Michael Sandel and AC Grayling on markets, morals and justice
AC Grayling: You were brought up mainly in California, educated at Brandeis and then at Oxford. You were a Rhodes scholar there and stayed on for your doctorate, and you were supervised for your doctoral studies by Charles Taylor. What influence still persists from your time talking to Charles Taylor?
Michael Sandel: I had a wonderful time at Oxford and Charles was at the centre of a small but compelling group of heterodox, moral and political philosophers who stood outside the then mainstream of purely analytic philosophy, which was largely utilitarian.
I came late to philosophy—I had studied politics as an undergraduate. So I was first enticed, almost forced, to study Kant by Alan Montefiore. Then after I had done that, with Charles I studied Aristotle and Hegel, and then with Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza. All of these thinkers were in a way counter-cultural, at odds with the mainstream.
I found it all fascinating, and the influence this had on me was to question some of the overly individualistic assumptions that informed contemporary moral and political philosophy, including those of Rawls. Also, to question the idea that debates about justice and rights can be neutral with respect to conceptions of the good life.
Grayling: I know you don’t like the label “communitarian” but that is of course one that’s associated with Charles Taylor’s views. You did mention the overly individualistic view of things. This is tremendously important because a large part of what you’ve thought, especially in talking about the marketisation of our society, has really been a lament for the sense of community.
So there is a sense that the label, although you don’t quite like it, does somewhat describe the position you come from—and it would be a Charles Taylor sort of position.
Sandel: The reason I’m a bit uneasy about the communitarian label is that it’s sometimes thought to stand for the idea that whatever values happen to prevail in any given community at any given time are the right ones, the ones that should be enshrined in law. And I don’t think that.
There is a sense, you’re quite right, that the term fits. But it’s in the sense that suggests that it’s not reasonable, it’s not possible in some cases, and not desirable in others, to try to reason about justice or rights or the good society by stepping back from the particular identities that shape citizens.
Grayling: You urged against Rawls’s idea that somehow you could think about how you would like to see society organised if you were ignorant of where you would be in society. Your point is you can’t start from there—you’ve got to start from where you are located.
This is a theme in a great deal of what you have written and said. It naturally enough raises questions in the minds of those who do have an interest in conceptions of autonomy, individual liberty and the rest, that they lie in tension with the idea that we are already connected and, to use a wonderful word coined by Bishop Berkeley, embrangled in society.
How are we going to deal with the difficulty that there seems to be an irresolvable conflict between, on the one hand, the interests that individuals have in their own lives and projects and so on, and these commitments that they cannot escape from?.. read more: