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Important to create genuine equality of opportunity: Michael Sandel, political philosopher

By, Mumbai
Feb 22, 2024 05:58 AM IST

Harvard professor Michael Sandel, known as a philosopher "with the global profile of a rock star", addresses ethical concerns worldwide.

Harvard professor and author Michael Sandel is a political philosopher, addressing some of the most pertinent ethical and moral concerns of our time. Given his worldwide following, Sandel is often described as a philosopher “with the global profile of a rock star.” This is not surprising. Although his philosophy is largely rooted in the civic and political landscape of the United States, his observations on justice and equality, democracy and civic life, individual rights and collective good, cut across boundaries to resonate around the world.

Michael Sandel (Photograph: Jared Leeds for the)
Michael Sandel (Photograph: Jared Leeds for the)

Sandel who will deliver the closing address at the Meeting of Young Minds in Frontiers of Economics at IIT Bombay on Thursday, and the SYNAPSE Conclave in New Delhi on Saturday, spoke to HT about the need to redefine success and to challenge the idea of meritocracy. He also weighed in on the dignity of work and humility as antidotes to populism. He highlighted the need to revive the art of listening for democracies to flourish.

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As a keen political observer, what do you make of India at this particular political moment?

As an interested outside observer, I’m struck by the deep polarisation in India now, which seems to be the condition of many democracies around the world. While the reasons for the polarisation vary to some degree from one country to the next, there are some common themes and sources of the polarisation. One source – and I am speaking about democracies generally today – is that in recent decades, the divide between winners and losers has been deepening, and this has partly to do with inequalities of income and wealth. But it has also to do with the changing attitudes towards success that have accompanied the widening inequalities. Those who have landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, it’s a measure of their merit, and therefore they deserve the bounty that the market bestows upon them. By implication, those who struggle must deserve their fate. This way of thinking about success arises from what seems on the face of it the attractive ideal of ‘meritocracy’. This is the principle that says insofar as chances are equal, the winners deserve their winnings.

We know, of course, that chances are not truly equal in our societies. So, one important response to address that inequality is to create a more genuine equality of opportunity. There are various ways of doing this. There are debates, for example, in the United States about affirmative action, and in India, there are debates about reservations. This is a debate about achieving a more genuine equality of opportunity. But even beyond that, there is a flaw in the idea of meritocracy, even if we could achieve it. And the flaw is that it’s corrosive of solidarity. The idea that my success is my own doing leads to hubris among the winners and humiliation among those who lose out. It leads the successful to inhale too deeply of their own success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way, to forget their indebtedness to those who made their achievements possible.

So, there are really two issues here. One is achieving a fuller equality of opportunity. The other is creating sources of solidarity, mutual obligation and a sense of belonging that are necessary to a healthy democratic society. And to go back to the question of polarisation – it partly arises from inequalities, but it also arises from the anger and backlash of the elite looking down on the non-elite.

In your latest book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, you make a case for dignity of work and humility. You seem to be saying that those two things could be antidotes to populism. How does that work?

We often assume that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good. But this is a mistake. Because if it were really true, we would have to say that a hedge fund manager contributes two to three thousand times greater value to society than a school teacher or a nurse. But even defenders of the free market would be hard-pressed to defend that claim. We have outsourced our moral judgement about what counts as a valuable contribution to the markets even though on reflection it’s clear that the markets’ verdict on what forms of work, what contributions are valuable, does not conform to any true understanding of what we really believe is valuable. Look how the market devalues care work, for example, or delivery workers, warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, nursing assistants, childcare workers. These are not the most honoured workers in our society but during the pandemic, for a time, we were appreciating them. This could have been a moment for a broader public debate about how to bring their pay and recognition into better alignment with the importance of their work. But the pandemic receded and that moment was lost, and we went back to business as usual.

Dignity of work is an ethic, but it is also a way of rewarding people’s contributions. Martin Luther King put it very well shortly before he was assassinated. He went to Tennessee and gave a speech to some striking sanitation workers. He said, the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as important as the physician, because if the garbage collectors don’t do their work, well, disease will be rampant. And then he added all labour is dignity. So, I think one response to populism and the anger that produces it, is a greater appreciation of the dignity of work.

The second has to do with humility. We need a kind of moral, even spiritual rethinking of the meaning of success. Do I really deserve the talents and the opportunities, the gifts that enable me to flourish? Or am I indebted for those gifts and opportunities to family, teachers, coaches, community, the country in which I live, the times in which I live? Rethinking the attitudes towards success could, I think, lead to the kind of humility among elites that could produce a greater sense of responsibility for the common good for those who may lack the opportunities and gifts that had been bestowed upon the successful.

This would go, I think, a long way in addressing the sense of grievance that animates the populist backlash that we’re seeing in democracies around the world.

You’ve also said that market triumphalism has made market values seep into our individual and public lives. Can you elaborate on how they are impeding ideas of justice?

I would say we, in democratic societies, have drifted since the 1980s from having market economies to becoming market societies. The difference is this. A market economy is that valuable and effective tool for organising productive activity. But a market society is a place where everything is up for sale, where market values and market thinking begin to reach every sphere of life. From personal relations, to health, to education, to the media, to civic life. This has been the corrosive effect of the market triumphalist faith over the past four decades. Market values have come to dominate spheres of life beyond the domain of buying and selling toaster ovens or cars and commodities.

