Summer Reading 2014
Faculty Readers Respond
How much are you willing to pay for the seeds in your garden?
Michael J. Sandel argues that we have transitioned from “having a market economy to being a market society." In this new society, everything turns into a commodity. But what if there are things that money cannot buy, such as friends? What if there are things that money can buy but shouldn’t, such as human organs?
These points become particularly relevant when “nature” becomes a “commodity,” underscoring Sandel's very important objections to the moral limits of markets, which challenge “fairness” and induce “corruption.” For instance, trading rights to pollute outsources a responsibility and shifts the burden of taking action from the developed countries, who have contributed to the environmental problem, to the developing countries; it also crowds out non-market values.
It is particularly difficult to articulate environmental issues in raw economic terms. According to one of the most cited definitions of sustainable development, originally coined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But geographer David Harvey argues that such needs are difficult to measure; money values (exchange values) can provide the only practical means of comparison, even when evaluating things that are non-comparable in material terms (e.g., use values). Yet money valuations presume certain temporal and spatial structures whereas ecosystems work in multiple temporalities and spaces.
For instance, a wheat farmer in Turkey may have different types of wheat for hillside or valley bottom areas; for irrigated and rain-fed parcels; for homemade bread and for urban grain markets; for straw and animal feed. Whereas sales at markets and for household use may provide a “direct value” for the farmers, there also exists an “option value” related to retaining an option to a food or service for which future demand is uncertain. Traditional varieties that have been saved and artificially selected by farmers over hundreds of years become a form of insurance for the farmers. They can provide access to new seeds when one crop fails or seeds no longer meet their expectations; this ensures food security and reduces vulnerability due to environmental change. However, as Professor of International Development economist Melinda Smale points out, real or surrogate markets may not exist for certain genetic resources, and even if they do, their value may not be well- represented in observed prices. Markets often fail to capture the existence values, non-use values, or future values. Yet all of us—not just farmers—rely on diversity of seeds for food security and for future agricultural research and development.
Moreover, money is a means of gauging a social process; as Harvey puts it, it's “a representation of socially necessary labor time.” But calculating the value of “nature” or “environmental services,” such as water supply, pollination, nutrient cycling, and climate regulation, poses problems; it can only be done partially and requires sophisticated methods. In the case of seeds, the question is, as Sandel asks, who gets paid and who pays for these services. How much are you willing to pay for the services of the traditional small farmer who has saved and conserved the genetic diversity?
The genius of the market, as Adam Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations, is harnessing and coordinating the interests of a large, diverse group of individuals. However, as Michael J. Sandel documents, there are limits. Moving towards a society in which everything is for sale has two great costs. The first is inequality.
The ambition not only to keep up with the Joneses but to "get ahead" leads to several well-known problems connected to inequality. For one thing, the market is usually not “free.” The winners in a market often rearrange rules to protect their own interests and thereby reduce genuine competition (e.g., see Monsanto, Microsoft, AIG).
Another problem is imperfect information. How can consumers really be well informed about medicine, law, computers or other technically complex products relative to the experts who control those industries?
Also at issue is the uneven playing field. Disadvantages that hold some people back, such as the sick, old, poor, or those marginalized by current or previous sources of exclusion (e.g., race, gender, disability, criminal record), are intercausally related to imperfect competition.
The second great cost of a society in which everything is for sale is corruption. The threat of corruption radiates out. The market is a jealous institution. The inherent logic of competition motivates agents of the market to invent new commodities, fulfill unmet needs, define new needs, build things more efficiently, find new places to sell things, and identify bargains. That drive leads to advances in human well-being. But that same orientation seeks to colonize other aspects of social life, including the moral order. The market embraces morality until it clashes with profit. In that brawl, the market is ruthless and usually effective. Altruism, empathy, kindness, or other human ideals are reframed as weak, wasteful, or unnatural and therefore worthy of extermination.
