Michael J. Sandel

Last updated
Michael J. Sandel
Michael Sandel Me Judice.png
Born (1953-03-05) March 5, 1953 (age 65)
Alma mater
Notable work
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Institutions Harvard University
Thesis Liberalism and the Problem of the Moral Subject (1980)
Doctoral advisor Charles Taylor [1]
Main interests
Notable ideas
Communitarian critique of liberalism

Michael J. Sandel ( /sænˈdɛl/ ; born 1953) is an American political philosopher. He is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University Law School, where his course Justice was the university's first course to be made freely available online and on television. It has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world, including in China, where Sandel was named the "most influential foreign figure of the year" (China Newsweek). [2] He is also known for his critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice in his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982).

Political philosophy sub-discipline of philosophy and political science

Political philosophy, also known as political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.

Harvard University private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning, and its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities.

John Rawls American political philosopher

John Bordley Rawls was an American moral and political philosopher in the liberal tradition. Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of how Rawls's work "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself."


He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. [3]

American Academy of Arts and Sciences United States honorary society and center for independent policy research

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Founded in 1780, the Academy is dedicated to honoring excellence and leadership, working across disciplines and divides, and advancing the common good.

Early life and education

Sandel was born in Minneapolis on March 5, 1953,[ citation needed ] to a Jewish [4] family, which moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen. He was president of his senior class at Palisades High School (1971) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University with a bachelor's degree in politics (1975). He received his doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford (1981), as a Rhodes Scholar, where he studied under philosopher Charles Taylor.

Minneapolis Largest city in Minnesota

Minneapolis is the county seat of Hennepin County and the larger of the Twin Cities, the 16th-largest metropolitan area in the United States. As of 2017, Minneapolis is the largest city in the state of Minnesota and 45th-largest in the United States, with an estimated population of 422,331. The Twin Cities metropolitan area consists of Minneapolis, its neighbor Saint Paul, and suburbs which altogether contain about 3.6 million people, and is the third-largest economic center in the Midwest.

Los Angeles City in California

Los Angeles, officially the City of Los Angeles and often known by its initials L.A., is the most populous city in California, the second most populous city in the United States, after New York City, and the third most populous city in North America. With an estimated population of four million, Los Angeles is the cultural, financial, and commercial center of Southern California. The city is known for its Mediterranean climate, ethnic diversity, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and its sprawling metropolis. Los Angeles is the largest city on the West Coast of North America.

Philosophical views

Sandel subscribes to a certain version of communitarianism (although he is uncomfortable with the label), and in this vein he is perhaps best known for his critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice . Rawls' argument depends on the assumption of the veil of ignorance, which he claims allows us to become "unencumbered selves".

Communitarianism philosophy that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community

Communitarianism is a philosophy that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community. Its overriding philosophy is based upon the belief that a person's social identity and personality are largely molded by community relationships, with a smaller degree of development being placed on individualism. Although the community might be a family, communitarianism usually is understood, in the wider, philosophical sense, as a collection of interactions, among a community of people in a given place, or among a community who share an interest or who share a history. Communitarianism usually opposes extreme individualism and disagrees with extreme laissez-faire policies that neglect the stability of the overall community.

<i>A Theory of Justice</i> work of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls

A Theory of Justice is a 1971 work of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls, in which the author addresses the problem of distributive justice. The theory utilises an updated form of Kantian philosophy and a variant form of conventional social contract theory. Rawls's theory of justice is fully a political theory of justice as opposed to other forms of justice discussed in other disciplines and contexts.

