Michael J. Sandel: "Citizens have the right to express their opinion on how Facebook is governed" | Babelia

Dozens of girls and boys of various nationalities wait inside a redbrick building, a masterpiece of Richardsonian Romanesque, at Harvard University. They read Jane Austen or review economics lessons from half an hour before the class begins; chairs are limited in the amphitheater and are afraid to stay out of the seminar Money, market and moral, by Michael J. Sandel (Minneapolis, 1953). The 200 participants were chosen by lottery the previous week among more than 700 aspirants to a course in which the famous political philosopher reviews from the perspective of economics and law issues such as the ethics of financial speculation or "casino capitalism" .

Sandel, with his ordinary man's appearance, arrives accompanied by five assistants who order traffic in the auditorium and monitor compliance with the "zero screens" policy. Cell phones, tablets and personal computers are prohibited during class. "Distraction is the great enemy of knowledge in our time," says the professor.

His ritual is far from that of that old teacher who, bored with himself, dictates every year the same monotonous knowledge. He prefers to ask. Is it wrong for water sellers or a neighbor with a surplus generator to take advantage of a natural disaster by raising prices? Is it fair that Uber charges more when it rains? And the resale of tickets for a Beyoncé concert? The students fight to participate with arguments that almost always start from the American faith in the markets while the professor shows them his contradictions, guides the conversation without giving definite answers, proposes new dilemmas and points on the blackboard clusters of words like "utility , freedom, virtue "or" money, time, need ". When the bell rings, the questions remain in the air.

Methods like these have made Sandel a Socratic celebrity in the United States and beyond: revered in Asia as a rockstar of ideas, on Friday will receive in Oviedo the Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences for "having transferred its dialogical and deliberative approach to a global debate", according to the jury. Fame is due above all to its course Justice, that he stopped giving six years ago, when it had already become an unmanageable routine. The classes were given in a theater for an annual average of more than a thousand students. "I needed an army of helpers to handle that," he recalls. "And that was not the worst. I was worried about repeating myself with the examples, the explanations and even the jokes ".

Mass thinker

In the library. Michael J. Sandel turns his courses at Harvard into books of success. He did it with Justice. Do we do what we should? (Debate, 2011. Translation by Juan Pedro Campos Gómez). And he repeated it with the seminar he currently teaches: What money can not buy. The moral limits of the market (Debate, 2012. Translation by Joaquín Chamorro Mielke). His research in bioethics was reflected in Against perfection: Ethics in the era of genetic engineering (Marbot, 2016. Translation by Ramon Vilà Vernis).

In the virtual classroom. American public television filmed the course in 2009 Justice, whose 24 chapters of just under an hour can be consulted on the university's YouTube channel and on justiceharvard.org.

On television This week the audiovisual platform on-line Filmin has released with subtitles in Spanish The great debate, a series of five chapters in which Sandel addresses issues such as immigration, robotization or privacy.

He started with that project shortly after arriving in Harvard in 1980 after graduating in Oxford (United Kingdom). The phenomenon grew rapidly and was already one of its most popular courses of the exclusive American university when it was chosen in 2009 as the first to hang in that land of educational promise called the Internet. More than 30 million people have already seen Sandel on the Net and on television make the concepts of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative or John Rawls' faith in equal opportunities different to the masses. a theory close to communitarianism. "To arrive at a just society, we must reason together about the meaning of the good life and create a public culture that welcomes the discrepancies that will inevitably arise," he writes at the end of the best seller international that came out of those classes: Justice. Do we do what we should? (Debate, 2011).

In spite of such a record-breaking curriculum, the diploma resting on the fireplace in the living room of his New England-style house in the wealthy Jewish quarter of Brookline, Massachusetts, does not certify that he once taught a class for 14,000 students in a stadium in South Korea. but the Guinness record of push-ups per minute (52) obtained by the eldest of his two sons, Adam, a boy interested in crossing between fitness and philosophy (the other, Aaron, is a primatologist).

Sandel received Babelia a silent afternoon in mid-September, three days before the world commemorated the first decade since the fall of Lehman Brothers and the deep economic crisis that followed. "This anniversary has served to certify a missed opportunity," lamented the professor. "When that happened, many of us thought that the time had come to rethink the role of markets. They promised us to reinvent capitalism, but they did not. " Is it possible to humanize it at least? "I think we should debate how to reconcile the system with the civic values ​​of a just society, based on the certainty that the neoliberalism of the last three or four decades was the cause of that disaster. Unregulated capitalism generates inequality, destroys communities and deprives citizens of their power. It fosters an anger that ends up being a victim of democracy, as we have seen with the election of [Donald] Trump, with the Brexit or with the rise of xenophobic nationalisms in Europe. "

"Distraction is the great enemy of knowledge", he says to explain that prohibit computers in class

Although his training is mainly in political philosophy, Sandel has been fully involved in the economy in recent years, despite the old discipline guard, some of whose most conspicuous members share a faculty at Harvard. "I am not against the market, but about its excesses. It bothers me when they invade areas of life in society: family, education, the media, health or civics. In the same way that economics is taught in schools, ethics should be taught in business schools. If you put discipline in its historical perspective, you realize that its classical thinkers, from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill or Karl Marx, even in their deep disagreements, agreed to consider it a branch of political and moral philosophy. All that we lost in the twentieth century, when it became a valuable science on human and social behavior. These concerns gave rise to the book What money can not buy. The moral limits of the market (Debate, 2013), which begins with a certainty that sounds like defeat ("There are some things that money can not buy, but in our times there are not many") and leads the reader with clear style and through practical examples to ask at the end: "Do we want a society in which everything is for sale?".

