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Freedom and Justice

Freedom and Justice

Freedom and Justice

Michael Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where over 20,000 students have taken his course on Moral Reasoning. The University has recently made these lectures available online at 

Professor Sandel has lectured widely in Europe, China, India, Australia and North America, and authored many books including, most recently, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do? based on the Harvard course. In 2009 Sandel was invited to deliver the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures, where he spoke to a series of invited audiences on the title of A New Citizenship.

Nick Spencer met up with him in London to talk about the book and explore how morality and faith should, indeed must, shape our politics.


You’re well known for writing and lecturing about the ‘encumbered self’, as it were, and how our identities are profoundly formed by our attachments. So, the obvious place to start is to ask that question of you – in particular, your upbringing, the ideas passed to you by your parents: How, if you like, did your parents encumber you with an identity?

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the upper Mid-West of the United States, which has a very strong civic tradition in its politics, and so I suppose that had some effect. I attended public [state] schools, and when I was young, after school I would attend Hebrew school, five days a week, until I was about 13 or so.

There was a very strong Jewish community [around me as I was growing up] and it wasn’t only defined as a synagogue community but as the broader Jewish community. So, I’m sure in some indirect ways of which I’m unaware there was some influence.

When you were a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford you were initially working as an economist.

Well, I should say I was interested in economics. I think it would be glorifying my status at the end of my undergraduate years to say that I was working as an economist. I was engaged with economics and thought I might study it. In particular I was engaged with whether normative considerations could be included within economic models and economic analysis.

And then you encountered [John] Rawls and [Immanuel] Kant and Robert Nozick and Hannah Arendt, and that had a very significant effect on your thinking, is that right?

Yes. My first term at Oxford I studied philosophy and economics, and I was working on an economics paper to do with welfare economics and whether a concern for equality could be built into social welfare functions. But my philosophy tutor said if I really wanted to study equality seriously, I had to study Kant, whom I had never read before – and not only that, I had to begin with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  I flipped through it in the bookstore and didn’t see anything there that I thought I could understand, much less connect with, but he insisted that I give it a try.

So I packed it, along with Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and Arendt’s The Human Condition – and my economics paper draft, and went to the south of Spain with a friend. He was a mathematical economist and the two of us had in mind to work out the details of this paper and the social-welfare function. He kept unusual hours – he stayed up very late and woke up very late – so we worked on the economics paper during the times of the day when we were both awake, and in the mornings I sat quietly in this place we had rented in the south of Spain where it was pouring rain most of the time – it was the middle of winter – and read those four books and found them fascinating. I didn’t understand Kant but I struggled through it and then took a tutorial on the Critique of Pure Reason the next term and found that I was never quite able to escape political philosophy. To this day I haven’t managed to finish that economics paper.

I read that what you particularly took from Rawls and Kant was ‘a devastating and convincing critique of utilitarianism’. Would you have been a utilitarian beforehand?

I hadn’t thought it through fully. But part of what drew me to economics as an undergraduate was its clarity, its rigour and the fact that it dealt with questions of politics, policy and governance, all of which interested me. I was a political junkie from the time I was very young, and economics seemed to offer a science of politics. So, that appealed to me when I was young and impressionable and I only later realised that the moral assumptions underlying it were for the most part utilitarian. So, when I read Kant and Rawls, I became more aware than I had been of the utilitarian presuppositions, often unargued and unarticulated, that inform most standard economic analysis.

Do you think a lot of economists even realise that they are working on those assumptions? They naturally assume that they are being perfectly rational and scientific.

I think most don’t realise it; they take themselves to be engaged in a positive science (as they say) rather than in a normative enquiry. Insofar as they suppress or deny or ignore the normative presuppositions of their analysis, what they’re ignoring are basically utilitarian ideas. They speak in terms of promoting efficiency, as if it’s a value-neutral concept; but efficiency essentially is a stand-in for a utilitarian idea.

At Oxford you studied under Charles Taylor. How did he shape your thinking?

There were a handful of people at the time in Oxford who were challenging the orthodoxy of mainstream Oxford analytic philosophy, which then had a heavily utilitarian bent (and now has a largely Rawlsian bent). But the man who set me on this study of Kant was a philosopher named Alan Montefiore, who taught Kant to many generations of Balliol students, and then Charles Taylor came in my second year in Oxford. Alan Montefiore was someone who wanted to bring Continental philosophy into dialogue with Anglo-American philosophy, so that was already one source of heterodoxy which I found intriguing.  He brought Derrida, for example, to Oxford, and then, after Charles Taylor came, Jürgen Habermas visited.

