Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel

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Michael J. Sandel is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 political philosopher
Political philosophy
Political philosophy is the study of such topics as liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it...

 and a professor at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

. He is best known for the Harvard course 'Justice' which is available to view online, and for his critique of Rawls
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

' A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice is a book of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls. It was originally published in 1971 and revised in both 1975 and 1999. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social...

in his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The Academy’s elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.James Bowdoin, John Adams, and...

 in 2002.


Born in Minneapolis to a Jewish family, Sandel moved to Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...

 at the age of thirteen. He was the president of his senior class at Palisades High School in 1971 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University
Brandeis University
Brandeis University is an American private research university with a liberal arts focus. It is located in the southwestern corner of Waltham, Massachusetts, nine miles west of Boston. The University has an enrollment of approximately 3,200 undergraduate and 2,100 graduate students. In 2011, it...

 in 1975, and received his doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College , founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England but founded by a family with strong Scottish connections....

 as a Rhodes Scholar, where he studied under Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor (philosopher)
Charles Margrave Taylor, is a Canadian philosopher from Montreal, Quebec best known for his contributions in political philosophy, the philosophy of social science, and in the history of philosophy. His contributions to these fields have earned him both the prestigious Kyoto Prize and the...


Philosophical views

Sandel subscribes to a certain version of communitarianism
Communitarianism is an ideology that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community. That community may be the family unit, but it can also be understood in a far wider sense of personal interaction, of geographical location, or of shared history.-Terminology:Though the term...

 (although he is uncomfortable with the label), and in this vein he is perhaps best known for his critique of John Rawls
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

's A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice is a book of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls. It was originally published in 1971 and revised in both 1975 and 1999. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social...

. Rawls' argument depends on the assumption of the veil of ignorance, which he claims allows us to become "unencumbered selves".

Sandel's view is that we are by nature encumbered to an extent that makes it impossible even in the hypothetical to have such a veil. Some examples of such ties are the ties we make with our families, which we do not make by conscious choice but are born with them already attached. Because they are not consciously applied, these ties are impossible to separate from someone. Sandel believes that only a less-restrictive, looser version of the veil of ignorance can be possible. Rawls's argument, however, depends on the fact that the veil is restrictive enough that we make decisions without knowing who will be affected by these decisions, which of course is impossible if we are already attached to people in the world.


Sandel has taught the famous "Justice" course at Harvard for two decades. More than 15,000 students have taken the course, making it one of the most highly attended in Harvard's history. The fall 2007 class was the largest ever at Harvard, with a total of 1,115 students. The fall 2005 course was recorded, and is offered online for students through the Harvard Extension School.
An abridged form of this recording is now a 12-episode TV series, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, in a coproduction of WGBH
WGBH-TV, channel 2, is a non-commercial educational public television station located in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. WGBH-TV is a member station of the Public Broadcasting Service , and produces more than two-thirds of PBS's national prime time television programming...

 and Harvard University. Episodes are available on the Justice with Michael Sandel website. There is also an accompanying book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, and the sourcebook of readings Justice: A Reader.

The popularity of the show is attributed to the discussion-oriented format (the Socratic method
Socratic method
The Socratic method , named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas...

) – rather than recitation and memorization of facts – and to Sandel's engaging style, incorporating context into discussion – for example, starting one lecture with a discussion of the ethics of ticket scalping.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters is at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster, London. It is the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff...

 broadcast eight 30-minute segments from the series on BBC Four
BBC Four
BBC Four is a British television network operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation and available to digital television viewers on Freeview, IPTV, satellite and cable....

 starting on 25 January 2011.

Other teaching

Sandel also co-teaches with Douglas Melton
Douglas Melton
Douglas A. Melton is the Xander University Professor at Harvard University, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Additionally, Dr. Melton serves as the co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the co-chair of the Harvard University Department of Stem Cell and...

 "Ethics and Biotechnology", a seminar considering the ethical implications of a variety of biotechnological procedures and possibilities.