The market produces, measures, innovates, advertises, bribes, bullies, rewards, and punishes. However, the market does not remember, plan, nurture, or care. It has little regard for health, sustainability, solidarity, complex relationships, or nuance in general. The market has no concern for innocence, guilt, justice, or equality. Integrity does not mean anything to the market. Neither does spirituality, truth, meaning, or anything that is free or hard to measure.
Following Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and others, morality is often thought of as what is good for the greatest number of people over the long run. Of course, who gets to decide the details of moral order in practice has always been a vexing question. But it does not negate the very real needs of society and the individuals who comprise it.
In effect, the core qualities of morality – long term concerns, subjective human meaning, social relationships, complex dilemmas – all sooner or later confront what Robert Bellah calls “the tyranny of the bottom line.”
An important question in these considerations is what factors make the inequality and corruption more or less extreme? That is, how do we maximize justice and morality in the context of a market system? How significant is the character and strength of other social institutions and activities outside of the economy (e.g., government, religion, family, schools, social movements, non-profits) relative to these questions?
What I learned from this book! It was a veritable Ripley’s Believe It or Not of the new market reality in which we Americans live today. Ads on your body. Your name on a stadium. Priority seating and papal masses for a price. Insurance on strangers, even celebrities. “What can’t you buy for money?” should have been the title of Michael Sandel’s book!
But it’s even worse than he reports, because rapacity is not a recent development in America. Ever since a farm on Boston’s Beacon Hill got subdivided and the parcels re-sold at a handsome profit for the "Mount Vernon Proprietors" in 1795, people have been speculating on all kinds of things formerly thought to be inviolable. Buying and selling has been our charter purpose as the new country pushed ferociously westward and as its natural resources, and many people, were plundered for gain—throughout four centuries. What Sandel reveals to be shockingly new are the insidious “incursions of commercial practices into civic and personal life” which have truly corrupted our nation and widened the gulf between rich and poor. Sandel’s book documents the latest sorry proof of our “one-dimensional society,” as German American philosopher Herbert Marcuse deemed us.
And yet, Sandel shows us that people implicitly feel there are human limits to the commercialism we are seeing now. We just need to talk it through, Sandel argues, in a public forum where the ongoing devaluation of values can be debated. It takes more than condemning greed, he correctly points out. We must rethink the role that markets should play in our society.
But where is that debate to take place in any effectual way? I worry that Sandel’s remedy is not up to the very problem he describes. What dialogue there is occurs haphazardly, after the fact, on a case by case basis in Congress and in the state houses where moneyed interests tend to prevail, especially given the “Citizens United” case in the Supreme Court and the latest voting restrictions. Is there any macro- or mega-arena in which the multiple voices that need and deserve to be heard can speak? Is there a vantage point high enough from which to work out our value conflicts in a systematic way, the way Sandel wishes? As far back as 1957, in her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the disappearance of the public sphere in America (and elsewhere).
The humanity we and Sandel long to see restored to our one-dimensional society may ultimately be the responsibility of the religious communities. They would need to do a better job of this than they have ever done before; some would need to shed their own dependence upon commercial mentalities. But to whom else can we look to remind us that our human essence lies in the “I-Thou” relation described by Jewish existentialist Martin Buber? We require, as individuals and as a commercial society, the wholeness of relation between beings not regarded as objects but as subjects in their own right. Such a vision can restore “the true original unity, the lived relation” that will inspire the desire for dialogue and the will to enter into it.
We should demand that “organized religion” deliver on the promise of its sacred texts, that humanity is of God and responsible to God’s creation of personhood (not thinghood). Isn’t this the sum of spiritual wisdom articulated in each and every religion and the minimum condition of the common life as Sandel envisions it? What do you think?
What are the moral limits of a monetary-based society? This is the overarching question that Professor Michael Sandel poses in his book, What Money Can’t Buy. Before such a question can be answered, however, we must first ask, “what is morality, and what purpose does it serve?” Although this question is philosophical in nature, it is one that social scientists have recently begun to answer.