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 those with our families, which we do not make by conscious choice but are born with, already attached. Because they are not consciously acquired, it is impossible to separate oneself from such ties. Sandel believes that only a less-restrictive, looser version of the veil of ignorance should be postulated. Criticism such as Sandel's inspired Rawls to subsequently argue that his theory of justice was not a "metaphysical" theory but a "political" one, a basis on which an overriding consensus could be formed among individuals and groups with many different moral and political views. [5]



Sandel joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in 1980. [6] He has taught the Justice course at Harvard University for two decades. More than 15,000 students have taken the course, [7] 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. [8] [9] 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 co-production of WGBH and Harvard University. Episodes are available on the Justice with Michael Sandel website. [10] 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)—rather than recitation and memorization of facts—and to Sandel's engaging style, incorporating context into discussion; for example, he starts one lecture with a discussion of the ethics of ticket scalping. [11]

The BBC broadcast eight 30-minute segments from the series on BBC Four starting on 25 January 2011. [12]

In April 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a three-part series and later podcast presented by Sandel titled The Public Philosopher. [9] [13] [14] These followed a format similar to the Justice lectures, this time recorded in front of an audience at the London School of Economics. Across three programs, Sandel debates with the audience whether universities should give preference to students from poorer backgrounds, whether a nurse should be paid more than a banker, and whether it is right to bribe people to be healthy.


Sandel is currently teaching his Justice course on edX. [15] On April 29, 2013, the philosophy department faculty of San Jose State University addressed an open letter to Sandel protesting the use of MOOCs (massively open online courses) such as his Justice course. [16] Sandel publicly responded: "The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions." [17]

Other teaching

Sandel also co-teaches, with Douglas Melton, the seminar "Ethics and Biotechnology", which considers the ethical implications of a variety of biotechnological procedures and possibilities.


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

Sandel gave the 2009 Reith Lectures on "A New Citizenship" on BBC Radio, addressing the "prospect for a new politics of the common good". [18] The lectures were delivered in London on May 18, Oxford on May 21, Newcastle on May 26, and Washington, DC, in early June, 2009. [19]

He is also the author of the book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012), which argues some desirable things—such as body organs and the right to kill endangered species—should not be traded for cash. [20]

Public service

Sandel served on the George W. Bush administration's President's Council on Bioethics.

2009 immigration commentary

In 2009, Sandel criticized Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker's 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. [21] 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." [22]

Awards and honors


See also

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  2. http://scholar.harvard.edu/sandel/home harvard.edu
  3. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 3, 2011.
  4. "Michael Sandel: This much I know". The Guardian. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
  5. "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical", by John Rawls
  6. "Michael Sandel wins Asturias Award in Social Sciences". Harvard Gazette. 2018-06-11. Retrieved 2018-07-10.
  7. Friedman, Thomas L. "Opinion". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-07-10.
  8. Makarchev, Nikita. "Sandel Wins Enrollment Battle." The Harvard Crimson. September 26, 2007.
  9. 1 2 Anthony, Andrew (7 April 2012). "Michael Sandel: master of life's big questions". The Observer. Retrieved 2018-07-10.
  10. "Justice"—On Air, in Books, Online, by Craig Lambert, September 22, 2009
  11. Tomoko, Otake (September 19, 2010). "Thinking aloud". Japan Times.
  12. "BBC Four - Justice". BBC.
  13. "Series 1, The Public Philosopher - BBC Radio 4". BBC.
  14. "The Public Philosopher - Downloads - BBC Radio 4". BBC.
  15. "Justice". edX. 23 May 2018.
  16. "'An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U.'". 2 May 2013 via The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  17. "Michael Sandel Responds". 2 May 2013 via The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  18. BBC Radio 4 Programme details for Start the Week, 25 May 2009.
  19. Guardian, 5 February 2009, "Michael Sandel to deliver Radio 4's Reith Lectures".
  20. A summary and critical review of Sandel's book is available in the September/October 2013 issue of Philosophy Now magazine, accessible here.
  21. Should We Sell American Citizenship? - Michael Sandel on YouTube ForaTv
  22. "Home Page – The TLS". TheTLS.
  23. "Michael J. Sandel, DPhil". hsci.harvard.edu.
  24. Hill, Andrew. "Biographies and economics dominate". Financial Times. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  25. "The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers". Foreign Policy. 26 November 2012. Archived from the original on 28 November 2012. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  26. "Utrechtse eredoctoraten voor filosoof Michael Sandel en psychobioloog BJ Casey". Utrecht University. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  27. Tecnologías, Developed with webControl CMS by Intermark. "Michael J. Sandel - Laureates - Princess of Asturias Awards". The Princess of Asturias Foundation.
  28. "Insatiable longing". 21 July 2012 via The Economist.