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The NS Profile: Michael Sandel

A public intellectual, he delivers lectures at Harvard that are wildly popular. He preaches that the

Urban legend has it that the man chosen by the BBC to deliver this year’s Reith Lectures was the real-world inspiration for a character in The Simpsons. Montgomery Burns, the desiccated and occasionally malevolent owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is said to have been modelled, in his phy­sical characteristics if nothing else, on Michael Sandel, Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. Many Simpsons writers have been Harvard alumni, and giving Mr Burns, one of Springfield’s least morally upstanding citizens, Sandel’s broad forehead and thin lips was a kind of Harvardian in-joke: for nearly 30 years now, Sandel has taught the university’s most popular undergraduate course – “Justice”.

Each year Justice, or Moral Reasoning 22, to give it its alternative title, a course in moral and political philosophy, draws more than 1,200 students, and the university has to requisition its largest lecture theatre to accommodate them. One of the most visited pages on the Harvard website carries a video in which Sandel addresses, without notes, a rapt audience on so-called “trolley problems”, imaginary dilemmas dreamt up by philosophers in order to get people to reflect on their intuitions about the relationship between action and intention. James Crabtree, now managing editor of Prospect magazine, was a teaching fellow (or graduate teaching assistant) on Justice between 2004 and 2006. He remembers the first time he saw Sandel lecture.

“It was pretty extraordinary. They were turning people away at the door. He’s a great lecturer – very engaging.”

A Harvard PhD candidate, Andrew Schroeder, also a former teaching fellow on Justice (the English-born political writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan is another), thinks the key to Sandel’s popularity with successive generations of undergraduates lies in his readiness to eschew the fantastic thought-experiments that are a staple of contemporary moral philosophy.

“His greatest strength, and one of the reasons Justice [is] so popular, is his ability to find real-world cases that show the depth and difficulty of issues in moral and political philosophy. Many discussions in moral philosophy are inspired by a single real-world example, and then move very quickly to focus on an abstract question. Sandel, though, can brilliantly marshal a huge range of examples to show how pervasive and difficult [an issue] is. That, I think, is what makes the class so popular and really inspires the students to work at the material,” Schroeder says. “I imagine Sandel reading the New York Times every day, cutting out articles that may have philosophical relevance and putting them in a file somewhere, to be summoned as necessary.”

Sandel doesn’t just read the New York Times, however; he is also a regular contributor to the paper’s op-ed pages, as well as to a number of other major American periodicals (including the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic). Indeed, one assumes that it was his status as a “public” philosopher or intellectual – and not merely his reputation as a lecturer – that first caught the eye of the BBC.

For the past 15 years, Sandel has written as often for his fellow citizens as for his academic colleagues. His work, which has broached an impressively wide range of issues (from stem-cell research and affirmative action to the branding of sporting events and the use of commercial logos in schools), blurs the distinction between political commentary and political philosophy – and that is one of its strengths.

We met at Claridge’s, in central London, a couple of days after he had delivered “Markets and Morals”, the first of four Reith Lectures that will be broadcast on Radio 4 this month. He was dressed casually in a black polo neck, grey woollen slacks and expensive sneakers, like an East Coast academic in a Woody Allen movie.

Sandel sees his obligations as a philosopher as being continuous with his responsibilities as a citizen. For him, political philosophy is engaged or it is nothing. “The responsibility of political philosophy that tries to engage with practice is to be clear, or at least accessible – clear enough that its arguments and concerns can be accessible to a non-academic public. Otherwise, it’s not possible really for political philosophers to generate debate that could possibly challenge existing understandings.”

What is striking about this conception of the task of the public philosopher is just how ambitious it is. Where, for many of his contemporaries, the job of the philosopher is merely to tease out the abstract principles underlying public debate and deliberation, for Sandel it is to intervene in the debates themselves. “Public philosophy is set apart from academic political philosophy, in that it means not only to be about prevailing practices and assumptions, but also to address them,” he says. “To address fellow citizens about them and to try to provoke discussion and critical reflection among the public generally. So that political philosophy isn’t only about public things, but engages public things and, if it’s successful, reorients the way people relate to politics and the public realm.”

All of Sandel’s work, the academic treatises as much as the op-eds and magazine articles, circles obsessively around just this question: the nature and extent of the public realm. (The Reith Lectures are being delivered under the general heading “A New Citizenship” and culminate in a sketch of what Sandel calls “A New Politics of the Common Good”.) He traces these concerns back to a trip to southern Spain he took in the mid-1970s, at the end of his first term as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he had gone to read for a DPhil after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University, in Massachusetts.“At the time, I thought I might pursue economics,” he tells me. “I was interested in welfare economics and the extent to which economic models could incorporate a concern for equality. I went to Spain with an economist, and we were going to try to work this out in a paper.”

