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 What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel is the closest you can come to being a rock star philosopher: in 2007, over a thousand students enrolled on his political philosophy course at Harvard University, and BBC Four recently ran a three-part series with him called The Public Philosopher.  Over the years he has developed a reputation for himself in the US as one of the few public voices that anyone takes seriously to challenge the prevailing theories of economic liberalism and market rule.  What stands out in his writing is not, however, his opposition to extreme materialism as such but rather the original way in which he dissects political and philosophical theory.

His first book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, was published in 2009 and is essentially just a book version of his university course of the same name.  In it, he asks questions like ‘is it morally preferable to divert a train so that it kills one person rather than five, than to push a fat person off a bridge into the path of an oncoming train to save five people?’  In another chapter, discussing the banking crisis, he refers to the fact that many CEOs in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse distanced themselves from their companies’ decision-making.  Whilst acknowledging that this may indeed have been the case at many large financial institutions, he then asks whether the same CEOs should therefore have been entitled to take all the credit (and related bonuses) during the boom times.

It is this way of turning common issues of ethics and morality on their head that is so distinctive about What Money Can’t Buy.  For example, Sandel takes the hackneyed proposition that advertising and commercialism are corrupting influences and asks: what do we lose from advertising; what does it mean to corrupt?  By doing so, he brings the debate on commercialism back within the realm of logic and reason.  I say this because it strikes me that this particular debate has long languished outside the boundaries of these two fundamental virtues.  Many people have a visceral, aesthetic opposition to commercialism and materialism that may not be unjustified, but without the support of well-reasoned arguments it is simply no good for use in civic discussion.  I remember reading an interview with a protester outside St Paul’s earlier this year in which the protester stated that although he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to change about the current system of government, he had a right to say “no”.  That is undoubtedly true, but if civil unrest is to mean anything substantive it must be accompanied by a well thought out view of what is objected to and what needs to change.  A good starting point would be to read Michael Sandel.

The Editors

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