Moral Psychology is a blossoming subfield of Social Psychology—my academic area of study—that integrates evidence from an interdisciplinary array of fields, including evolutionary anthropology and developmental, cognitive, and social psychology, to understand the development of moral systems and how they affect how we think about and behave toward others. These researchers have discovered an array of near-universal moral values and norms that developed to facilitate survival and reproductive success within groups. For example, virtually every society in human existence has placed high value on norms of reciprocity, kin protection, sharing of resources, and amity toward others within social groups.
One of the major issues identified by Sandel is that money is increasingly used to incentivize those things that humans already value. According to the standard economic model, monetary rewards should be the ultimate motivator of human behavior. However, there are things that people value much more than money, including love and friendship, social support, and social standing. Science shows us that such values do not rely on monetary incentives. Helping others is rewarding in almost every sense: it is personally rewarding as it activates the brain's dopaminergic reward system and also leads to positive self-perceptions; it is socially rewarding as it increases social standing and leads others to view us positively; and it is rewarding for the group as a whole as helping others increases the likelihood of reciprocity and increases ingroup trust. Virtuous behaviors are not a well that can dry up; they are a muscle that can be flexed and strengthened with repeated use. In fact, to incentivize virtuous behaviors with monetary rewards can undermine the other values traditionally gained by those behaviors. Herein lies the problem with market-based societies.
The real issue, then, as identified by Sandel, is that “money crowds out morals.” There are true rewards for doing the right thing (e.g., increased self-esteem and social rewards). Likewise, there are real costs for failing to do the right thing, including dissonance (the overall negative feelings we get when we behave inappropriately) and decreases in social standing. If we act morally solely for economic gain we could lose both the inherent rewards for virtuous behaviors and the inherent punishments for non-virtuous behaviors. Additionally, if money becomes our only motivation for doing “good,” what is left to stop us from doing “bad”?
Frankly, I didn’t expect this book to have much to do with afterlives (the topic of my Scribner Seminar) or even English literature, although structurally it’s a satire. Peppering the reader with dissonant, discomfort-inducing examples, Sandel prescribes no soothing cure to human commodification; he smears no moralizing salve over the corporate logos tattooed on our foreheads. That might block the view through our Google glasses. Satire irritates, but doesn’t improve us; it doesn’t tell us how to be or what to value; it just knows how to get a rise out of us through what we value. As “TESS W”’s Virginia bumper sticker puts it, speaking for left, right, or center: “If you’re not completely appalled, then you haven’t been paying attention.” Bumper-sticker satire doesn’t get much respect as literary these days. Then I saw the New Yorker cartoon: man stands in front of St. Peter at his desk, beyond them the golden glittery gates floating atop the clouds, as St. Peter says, “You’re in, but it isn’t really heavenly until you upgrade to Premium Heaven.”
The cartoon appeared in 2014, Sandel in 2012, so the cartoonist had probably read Sandel or his reviews. He knows that the afterlife (and literature) are realms of intrinsic value: market-free spaces where purchasing power doesn’t count. Money cannot buy the virtue that wins paradise, the enlightenment that releases to nirvana, or the talent that creates art, including literature. The cartoonist jolts us by suggesting that those verities are no longer true: heaven has a cash-flow problem and has taken to huckstering, too.
Of course, art can be monetized, and literature is a commodity. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” said Samuel Johnson, author of the Dictionary, Rasselas, and Lives of the English Poets; he was also really bad at getting a decent price for his writing. Immortality can be bought: endow a college or a cat, as Alexander Pope suggested glumly. Sandel insists we cannot buy friendship, but the Bible disagrees: “The rich have many friends, the poor is hated by his neighbor” (Proverbs 14.20; 19.4). The young are urged to turn themselves into a successful “brand” to sell to employers or voters or whomever. The old lament the passing of famous shops, dead aspirational or achieved identities: Bonwit Teller, Stanley Korshak, Marshall Field. We wrap ourselves in corporate imagery—from Old Navy to Nike to Apple. We are what we buy, more or less.