Sandel's latest attempt to get the thought out of the classroom takes the form of a series of five chapters of Dutch production entitled The great debate, that just released in Spanish the audiovisual platform on-line Filmin. In it, the teacher touches five issues of our time - immigration, robotization, discrimination, inequality and privacy - together with a group of 20 young people from the most diverse backgrounds: among others, there are cabaret artists, rappers, exfutbolistas and engineers in robotics . The mechanics is quite similar to one of their classes. He asks questions about inequality, the immigration crisis, the salary of Cristiano Ronaldo or those cars that drive themselves, and the others confront ideas. The stage is the sanctuary of Anthiarus, an hour and a half from Athens, "not far from where democracy and western philosophy was born," Sandel explains at the beginning of each chapter. "These are hard times. We have to find a way to reason together on difficult moral issues, "he adds.

Michael J. Sandel, during one of his classes at Harvard.
Michael J. Sandel, during one of his classes at Harvard.

To the question of whether we have lost that ability to listen to the contrary in a world in which the debates seem more bitter than ever, the philosopher regrets that in spaces like the university and the media it is not encouraged, "in many cases in name of political correctness ", the confrontation of diverse opinions. And he puts two examples based on his experience. The first goes back to 1971, when being a student at a liberal public institute in Los Angeles invited a debate to Ronald Reagan, then governor of California. "There was disagreement on almost everything, and I would not say that he convinced us of his arguments, but in a way he seduced us. Ten years later he would be president. " The other example refers to when he agreed to participate in a bioethics committee of the Bush Administration. "They invited me even though they knew I was not much of a supporter, and it was very nutritious." Different case is that of Trump; with his project he would not collaborate. "Every day we know a new scandal, another inadmissible tweet. He is a master at creating a storm of chaos and controversy that leaves his critics in an ocean of distractions. He has managed to hold the Democratic Party hostage, which, like a knockout fighter, seems unable to offer an alternative. "

Sandel has already recorded a second season of the Dutch series at the Haarlem train station. "In the background, people are seen going back and forth absorbed in their daily affairs. It is our symbolic way of saying that philosophy has a strong relationship with current life, which is not an abstract or academic issue ". Are not you afraid of being staged criticized for trivializing thought? "No, if in that journey the messages are not oversimplified or distorted ... In the end, it is a method with a long tradition. Socrates did not give his lectures from a pulpit, he did not even write books or articles. And yet, I managed to interest the Athenians in the discussions of ideas. "

Its success could be framed in a current current of viral thinkers of different signs and similar direct words that accumulate clicks when the media give voice and are claimed by the elites of the Economic Forum in Davos than by a small festival of ideas . One would say that the public comes to them in search of practical tools with which to manage in a world in permanent change. "It's important, with everything," Sandel clarifies, "not to take philosophy as one who buys a self-help book. That would be banal. It would mean assuming that the only issue that philosophy deals with is the self, when it is obvious that it goes much further. I see that there is a tremendous interest to understand, that does not stop growing among ordinary people and also and especially among young people. I attribute it to the fact that public discourse is totally devoid of ideas and that the educational system does not encourage debates either. "

That interest would justify his enormous monitoring on the Internet, which can also be seen as a success story of online education, of which he is a pioneer. "Although nothing equals," he warns, "face-to-face learning. Each new technology promises to increase dialogue and understanding. It was like that with television, radio or telegraph. And to the euphoria the same feeling of disappointment always happened when verifying that the technologies end up subject to the logic of buying and selling and advertising ".

In his course on market and moral question if it is fair the resale of tickets for a concert of Beyoncé

Following this reasoning, the Silicon Valley caste represents the dark side of their trust in the community and in civic values. The owners of the five big technology companies hold ideas close to the libertarianism that worry Sandel, a way of seeing the world in which there is no place for state control or intervention to avoid the imbalances of the system. "They have a moral responsibility to society, even if they do not want to admit it. They think that it is enough to do a little charity, but it is not enough. Each time they occupy a more important place in our lives and in our societies. As they are plots that concern us all, citizens have the right to express their opinion on how a company such as Facebook is governed. "

And that also affects our privacy, an issue that Sandel, which does not have Twitter or Facebook, devotes one of the chapters of The great debate. "There has been a lot of discussion on the subject," he explained in the interview, held in a week in which the threat to democracy represents Facebook took the covers of political magazines. "Although we have not recognized the real extent of the problem. What intrigues me most is that people do not seem to care. I find three explanations: either they do not realize how much information they share when signing without reading those contracts of use of social networks, whose small print is too much letter and too small; or maybe they do not know what companies really do with that information; or maybe they know it but they do not care. In any of the three cases it is a very serious matter ".

This and other topics will surely come to light next Saturday in a meeting with students at the University of Oviedo. It will be the day after receiving the Princess of Asturias, whose list of winners includes intellectuals such as Mary Beard, Martha C. Nussbaum or Tzvetan Todorov. When he learned of the awarding of the prize, the professor congratulated himself that the distinction came precisely from Spain. His wife, also Harvard professor Kiku Adatto, is of Sephardic origin (hence the surname, the name was given to him for having been born in the Japanese city of Yokohama) and is preparing to benefit from the 2015 law that allows access to Spanish nationality to the descendants of expelled Jews. "His family has roots in Seville," clarifies the philosopher, "from there they left in 1492. They settled in Istanbul. Then they made the leap to the United States. They have preserved the traditions, also the ladino ". Given the background, Sandel does not rule out moving to live in Spain when he retires.


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