One of his tutors at Oxford, Alan Montefiore, suggested to Sandel that he also take some books with him to Spain. He ended up taking four: John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. The idea was that Sandel would spend the days reading; he and his economist friend would work on their article in the evenings. Very soon, what he was reading by day caused the projected article on economics to unravel.

The “dismal science” of economics, he now thought, was excessively pessimistic about human beings, conceiving of them as little more than bundles of preferences and desires. This was a picture it inherited from utilitarianism, for which all moral and political principles are justified to the extent that they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What Sandel took from reading Rawls and Kant was a “devastating and convincing critique of utilitarianism”.

Michael Sandel: the CV

1953 Born 5 March in Minneapolis, Minnesota
1975 Graduates from Brandeis University
1981 Earns doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford, where he is a Rhodes scholar
1980 Begins teaching contemporary political philosophy at Harvard University. To date, more than 14,000 undergraduate students have enrolled on his Justice course, an introduction to moral and political philosophy
1982 Liberalism and the Limits of Justiceis published
1985 Receives the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize
1999 Becomes full professor at Harvard
2001 Works as visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris
2002 Named the inaugural Anne T and Robert M Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University
2005 Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality In Politics is published
2005-2007 Advises the Bush administration on the ethical implications of biomedical new technologies
2008 Honoured by the American
Political Science Association for his excellence in teaching
2009 Delivers the Reith Lectures on
“A New Citizenship”
Research by Tara Graham

In A Theory of Justice, which ignited a dramatic renewal of political philosophy in the US and Britain following its publication in 1971, Rawls had argued that by focusing exclusively on the promotion of the general welfare, utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill miss an equally significant dimension of moral and political life.

Political rights, for example, are important, Rawls said, not only because they tend to promote human happiness, but also because they protect individual human beings against being used as a means to some end or other, however desirable that end might be. Moreover, according to Rawls, basic rights and fundamental principles of justice could be derived in such a way that all reasonable people would endorse them, irrespective of their differing moral and religious beliefs – and that was crucial in modern, pluralistic societies such as the United States, which are characterised by profound ethical disagreements about the nature of the good life.

Though reading Rawls may have been what set Sandel on the path from economics to poli­tical philosophy, his academic reputation in the US was secured by his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), based on his Oxford thesis – which was a full-frontal attack on the version of liberalism set out in A Theory of Justice. Under the influence of a notably heterodox group of philosophers at Oxford, which included Stuart Hampshire, Charles Taylor (with whom he recently co-taught a graduate class at Harvard) and Leszek Kolakowski, Sandel began to formulate deep misgivings about the Rawlsian model, which seemed to him to make the surrendering of the moral and religious convictions that people hold most dear a condition of access to the public sphere.

The effects of emptying public life of moral and religious discourse have been disastrous, Sandel tells me. “It’s contributed to a moral vacuum that has been filled by narrow, intolerant moralisms. It has allowed the Christian right to have more appeal than it might otherwise have had, precisely because the field was cleared.” Sandel’s argument is that political progressives, of whom he is one, should actively engage people’s deepest beliefs, rather than ignore them. “As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, in American politics it was the left, more than the right, which broached moral and religious themes. Think about Martin Luther King and his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ – that drew unabashedly on Christian themes, as well as universal ones.”

Sandel thinks Barack Obama, for one, has recognised this. “He is trying to articulate a politics of the common good and, unlike a lot of politicians, particularly those to the left of centre, he does not shy away from engaging with moral and spiritual language. He has brought moral and religious sensibilities back into politics, against a background in which such themes have been monopolised by the Christian right. Progressives have reacted, not by engaging the Christian right, but by trying to keep morality and religion out of politics altogether.”

Sandel’s prescriptions for a “remoralisation” of the language of progressive politics appear to be striking a chord here, as well as in the United States. Leading politicians of all parties, including Ed Miliband, David Willetts and Dame Shirley Williams, were present to hear him deliver his first lecture, and the MP Jon Cruddas, one of the few philosophically curious occupants of the Labour back benches, thinks they are right to be listening.

“Sandel’s challenge is to the whole architecture of neoliberalism,” Cruddas tells me. “And not just to liberalism in an economic sense, but to liberalism more generally. What he is saying is that a particular conception of the individual is being challenged in the current economic crisis.”He is right: Sandel’s work is an uncomfortable reminder of what we lost when we threw in our lot with a vision of politics as little more than the pursuit of economic growth and the protection of individual choice.

The Reith Lectures by Michael Sandel begin on BBC Radio 4 on 9 June (9am)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.