Sandel is the author of multiple publications including Democracy's Discontent and Public Philosophy. His Public Philosophy is a collection of his own previously published essays, examining the role of morality and justice in American political life. He offers commentary on the roles of moral values and civic community in the American electoral process – a much-debated aspect of the 2004 U.S. election cycle and current political discussion.

Michael Sandel gave the 2009 Reith Lectures on "A New Citizenship" on BBC Radio, addressing the 'prospect for a new politics of the common good'. The lectures were delivered in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 on May 18, Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

 on May 21, Newcastle
Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne is a city and metropolitan borough of Tyne and Wear, in North East England. Historically a part of Northumberland, it is situated on the north bank of the River Tyne...

 on May 26 and Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

 in early June.

Public service

Sandel served on the George W. Bush
George W. Bush
George Walker Bush is an American politician who served as the 43rd President of the United States, from 2001 to 2009. Before that, he was the 46th Governor of Texas, having served from 1995 to 2000....

 administration's President's Council on Bioethics.

2009 immigration commentary

In 2009, Sandel criticized Nobel Prize
Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics, but officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel , is an award for outstanding contributions to the field of economics, generally regarded as one of the...

-winning economist Gary Becker
Gary Becker
Gary Stanley Becker is an American economist. He is a professor of economics, sociology at the University of Chicago and a professor at the Booth School of Business. He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1992, and received the United States' Presidential Medal of Freedom...

's free-market immigration proposal. This proposed solution entailed imposing refugee quotas on nations according to their wealth and then allowing countries to pay other, poorer countries to take refugees allotted under their quota. Sandel concludes that "a market in refugees changes our view of who refugees are and how they should be treated. It encourages the participants — the buyers, the sellers and also those whose asylum is being haggled over — to think of refugees as burdens to be unloaded or as revenue sources rather than as human beings in peril."

Montgomery Burns character

There is an urban legend that Sandel was the inspiration for the Montgomery Burns
Montgomery Burns
Charles Montgomery "Monty" Burns, usually referred to as Mr. Burns, is a recurring fictional character in the animated television series The Simpsons, who is voiced by Harry Shearer and previously Christopher Collins. Burns is the evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and is Homer...

 character in The Simpsons
The Simpsons
The Simpsons is an American animated sitcom created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The series is a satirical parody of a middle class American lifestyle epitomized by its family of the same name, which consists of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie...

. The joke, of course, is that Sandel is the anti-Burns: a moral philosopher who has devoted his life to pondering what is the right thing to do. The rumor derives from the facts that (1) several future writers for Fox’s “Simpsons” likely took his popular course "Justice" at Harvard, (2) Sandel used to make Mr. Burns' hand gesture (before Mr. Burns did), and (3) he shares a receding hairline with the evil-minded cartoon character. The connection has been denied by Simpsons writers.


  • Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (September 15, 2009), ISBN 978-0374180652
  • Michael J. Sandel, Justice: A Reader, Oxford University Press, (September 27, 2007), ISBN 978-0195335125
  • Michael J. Sandel, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, (January 31, 2007); paperback (September 30, 2009), ISBN 978-0674036383
  • Michael J. Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, Harvard University Press (October 31, 2006), ISBN 978-0674023659
  • Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge University Press, (March 28, 1998), ISBN 978-0521567411
  • Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (February 6, 1998), ISBN 978-0674197459

Other languages
  • Michael J. Sandel, Plädoyer gegen die Perfektion (German), Berlin University Press, (January 1, 2008), ISBN 978-3940432148
  • Michael J. Sandel and Maria Luz Melon, El Liberalismo y los Limites de la Justicia (Filosofia del Derecho) (Spanish), Gedisa Editorial, (November 2000), ISBN 978-8474327069
  • Michael J. Sandel, これからの「正義」の話をしよう――いまを生き延びるための哲学(Japanese),早川書房, (May 5, 2010), ISBN 978-4152091314; translation of "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?", Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (September 15, 2009)
  • Michael J. Sandel, "정의란 무엇인가", 서울: 김영사, (Korean) (May 17, 2010), ISBN 978-8934939603; translation of "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?", Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (September 15, 2009)

External links