The Price of Everything: The Moral Limits of Markets
For over thirty years, Harvard undergraduates have packed Sanders Theater for Michael Sandel’s course on justice. PBS has broadcast the lectures and more than three and a half million people have clicked to watch them on YouTube. Thanks to all this exposure, Sandel has become the most famous teacher of philosophy in the world, and his classes—sober, good-humored, serious—have shown that it is possible to take philosophy into the public square without insulting the public’s intelligence.
The doctrine that Sandel wants to take into the square is a sustained critique—from something like the center—of liberalism as a public philosophy. Since his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which appeared thirty years ago, he has been the most prominent critic of John Rawls’s idea that the liberal state must be neutral in relation to the public good. He thinks that the liberal state cannot be neutral because it must protect the lives and the interests of individuals, and its laws, taken as a whole, enact a particular vision not merely of the right but also of the good.
The ultimate good in a liberal state is liberty. But Sandel thinks that liberty is not enough for life in a liberal order. A liberal political order should be more ambitious. It should aim at “soulcraft,” or the shaping of a citizen’s character. It should promote the virtues of honor, respect, and sacrifice, and wean people away from private selfishness, and make them more devoted to the public good. Without these civic virtues, the liberal republic will lack the community spirit to maintain a healthy democracy. As he once observed, “The public philosophy by which we live cannot secure the liberty it promises because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”