Harvard professor talks markets, morals

Michael J. Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University and New York Times author, discusses the social and moral influences on market economies at Rackham Auditorium on Friday.

Michael J. Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University and New York Times author, discusses the social and moral influences on market economies at Rackham Auditorium on Friday. Buy this photo
Kristina Perkins/Daily

 

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - 6:51pm

Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University, hosted a lecture Friday on the role of money and markets in society. During the lecture, he argued that one consideration in particular should play a greater role in the economic decisions. That one factor: morals.

Sandel was invited to Rackham Auditorium by the LSA Honors Program after the program’s incoming students read his 2012 book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.”

Sandel caught students and audience members off guard when instead of giving a lecture, he asked them to be part of a discussion. Throughout the lecture, he sought the answer to the question: What should be the role of money and markets in a good society?

“At the same time that we’ve been putting more and more aspects of life up for sale, we’ve also experienced a growing gap between the rich and poor,” Sandel said. “As money governs access to the essentials ingredients of a good life — decent health care, a good education, living in a safe neighborhood rather than a violence-ridden one, access to political voice — when money governs access to these things, then who has money rules much larger than it otherwise would.”

The first of several rhetorical questions he asked was whether there should be a free market for human organs in democratic societies. He asked students to raise their hands and voice objections they might have against this policy. Most critiques centered on the possibility corruption or degradation of the human body.

Sandel then offered audience members an additional dilemma: “Should schools provide students monetary incentives for good grades?” he asked.

This conversation, along with two examples of “economical anomalies” Sandel shared — one of nuclear waste disposal in Sweden, and another about day care policy in Israel — led to the thesis of his lecture: Economies should consider how morals affect the market.

“We can no longer think of economics as a value-neutral science,” Sandel said. “We have to ask not only about economic efficiency; we have also to ask about the moral importance of the attitudes and norms that properly govern the social practices in question.”

LSA junior Megan Taylor said she thought Sandel’s discussion was carefully tailored to make his larger point by the end of the lecture.

“I think that he was in control of the conversation the entire time, though he was kind of eliciting that out of the students to get to the claims that he was trying to make,” she said. “I don’t think that the students’ discussion was out of control, he always knew where the lecture was going and where it was going to end up.”

Johannes von Moltke, a professor and chair of the German Department who attended Friday’s lecture, but said at the same time, said he thought it would be interested to pair Sandel’s thesis with a more traditional economic one.

“I would love to see him have a debate with an economist, somebody like a professor in the Business School, and have it out on the stage,” von Moltke said.