Monday, November 30, 2009


If you haven't seen Michael Sandel's lectures, rush over to the series web site.

Justice: "

Talking of political philosophers’ job descriptions, Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (UK) has been out for a while now, but only just reviewed in the NYT (by Jonathan Rauch). It has the virtues that Sandel has honed over the years (and were notably absent from his first, influential, book): he has the remarkable ability to keep things clear and complex at the same time, and resists the temptation to repeat himself for the sake of the ungenerous or slow-witted reader. Rauch is right that the chapter on Kant is a gem, but equally striking is the chapter on Rawls which is accurate (as the earlier book wasn’t always), fair-minded, and to the point (and even, at the end, inspiring). The Economist review says, that he nudges the reader toward Aristotle, by being harder on the consequentialist and Kant-inspired accounts of justice, but that’s not really my read of the book: unless his experience has been radically different from mine, he believes that his students (and, probably, many of his readers) are unduly reluctant to incorporate a concern with personal virtue into their judgments and the book attempts to overcome that bias, putting the different accounts on a more level playing field. Every page makes some real world or literary reference that will be familiar to the non-philosophical reader. A couple of social scientist friends have recommended it to me as something to recommend to other social scientists as an excellent introduction to the field.

But more to the point, his TV show is almost all up online now, free.

I’ve only watched the first and eleventh episodes, which are both brilliant: the rest will wait till the break when my eldest has time to watch them with me. I’ve not been to see him teach this course, and now I probably won’t bother (at least I read the book). I have to say that his teaching seems superb—at the start he looks a bit of a showman, but that impression disperses quickly, and it must be the case that most of the students in the class are thinking most of the time during the class. His certainty that the class will not get away from him when he hands it over to the students, and (justified) confidence that he can structure things so that they teach each other are… awesome.

A question occurred to me while I was watching it: will the fact that we can all watch Sandel doing this now, on TV, radically improve the quality of moral philosophy teaching at American universities in the coming year or so?

(Parenthetically, this might be a good moment to thank Alan Bostick for his acerbic comment 4 years ago that had a substantial impact on the way that I teach).


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