Putting money and morality in the same title raises the ghost of Adam Smith: Smith gave us the market’s “invisible hand” in the Wealth of Nations in 1776, having already explained morality as a combination of sympathy, spectatorship, and fairness in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). For Smith and the enlightened eighteenth century, markets freed people from the power of patrons, from personal dependence on aristocrats and courts with their grip of power and property, from state-controlled monopolies dominated by the same oligarchic elements. How do self-interested individuals come together in a social order so that all may prosper? Why do we care that other people prosper? Those were Smith’s questions, and they continue to engage many of us. Smith didn’t ask if we should care; he assumed it was self-evident that we did. So, as the USA in 2014 achieves a level of income inequality comparable to that in Smith’s pre-industrial eighteenth century, Sandel’s seems a valuable book for Skidmore to consider, even if it has little to do with the afterlife or literature.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN SELLING
What is for sale? Michael Sandel answers this question broadly at first by saying everything is for sale. A price can be put on almost everything in the world – from houses, cars, and clothes to good grades, friends, and Springsteen concerts. When thinking about Sandel’s book, I am struck by the similarities to an age-old political science question of "who gets what, when, and how much?" Sandel’s argument can be framed in this way and from his book it seems those who can pay for it receive the best treatment. The book puts a price on everything in society, including those things that are perhaps morally questionable. This brings me to another point: the government’s role in this type of regulation.
Is it not up to the government to place some restrictions on what is for sale? I ask this question from the perspective of a Supreme Court scholar; I study the Court's role in restricting rights and liberties versus expanding or allowing for individual choice. Should there be restrictions on what we sell or what we can put a price on? Or is this an invalid constraint on our rights and liberties? The Supreme Court’s docket is often tied up in these civil liberties and civil rights questions. For example, in 1973 in the case of Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973) the United States Supreme Court opined that a woman should have a qualified right to an abortion; preventing this, they ruled, was an unconstitutional restriction on a woman’s right to do what she wished with her own body. What type of leap is it to suggest that women should be able to sell their embryos? Is this a moral question or simply a question of a commodity that should be for sale? And what is the government’s role in this type of exchange? We might note that the selling of embryos is already legal, but is framed in a different way—as gestational surrogacy. Yet we don’t think of this as selling embryos; rather, we think of it as giving a childless couple the chance to be parents. Does this exchange become moral, then, because the agreement is "above board?" Do we only find it morally distasteful when embryos are sold on the "black market?"
The Supreme Court has had an interesting history in terms of regulating what is for sale and in 1905 went so far as to say that an individual has the right to contract directly with his employer for his labor. In this case the Court struck down a New York law that regulated the number of hours a baker could work. The court noted it was a fundamental liberty of an individual to contract (or sell) his labor to his employer, and the state could not restrict that, at least in occupations where health and safety were of little to no concern (Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905). This decision was widely unpopular due in part to the Court’s usurpation of the legislature’s power to create laws regulating the lives of their citizens. Over the next few decades, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in this area was mixed, but by the late 1930s the Court had largely reversed course and upheld New Deal legislation in the "switch in time that saved nine." However, this poses interesting questions about the role of government. Should the government be able to limit the number of hours you work? What about in specific industries? Isn't it just about selling another commodity on the market: your labor? I hope the book encourages you to think about what you are willing to sell on the market, and further what the role of government is in these transactions.
What Money Can’t [or Shouldn’t] Buy describes a large number of transactions that raise moral questions. Personally, I agree with many of the moral judgments about the transactions described by the author. A few economic clarifications, however, should be made.
