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Harvard professor calls for democratic debate on using capitalism to benefit all society

Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel

From market economies to market societies, Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University has warned of the perils caused by a global shift that started some three decades ago.



Sandel, a world-famous teacher of philosophy, spoke on Thursday at the "Bangkok Conference: Global Dialogue on Sustainable Development".

His speech was titled: "Values and Ethics - Finding Justice for Social Development".

In an interview, he said: "In recent years, I've been working on two projects and published two books. One is 'Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?' The most recent one is 'What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets'.

"What should be the role of money and markets in a good society? ... To what extent [is] inequality inconsistent with justice?

"How can we use capitalism as a tool without allowing it to define all social and human relationships as many market economies are becoming market societies due to rising economic growth and standards of living around the world over the past three decades?

"The difference is that a market economy is the valuable tool of organising productive activities, but a market society is a place where everything is up for sale - it's a way of life in which market values begin to dominate all aspects of life.

"We need to be aware of this tendency and have a public debate in a democratic way on where markets serve the public good and where they don't belong, or they undermine or erode non-market values we care about.

"We need to debate what makes for a just society. An important part of this

is the meaning of justice as it concerns equality and inequality. For example, what are the obligations of those [who] succeed in a market economy to those who are disadvantaged?

"Other issues include what are the sources of values that should be brought to bear in a democratic society in deciding on the question of justice, meaning of citizenship and the nature of common good."

In today's globalised economy, Sandel said, "we're increasingly interconnected through information technology and media - traditional, social media and the Internet. On one hand, this provides a great opportunity for improving understanding across cultural [and] national boundaries, but the technology by itself will not deepen our mutual understanding.

"It's not just hardware and technology, because to achieve true global understanding among different cultures and societies, we need to engage with one another through educational and other exchanges to work out terms of global cooperation.

"Education has a big part to play and should take on a global ambition. Harvard did an experiment with my Justice course, as we filmed the entire course and put it on public television and make it freely available online and on the Internet. Far more people around the world have now seen it online, to the tune of tens of millions.

"I think attempts to commercialise online learning is a danger and will distract us from what I think is the great possibility and opportunity that new technology presents to education. Higher education can be a free public good, not just a private privilege for those who can pay $50,000 in yearly tuition," the professor said.

Meanwhile, he asked, "should we have a free market for everything, including human organs such as kidneys for transplantation? There is a great demand for human organs to save lives. Where do they go? Yet most countries do not allow a free market for organs.

"According to the libertarian philosophy, everybody should be free to decide whether to buy or sell an organ, but that can be questioned on two grounds. If you're desperately poor, your choice to sell the kidney may not be voluntary. You may be effectively coerced by desperation. So what really counts as a free choice?

"Besides, there may be certain human and civic goods which even if there is no coercion [should not be exchanged freely] as we may not want people to regard their body parts as spare parts to be sold for profit."

Sandel said other examples were "contracts for surrogate mothers and pregnancies, or when we extend market values for buying and selling education, healthcare etc".


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