Michael Sandel is a celebrity in the world of philosophy and education. He’s a Harvard University philosophy professor who’s world renown for his Justice lectures. He wrote a book to accompany the course and recently he published a book about the moral limits of markets.
The strapline to Sandel’s popular Justice lecture is “What is the right thing to do?” This is the question that’s constantly at the hub of Sandel’s lecture. Student’s are asked to decide what’s the right thing to do about a number of moral dilemmas that individuals and societies face. It’s challenging and intellectually stimulating as students grapple with tough moral problems and are forced to think through issues and ask deep questions about what they believe is the right thing to do.
If there is anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that tough, deliberative thinking is not what most people like to do. It’s work. You have to dig deep and be able to tolerate hovering in uncertainity. There are many tough questions. But not so many easy answers–if there are any answers at all. I realize some of us don’t have time or just don’t want to think about the big questions. It’s easier to just remain disengaged and avoid such tough questions. We risk actually be changed by what we learn. For some people that’s really what keeps them from engaging with ideas honestly and openly. Change isn’t what many of us want to accept. At the heart of philosophy is the willingness to challenge assumptions, especially long held ones. Philosophy requires us to use our own reason. It requires us to stand alone in the lights of our intellectual, emotional, and moral conscience.
Philosophy teaches us that a lot of what we think we know turns out under close scrutiny to be wrong. Or at least highly questionable. We attend lectures like Sandel’s because we want to face those tough questions and be changed by the force of our own understanding.