- Economists generally assume that individual persons act in such a way (e.g., to purchase one product over another) by weighing which product will make them happier. Economists describe these actions as utility-maximizing behavior – the pleasure-pain principle applied to the consumer. Utility is a hypothetical measure of such happiness or well being. Individuals are assumed to choose that set of economic activities (purchases, employment, volunteerism, etc.) which maximizes their overall utility (happiness). Keep in mind that bringing happiness or reducing pain to others may be one of those activities that will increase an individual’s own utility.
- Activities may include purchases of certain products over other products. In a price or market system, such transactions are commonly made by the payment of income that comes from the earnings of a person in the labor market. However, the price or market system is not necessary in order for individuals to exchange one item (e.g., labor time) for another good or service. Such exchanges could occur under a barter system or through two individuals agreeing to do a favor for each other (e.g., I will mow your lawn if you will make me dinner). The price or market system is not to blame for individual decisions about which exchanges one will make. A price system in which every good or service is valued in terms of a single item (e.g., dollars) just simplifies the process by saving the time and effort needed to find others with whom to make a given exchange.
- Many of the problems that the author finds with the transactions he describes would be less problematic if all persons had equal incomes.
Some of the broader issues implied by the reading are the following:
- Should a given exchange between two people be allowed if one person gains more utility than the other person loses from that transaction?
- If a given change in national policy results in the utility of the gainers being greater than the loss in utility of the losers, should we pursue that policy?
- Should each person’s utility count equally toward the total social utility?
- How should we proceed if some people believe that a particular exchange, such as any of those described by the author, should not be allowed? Should the majority rule over the preferences of a minority of the people?
- Do we prohibit a given transaction only if every person agrees to do so?
- Would increased public discussion lead toward greater unanimity on which exchanges should be prohibited?
- How do we handle situations which can be looked at in positive ways by some individuals but in negative ways by others?
- Are there limits to experts in one discipline addressing the problems in another discipline? (For example, an economist writing about marriage or a philosopher about economics.)
To address questions such as these, students taking the first steps in their college careers should think beyond the immediate examples and consider the general principles involved. Taking courses in a wide variety of subjects is one valuable way to reach a way of living that could maximize each student’s total utility.
In the world of business, we accept, as an article of faith, that markets and competition beget efficiency. It is this belief in efficient markets that undergirds our own vaunted free enterprise, capital-driven, economic system. But markets acknowledge neither limits, nor any store of value besides money.
There is an old saying "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Sandel, in What Money Can’t Buy, suggests that believers in markets, possessed of this elegant, efficient hammer, see societal as well as economic problems as ‘nails’ - that is, as allocation problems to be solved by the magic of the market.
It is so tempting! How wonderful it must be to be free of making moral judgments, and to allow the invisible and objective hand of the market to decide! After all, questions of fairness, equity and morality are inherently difficult, messy, and complex and our solutions are usually imperfect and often unsatisfying. Who needs that sort of hassle? And so, as Sandel writes, “markets become norms.”
I saw this during my own career in business, this tendency to treat all business problems as “market” issues rather than issues of morality. Monetary value was one thing, and a tangible, concrete thing at that, while questions of values were something else again, something to think about on your own time and not company time! I continue to see this in the accelerating privatization of health services, education, transportation, and many other public services. The logic is that you must (monetarily) incentivize people, and organizations, to efficiently deliver services for the commonweal.
But Sandel rightly warns of this creeping monetization of social goods, arguing that “markets leave their mark” and that the goods and services themselves are changed, even "corrupted," by the market. In other words, the process of creating value matters as much as the product being valued.
Yet amid Sandel’s (properly) dire warnings, there are some hopeful signs, even in the belly of the beast itself! New businesses, and even some older, mainstream business enterprises, are beginning to evolve in ways that demonstrate a new and different understanding of their role and mission in helping to develop not just a productive economy, but also a successful society. These business enterprises recognize what is called the ‘triple bottom line,’ the notion that the ‘bottom line’ of a business is not confined to its level of economic success (its profit), but must also be measured by its impact on the natural environment, and on the society of which it is a part. That is, businesses have economic, environmental, and social responsibilities. Some businesses, so-called “social enterprises,” are even moving beyond this understanding and explicitly stating a mission of creating “shared value,” which includes profitability for the enterprise combined with the creation of social value.
