacy for communitarianism. In What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel challenges the commodification of society—that is, the phenomenon where market logic governs virtually everything we do. He argues that “when we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way.” This can be seen in many aspects of our life: money can now buy you privileged access to scarce medical resources such as human organs; money can buy you a fast track through airport security; it can even help you rent a friend, upgrade your prison cell and obtain the right to kill an endangered animal.
It’s worth noting that Sandel does not outright reject the market or capitalism, which some may argue necessarily gives rise to consumerism. His main contention is that some of the good things in life are most appropriately governed by non-monetary values—the value of fairness, compassion, justice and love. As he puts it: “We don’t allow parents to sell their children or citizens to sell their votes. And one of the reasons we don’t is, frankly, judgmental: we believe that selling these things values them in the wrong way and cultivates bad attitudes.”
In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice Sandel makes a related argument, criticising political liberalism for putting undue emphasis on individual autonomy and choice. He argues that in order to lead a good life, individuals have to realise their conceptions of the good in a community setting, and more importantly, to reason different conceptions of the good with one another.
The story of Sandel is, for me, deeply personal. His course ‘Justice’ was what hooked me on philosophy in the first place, and his views on consumerism and communitarianism have had a profound impact on my philosophical outlook. When I learnt he would be coming to Sydney, I rushed to book my ticket to his UNSW event and applied to attend Q&A weeks in advance. I didn’t anticipate at the time that my encounter with Sandel would end up casting doubt on my former convictions.
For a start, Sandel’s 90-minute public lecture at UNSW had a $45 entry fee, a clear barrier to accessing this supposedly educational event. Of course, pricey non-profit public events are hardly uncommon—Peter Singer’s recent lecture in Sydney also charged $50 for a ticket. What’s a bit more surprising, however, is that if attendees wished to get a book signed by Sandel after the talk, they would have to pay twice the price than that at a local bookstore or Amazon. Of course, there are often good reasons why these events and books are expensive. After all, it can’t be cheap to arrange for a public figure to clear up their schedule and fly from the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help notice the irony—a book that criticises consumerism has to be packaged and sold in a pretty consumerist way.
In addition, Sandel’s events paradoxically revealed the limitations of a communitarian ideal public forum, where everyone is invited to come together and reason about important issues. Discussions in this setting tend to be incredibly inefficient—at times even peripheral to the issues that are meant to be up for debate. At his UNSW event titled ‘What’s become of truth’, Sandel spent more than half an hour recounting Trump’s infamous lies (e.g. “I had the largest inauguration crowd in history”, “millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election”). Admittedly, this did provoke laughter from the audience and there’s a case to be made that laughter will in turn cement bonds between participants. But I wonder how much everyone got out of the discussion: was the audience actually confronted with meaningful ideas on the nature of truth? And how could this mode of deliberation possibly be practical on a larger scale?
To be clear, this is not a personal critique of Sandel, who I believe has made good-faith efforts to promote what he believes in. Sandel deserves credit for the popularisation of philosophy in an era where the humanities are being cast aside in favour of more economically ‘useful’ subjects such as STEM and business. Sandel’s course Justice was also the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and he has been an impassioned proponent of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).
Nonetheless, it has become clear to me that a cosmetic critique of consumerism, even coupled with a communitarian ideal, will always be inadequate. It’s not enough to aim for a world where some aspects of society are governed by non-monetary values. In part, that’s because even the access to that knowledge is still distributed evenly and rendered inaccessible by monetary value.
Worse perhaps, the consumerist culture Sandel criticises has only become more pervasive. When he was still at high school in Los Angeles, Sandel tried to bring Ronald Reagan, the California governor at the time, to give a talk at his school. Despite initiate hesitation, Reagan eventually agreed to make the trip, speaking in front of many who were still ineligible to vote and who were ideologically opposed to him. Ahead of his Sydney visit, Honi reached out to Sandel for an interview—to no avail. It is not at all unusual for a prominent public figure to turn down an interview request from a student newspaper, considering the almost overwhelming opportunities they have to communicate with the public. Nevertheless, you would almost hope that the values governing the choices of an individual like Sandel might be something other than prestige or prominence.
Ultimately, I think Sandel is right that there are many things in life that money cannot and should not buy. But it seems money can at least buy you access to events that discuss what money can’t buy.