At the Varsity, political philosopher Michael Sandel prompts moral soul-searching


Political philosopher and author Michael Sandel stopped by the Varsity Theater last night to present his wildly popular presentation on justice for Policy and a Pint, the series presented by The Current and the Citizens League. Though Sandel admitted that it was the first time he ever presented his talk in a “beer hall,” the Varsity’s stage served as a fine pulpit in place of Harvard’s lecture halls, where Sandel has for two decades been teaching the most popular course in the university’s history.

The discourse was a sold-out affair, with a waitlist that stretched to the street; rare considering that what people were lining up for was essentially a philosophical lecture, not a rock show. But when it comes to political philosophy Sandel is something of a rock star. He has polished his delivery over many years and now has a showman’s mastery of crowd control, delivery, and timing.

Sandel’s presentation grapples with English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism, which strictly equates the moral good with the greater good. While establishing early on with the audience that they professed to believe in Bentham’s principles, Sandel went on to present some confounding factors in the guise of hypothetical moral dilemmas. For instance, is it ethical to torture if the torturing will result in information that will save lives? Sandel put these questions to the audience and the resulting plethora of opinions proved that when human dignity is entered into any equation, oftentimes rigid moral philosophies collapse under their own weight.

While much of the evening’s lecture was dominated by impossible hypothetical situations, towards the end Sandel connected those situations with actual moral dilemmas, from tobacco companies’ cost/benefit analyses to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Though Sandel’s presentation posed a number of questions, the philosopher did not offer much in the way of answers. Rather than to making people’s minds up for them, Sandel’s aim seems to be getting them to start examining tough ethical quandaries on their own, coming to their own conclusions as they will. Judging by the banter in the theater and on the sidewalk after the seminar’s end, Sandel’s lecture sparked some serious moral soul-searching.