This is a fundamentally new way of thinking, and moves us away from a slavish submission to market values, and towards an ongoing conversation between market values and non-market values, between money and morality, between the efficient and the “good.” It’s a difficult and messy conversation, but a necessary one.
In his book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel describes how markets have invaded traditionally non-market arenas. Of the examples he offers, I find some of those that involve human health and medicine particularly intriguing since they intersect with my interest in bioethics: jumping “queues” for access to medical care, paid sterilization, bribes for good health practices, and the sale of permits to have children, to name a few. Sandel presents two moral arguments against the market invasion into these realms: the fairness argument and the corruption/degradation argument. The two arguments seem to apply unevenly depending on the situation, e.g. paying for a place at the head of the line registers as “unfair” more than “corrupt” (i.e. altering the meaning or value of the line) but both arguments may be invoked in other instances— as in paying drug-addicted women to be sterilized. Some argue that there is an element of bribery or coercion involved in cash for sterilization, that a drug addict is incapable of making a free choice and the practice is unfair. Others object on the grounds that a woman’s ability to conceive shouldn’t be up for sale and that it degrades the reproductive ability of a woman.
Sandel also asks whether there are some things that money can buy but shouldn’t (like babies or kidneys). Even though markets have traditionally been considered non-judgmental, he contends that the more markets extend into non-market arenas, the more closely associated markets become with questions of morality. Neuroethics is concerned with how those moral decisions are made.
Neuroscientists have entered into the discourse on free will and decision-making by contributing to our understanding of how the brain operates in moral decision-making. Take, for example, the famous “trolley” dilemma: would you flip a switch to divert a train from killing five people, killing one person in the process? In the first work of its kind, a brain imaging study measured responses to this moral dilemma and compared them to another hypothetical situation, asking whether individuals would divert the train by pushing a large man on the tracks, killing him in the process. Most people responded affirmatively in the first scenario but had moral objections to the second. The study revealed differences in activation of emotional areas of the brain, thus yielding important clues as to how moral decisions are made (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/293/5537/2105.full ).
Now markets have come full-circle, using information gained from brain imaging studies as an advertising strategy. Brain imaging is routinely used to determine product preferences in a new field called “neuromarketing” (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12115-010-9408-1 ). Interestingly, the ethics of using neuromarketing has been called into question because advertisements that activate certain brain regions may not allow consumers “free choice” and are thus "unfair."
Ironically, the very existence of this essay may underscore Sandel's reasoning. The FYE seeks to promote its book selection for the class of 2018 and one way of preparing First Year students for the variety of ideas and discourses among the disciplines they will encounter at Skidmore is to offer a series of essays from various disciplines. In order to incentivize the collection of essays, faculty are offered a small stipend for writing a personal or professional response to the book. The option is presented to all faculty, so fairness is not in question (but some might argue that those at a lower pay scale might be more inclined to accept the offer; would that alter the range of essays assembled?). More likely, Sandel would question whether this practice has degraded the value of the essay: do you value my words less, knowing that I was paid to produce them? Thought provoking, but I hope not, for an alternative explanation is that the College values faculty time and seeks to reward extra effort.
Scarcity is the foundation of economic analysis. Humans have unlimited wants, but resources to satisfy those wants are limited. So economics deals with what, how, and for whom to produce given the constraints of limited resources.
Free markets, some argue—as Sandel discusses only in passing in What Money Can't Buy—solve the problem of scarcity most efficiently. Assuming individuals maximize self-interest (i.e. satisfaction for consumers and profits for producers), equilibrium prices set by the "invisible hand" in markets allegedly provide a win-win solution to scarcity: consumers buy the amount they want to buy and producers produce and sell the amount they want to produce and sell.