The values vary depending on the sphere. Let’s take a concrete example in the sphere of education. There are some market enthusiasts who have proposed, and in some cases, enacted policies in schools to encourage children to study hard or to read more books by offering them a financial incentive. There was one experiment in an American city to pay children, eight- or nine-year-olds, for each book they read. The goal was to encourage reading, which is a worthy aim. But is this a good thing? Or a bad thing? What was the result? Well, in, in some of these cases, the kids did read more books when they were paid. They also read shorter books. But more than that, the real question is, what will happen when the payment stops? The hopeful scenario is that children would fall in love with reading for its own sake, in which case, when the payment stops, the reading will continue. But it could work the other way, that children will learn the lesson that reading is a chore, a kind of job to be done for pay, in which case, when the money stops, so will the reading. This illustrates how sometimes financial incentives can crowd out the intrinsic good, in this case, the love of reading, of learning for its own sake, by re-describing that activity as a kind of economic transaction. The same is true in the way we are trying to deal with climate change, or health. Paying people to vote would be another example. We could pay people to vote, we can fine people if they don't vote. But would that crowd out what we hope is the motivation and caring for the common good and feeling a sense of civic responsibility?

We need to reconnect economics with moral and political philosophy. Too often, we’ve come to regard economics as if it were an autonomous discipline, as if it were a science of value, neutral science of human behaviour and social choice. But I think this is a mistake.

You speak a lot about solidarity and mutual moral responsibility. So just coming back to the current moment at a global scale, where we’re ravaged by wars, genocides and the climate catastrophe, what do global solidarity and mutual moral responsibility look like? Is there a global social contract that we need to adhere to?

The idea of a global social contract has long been an aspiration, an unfulfilled aspiration. Looking around the world today, it’s hard to see very strong evidence of the kind of solidarity that would be required to make global institutions [adhere to] a kind of social contract. The global social contract, such as it is, is frayed, maybe even unravelling. We’ve been talking about solidarities within societies but global solidarity, as you say, is an even more difficult challenge. At the global level, it is really difficult to speak of global community. It is an aspiration which seems to be slipping further and further from reach. So we need to address sources of polarisation and inequality at once.

In today’s polarised world, it seems like one side is not ready to listen to the other. How does one reclaim the longstanding tradition of public debates?

In order to address the polarisation that we confront in democratic societies, a need to rediscover the art of democratic public discourse as a central virtue is necessary. [At the heart of] respectful public discourse, even across disagreements, is the art of listening. By listening, I mean, not just hearing the words but listening for the values, the principles, the moral convictions that underlie our disagreements. Listening is actually an important civic virtue. We’re not just born with it, we need to learn it through practice, through civic education, which should begin in the schools. It should continue in the universities and in higher education, by giving students opportunities to learn how to argue together, to reason together, across disagreements, and to do so with civility and mutual respect.

I also think the media has a responsibility. The traditional media should provide forums for reasoned public disagreement and public discourse. Social media has had a corrosive effect on public discourse because it has a business model that depends on inflaming us, so that we will keep staring at our screen and scrolling and swiping. They’ve discovered that the best way to do this is not to promote genuine discussion but to inflame and enrage us. And this drives us further and further apart. We need a new kind of civic education for democratic citizenship. And that has to be a civic education in the art of listening and reasoning together about big questions that matter like: What should we do about widening inequalities? What do we owe one another, as fellow citizens? What makes for a just society? What is the meaning of success? What should be the role and reach of markets? These are the moral and ethical questions on which democratic citizens disagree. [Hence debated].

What does a just world look like to you?

I would say a just world would have at least two features. First, it would be a world where the inequalities we see today are less severe and the enormous gap between rich and poor is eased to some extent. But it isn’t only about inequalities of income and wealth.

One of the most corrosive effects of the widening inequalities of recent decades has been the effect of these inequalities on the character of our public life and the way we live together. As inequalities deepen, those who are affluent and those who are of modest means live increasingly separate lives. And there are fewer and fewer class mixing institutions, fewer and fewer public places and common spaces where people from different walks of life encounter one another. Democracy does not require perfect equality. But what it does require is that people from different backgrounds encounter one another, bump up against one another, in the course of our everyday lives. Because this is how we learn to negotiate and to live with our differences. And this is how we come to care for the common good today. But the public places that could and should gather us together – like public schools, playgrounds, recreational centres, cultural institutions - are in disrepair. These venues of civil society are places where we are reminded of our shared democratic citizenship. But the hollowing out of our public discourse reflects the hollowing out of the public places. So we need to renew the civic infrastructure of a shared democratic life. And we need to find our way to a morally more robust, more engaged kind of public discourse than the shrill, partisan polarised shouting matches to which we’ve become accustomed.

But there is hope. Wherever I go, certainly in India, I find that the audiences, especially young people, have a tremendous hunger to engage in these kinds of discussions and debates about the big questions with passion. I always come away inspired. And if we can build on opportunities for public discourse and civic education, I think we will begin to build the kind of public culture that democracy needs to flourish.

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