At OCU, a “leap” into philosophy provided by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel

The “big questions” of life and human existence are at stake every single day in America, in the lives of individuals, of families, and within work places. That is one way to express the belief that animates the work of Professor Michael Sandel, an acclaimed philosopher and Harvard University professor.

In his recent speech at Oklahoma City University’s Petree Hall, Dr. Sandel said he is “deeply concerned about the state of our discourse.” He earned a laugh from the packed house when he said that discourse “is not going too well.” 

He expressed frustration with “shouting matches on television and ideological food fights in Congress.” 

OCU Professor Art LaFrancois, in his introduction, said Sandell has had 15,000 students, adding, “Wherever he goes, he sheds more light.” LaFrancois earned a hearty laugh of his own with that line, after all the lights in the facility blinked off for a few seconds. 

Sandel aims to make “philosophy” unavoidable and inescapable, accessible to students and others with a conversational style and an inviting, often humorous, delivery.

This was his first visit to Oklaoma City. He told the crowd he came “because you have a distinguished judicial leader who is now bringing his concern for the liberal arts to OCU.” 

Dr. Robert Henry, president of the private school based in the Methodist tradition, acknowledged the sustained applause that followed Sandel’s words.

Sandel described himself as initially distracted or, at least, challenged by the abstractions of political philosophy as an academic discipline. For this reason, he was at first “most interested in campaigns.” He studied political science, history and liberal arts. Gradually, though, he was drawn to deeper questions, and began the career shift that led him to establish the course work for which is now acclaimed.

Sandel remarked, “There are some who say that there are too many people who believe too deeply about too many things. I believe there is too little argument about morality and fundamental values. As democratic citizens we need to do a better job of teaching to the moral arguments just below the surface of daily life.”

Sandel’s new book, “Justice: What’s the right thing to do?” was available for purchase after the February 29 (Leap Day) speech. He is the author of many books.

Through a series of hypothetical situations, Dr. Sandel “teased” from his audience descriptions of three leading schools of philosophical thought.

First he sketched the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, the belief that society and governments should be constructed so as to maximize happiness for the greatest number of people. 

Second, he outlined the anti-utilitarianism of Immanuel Kant, who argued that certain acts are wrong, even if they produce happiness. This way of thinking is, sometimes, also categorized as a rights-based philosophy.

Sandel pointed to debates over the last decade where these two philosophies could be seen in conflict, as in arguments over the use of torture in countering the worldwide terrorist threat. 

There is a third tradition, he said, in which it is asserted that “justice is not only about those things – the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or the affirmation of certain things being right or wrong in and of themselves – but also about … moral virtue and character.”

As he explained, in that tradition, reflected first in the philosophy of the Greek thinker Aristotle, justice is about “giving people what they deserve.” 

To illustrate the three schools of thought in conflict with practical examples, he led the audience (inviting comments) through a hypothetical catastrophic trolley car repair accident.

In a more practical vein, he discussed the case of golfer Casey Martin, who challenged (successfully, in the end) the Professional Golfers’ Association ban on the use of golf carts, eventually winning the agreement of the U.S. Supreme Court, in an interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Providing a contrast to his own view of morality and law, he read from a portion of a dissenting opinion in the Martin case written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

From this framework, Dr. Sandel moved on to a discussion of “Telos” — a Greek philosophical view of the ultimate purpose, object or aim of a thing or an activity. This entertaining and engaging narrative included reflections on who in a society should receive the best violins or the best flutes.

The discussion was not literally about the use of violins or flutes, but deeper matters.

Sandel engaged the audience in reflections on the movement for same-sex marriage. In this discussion he outlined three schools of thought, eventually referencing at least four views: a defense of traditional marriage, an affirmation of same-sex marriage, recognition of civil unions or partnerships but not same-sex marriage, and a fourth view articulated by one student (applauded by many in the crowd): to get the government out of the business of recognizing marriage, altogether Sandel expressed surprise when a plurality of the audience, pressed to choose among the options, supported same-sex marriage. 

Sandel joked with Judge Henry, and the crowd, “Oklahoma City is a liberal place.” 

Closing his speech, Sandel reflected, “Just below the surface of our arguments are big questions, or rival understandings of justice. The way to get out of the malaise of public discourse is to find a way to listen to the fundamental visions we have. 

This is not a recipe for consensus, but aims at cultivating the ability to reason together. This will lead to a better democratic citizen. And, this requires each of us to be something of a philosopher.”