There are a couple of glitches, however, in this narrative. First of all, the argument rests on a set of hidden assumptions. The win-win scenario is hypothetically possible only if there is perfect competition: that is, perfect substitution among homogenous goods, perfect information, numerous producers of goods and services, perfect free market entry and exit, and so on. But in an economy where monopolies and oligopolies are prominent, where a billion-dollar advertising industry shapes individuals’ preferences and tastes, where no two loaves of bread are the same, these assumptions are simply not true.
Second, the way markets provide a solution to scarcity is by rationing people in and out of the market. Those who can pay the price are indeed able to purchase and enjoy the consumption of the good or service. Those who cannot are left out of the market.
In What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel seems to agree that the market is efficient in regards to material goods (although even then one might wonder if any producer would produce shoes for homeless children). However, when we take the commodification of goods out of the material sphere and into the sphere of personal, cultural, political, and social life, he rightly argues that there are problems of morality. Sandel gives dozens of examples to show that markets block access and exclude people. When we commodify cultural, social, and political life, we deny some people access and that is where moral issues emerge.
This individualization and commodification is exactly what we have been doing since the 1980s. We have opened up the entire personal, social, cultural, and political space to the whims of markets and corporations in the name of efficiency. Strangely enough, economics does not regard this as morally questionable. Economics has only one morality: allocative efficiency. It argues that efficient markets are the only economic organizational form compatible with freedom, democracy, and liberty ─all-embracing slogans we use frequently. It is not concerned with who gets what.
Michael J. Sandel is a professor of political philosophy in the department of Government at Harvard. So what is political philosophy? The simplest answer to this question is that it is a “subfield” of political science, like American politics, comparative politics, or international relations The study of political philosophy begins with the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, and Tocqueville – to name just a few. It would be a mistake to understand political philosophy as a quaint antiquarian effort to preserve the philosophical works of an earlier age. Those works are our guides in searching for the answers to the deepest, most compelling, and most enduring questions of political life: What does it mean to be a human being? What kind of political regime will best promote human flourishing? What is the relationship between freedom and authority? What is the good life? Answers to these questions – whether or not we fully understand them or are even conscious of them – inform our political and moral decisions. Therefore, political philosophy is not merely a subfield of political science. It is the foundation of the study of politics and, I would add, of liberal education.
In his most recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel points us in the direction of these fundamental questions by first posing questions from our everyday lives, such as whether or not we should be able to pay to jump the queue at an amusement park or whether students should be paid for good grades. He then suggests the moral reasoning that determines the answers to these questions and we move closer to contemplating the fundamental questions of political philosophy. Sandel regrets that an economic approach to moral questions seems to guide all of our decisions. According to this approach, “human behavior can be explained by assuming that people decide what to do by weighing the costs and benefits of the options before them, and choosing the one they believe will give them the greatest welfare, or utility” (48). Sandel points to the limits of such an approach, but does not explain more fully the origins of it or the alternatives to it. The origins of this approach lie in liberalism, particularly the political philosophy of John Locke. Locke argued that human beings are by nature free and equal with the right to preserve life, liberty, and property (Locke had a profound influence on the Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson as he penned the Declaration of Independence). Such a claim paved the way for Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which is generally recognized as the first articulation of capitalism. The familiarity of Locke’s political philosophy and the economic approach that follows from it blinds us to its radical claims. Politics, according to Locke, is for the sake of protecting individual rights and for promoting commerce. This is in stark contrast to previous thinkers, such as Aristotle or Machiavelli, who understood politics for the sake of virtue or for glory.
By suggesting moral dilemmas from our everyday lives, Sandel leads us to question our political and moral assumptions―in this case the economic approach that has its origins in liberalism. It is incumbent on us to examine our assumptions more deeply for it is the goal of liberal (derived from the Latin word liber for free) education to liberate students from their easy assumptions and prejudices.