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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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?


The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.



The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?


It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge