Michael Sandel and values-based communities

Published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Saint John's Magazine

Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel captivated a packed audience of 850 students, teachers, parents, and guests in the Coaches Pavilion at Saint John’s High School on April 3. Sandel was as the speaker at the 8th Annual Abdella Center for Ethics lecture series. As the Harvard University Ann Barry Professor of Political Philosophy, Sandel delivered poignant insight about the loss of open public discussion of values in contemporary American politics, and his hope for a return to active, passionate public discussion about the moral values that shape our society. Professor Sandel brought to Saint John’s his interactive style of engaging the audience in discussion and debate about their views throughout the course of the evening. Like his famous interactive “Justice” seminar at Harvard, the Saint John’s students and the assembled audience became an integral part of the lecture, where their moral, political, and societal positions were questioned and challenged by Professor Sandel.

At the heart of Professor Sandel’s philosophy is the idea that real discussion about values, though missing from contemporary political debates, is possible – and he sets out to prove this possibility through his lectures. Dubbing the students from the Justice Seminar the “Justice 50,” Professor Sandel began to engage these Saint John’s students in a series of moral dilemmas designed to draw out their moral positions on issues like sacrificing one person for the sake of many, the nature and importance of human rights, and the role of moral virtues in moral decision-making. Students who responded to Professor Sandel’s questions had to be ready for his counters to their initial positions, which forced them to defend and sometimes reevaluate their beliefs. Eventually, the “Justice 50,” transformed into the “Justice 850” as Sandel began to engage the entire audience in his Socratic method lecture style that drew on audience position, classical philosophy, and Sandel’s insight.

Professor Sandel’s closing thoughts acknowledged the important role that a faith community, like Saint John’s, plays in shaping the beliefs, values, and attitudes of its members. Instead of shying away from bringing faith informed values to the public, Sandel encouraged the Saint John’s community to allow their faith to play a role in this important discussion. Sandel reminded the audience that it is not the collective goal of public discussion to eliminate values. Rather, we should seek to share our values openly, with the hope that our willingness to dialogue will help people find common ground and will challenge everyone to think more critically about the beliefs they cherish.

About Professor Sandel

Professor Michael Sandel is a moral and political philosopher and author of, among other books, the New York Times bestseller Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” The book itself is the outgrowth of his “Justice” course at Harvard University, the single most popular course there for the past 30 years. A number of Saint John’s/Harvard alumni have confirmed Sandel’s unique teaching skill and highly engaging and interactive style with an audience – especially a student population.
  • “… one of the most sought-after lecturers in the world” (New York Times).
  • “… perhaps the most prominent college professor in America” (Washington Post).
  • Featured on The Colbert Report, the BBC, PBS, Charlie Rose, among other venues.
  • Justice course made into a PBS series, now available on-line at www.justiceharvard.org

“Sandel is touching something deep in both Boston and Beijing. ‘Students everywhere are hungry for discussion of the big ethical questions we confront in our everyday lives,’ Sandel argues. ‘In recent years, seemingly technical economic questions have crowded out questions of justice and the common good. I think there is a growing sense, in many societies, that G.D.P. and market values do not by themselves produce happiness, or a good society. My dream is to create a video-linked global classroom, connecting students across cultures and national boundaries — to think through these hard moral questions together, to see what we can learn from one another.’”
(Thomas Friedman column, NY Times, June 14, 2011)
"To argue about justice is unavoidably to argue about virtues, about substantive moral and even spiritual questions." 
- Michael Sandel

Learn More

About the Abdella Center for Ethics

Saint John’s established the Abdella Center for Ethics in 2003 in memory and honor of George F. Abdella with his son, the Hon. Charles A. Abdella ’60. The annual lecture series complements the “whole person” education in Saint John’s academics and extra-curricular activities by exploring the role that ethical questions play in all aspects of modern life.
Saint John’s has made a continuous effort to provide diverse and noteworthy lectures and programs for its students through the Abdella Center for Ethics Lecture Series. Past speakers include former Secretary of State Dr. Madeleine Albright, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Dr. Paul Farmer, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, and Mark Kennedy Shriver. See photos of recent Abdella speakers.