'What Money Can't Buy' at Town Hall lecture

The Fresno BeeJanuary 13, 2014 

An author and political philosophy professor at Harvard University is coming to Fresno to lecture on the role that markets should play in a democratic society and in people's lives.

Michael Sandel's most recent book, "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets," will be the basis for his talk at a San Joaquin Valley Town Hall series event at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, at Saroyan Theatre.

He recently completed a 14-country, five-continent book tour that packed venues such as St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the Sydney Opera House in Australia and an outdoor stadium in Seoul, South Korea, where 14,000 people came to hear him speak.

The Bee recently caught up with Sandel to learn more about him.

Question: Why do you think your new book is generating so much interest around the world?

Answer: It's hard to say for sure. But I think people everywhere are hungry for a substantive public debate about big ethical questions, including questions of justice, the common good and what should be the role of money and markets in our society.

Pope Francis is captivating the world with a message of economic justice and tolerance. What do you think about Democrats using Francis' moral force to advance issues like extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage?

I've been very impressed with the statement that the pope has made about economic justice and inequality income. He has provided a kind of moral leadership in putting these questions at the center of great public service.

How exactly it will apply those principles to particular issues, such as minimum wage and food-stamp cutbacks and unemployment, there's plenty of room for debate about these broad principles. I think it's healthy for political parties to debate these issues from the standpoint of broad principles of economic justice. I think he has performed a great service in bringing them to the forefront.

Kirkus Review describes you as "the professor we all wish we had." Are professors the most effective when they stimulate public debate?

There are many ways of teaching and writing a philosophy. Some write and teach in a more technical way that is accessible only to other philosophers.

There's also a role for what I call 'public philosophy.' The kind of philosophy I write about and teach tries to connect the big ideas that the famous philosophers have written about to the dilemmas that we confront every day in our public life and in our personal lives.

Citizens everywhere are eager to reflect on their own moral and ethical convictions to figure out what they believe and why. Philosophy can make a contribution to this kind of thinking.

You are a political philosophy instructor. In South Korea, you stood before 14,000 people at an outdoor stadium. Before speaking, what thoughts raced through your mind as you faced that challenge?

My first thought was, 'This is something I never would have imagined — that this many people would come to hear a philosophy lecturer.'

It was exciting, but it also was an exhilarating experience. I engaged them in a discussion where the audience was able to participate. I put to them examples of some issues that their own society was facing.

There is military conscription in South Korea. Should a South Korean pop star be able to buy his way out of conscription by paying his way out. We had a lively discussion.

Is it possible to reconcile ethical principles with the logic of a market economy?

This is a question that invites a broader discussion about markets, about justice and about ethical principles that I hope to engage the audience when I am in Fresno.

I hope to engage the audience in a lively discussion of contemporary issues that raise big philosophical questions. What are the good things, if any, that money can't buy? Have we gone too far putting a price tag on all the good things in life?

If you go

San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series featuring Michael Sandel, speaking on "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets," 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. Cost $25. Details: valleytownhall.com or (559) 444-2180.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or rorozco@fresnobee.com.

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