So, there was a connection, for the first time in a long time, with social and political thought that was going in Europe beyond the Anglo-American tradition. Charles Taylor himself had just written a major book on Hegel, a figure who didn’t figure prominently in the Oxford political-theory canon. I was also able to do a tutorial on Aristotle with Charles Taylor and went along to all of his seminars.  At the same time, Ronald Dworkin was there teaching jurisprudence and philosophy of law and I found his lectures fascinating and attended his seminars on liberalism. Although I disagreed with him, I found it bracing and exciting to hear his presentation of it, especially at just that time.

Meanwhile, Amartya Sen was giving lectures on welfare economics, which remained an interest of mine; Steven Lukes was doing political theory and political sociology; I was able to study Spinoza with Stuart Hampshire; and Leszek Kalkowski, a very interesting religiously-inflected philosopher from Poland was also there.  It was an exciting time to be a graduate student studying moral and political philosophy. But Charles Taylor was a kind of philosophical hero and very influential teacher of mine.

If Rawls and Kant shook you out of utilitarian presuppositions, whence came the growing disaffection with Rawls’ Theory of Justice? Because, moving on to the publication of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, obviously some time in the later Seventies you began to have problems with that. How did your mind change over that period?

Well, part of what I found exciting about Rawls and Kant was not only that they provided a devastating critique of utilitarianism but they, and in particular Rawls, gave eloquent expression to the version of liberalism that I as an American growing up during that period of time more or less subscribed to: the idea of certain fundamental rights, and of equality – that there’s no reason to assume that market outcomes yield a just distribution of income and wealth. These were the basic ideas that informed American political liberalism which I found, broadly speaking, attractive, and certainly the egalitarianism and the idealism of Rawls’ view I found powerful and compelling.

I found myself disagreeing along two dimensions, which were related: the aspiration to neutrality with respect to substantive moral views in politics I found tempting but unsatisfying; and then the idea of the freely-choosing individual self I saw the appeal of, but also questioned. Those aspects of Rawls’ theory pointed up what I came to think were limitations of liberalism as understood and practised in the United States.

As I read Hegel’s critique of Kant I found that it was actually very suggestive, for precisely these issues. Hegel criticised Kant’s conception of morality as being overly abstract and provided a historically situated conception of human agency, of the human subject; and I found this an exciting challenge to Kant and I saw parallel issues at stake in Rawls’ formulation – Rawls, after all, being partly influenced himself by Kant. I saw parallel questions to be raised about Rawls’ version of a Kantian ethic applied to political theory.

Then, the fact that I was studying Aristotle, who provides a very different conception from the modern Kantian/post-Kantian conception of politics, reinforced that line of thinking. So I wrote my dissertation on Rawls’ version of liberalism, and that dissertation became Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Which was received how? Rawls was then (and to some extent remains) profoundly influential, mainstream and orthodox, and here is someone questioning some of the very foundations of Rawlsian liberalism. Was it taken to heart as a critique?

Well, by some more than others. It provoked a wide range of reactions, some in agreement, some in strong disagreement. At about the same time, a number of other philosophers were raising similar questions about Kantian and Rawlsian liberalism – Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue came out just before Liberalism and the Limits of Justice did, and Charles Taylor was continuing to write, not only about Hegel but also about the contemporary debates over liberalism and atomism. He and Ronald Dworkin taught at a graduate seminar that I attended on liberalism and atomism, debating just these kinds of issues, so that was part of the experience that shaped my thinking. Michael Walzer a year or two later wrote Spheres of Justice, which from a somewhat different angle raised similar questions about the unsituated self in relation to justice.

So, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice was one among a handful of works that came out in the early Eighties raising some similar and overlapping questions about liberal individualism. This generated what came to be called ‘the liberal-communitarian debate’. The term ‘communitarian’ didn’t quite capture the view that I took myself to be advancing, but it was plausible insofar as I was questioning the idea that we can think about justice and human agency without reference to the particular moral ties that constitute a common life. So, in that respect it’s a perfectly understandable term to have applied to that debate.

Could you say something about why you think that Anglo-American political philosophy, or public philosophy, has been so heavily influenced by the liberalism that we’ve been talking about? Why has Rawls been so profoundly influential?

I think, for two reasons. One of them is that we live in pluralist societies. People are increasingly aware of that fact, and in some respects many of our societies are becoming more intensely pluralistic and diverse, with a great many different conceptions of the good life and, in some cases, of faith. There’s very little agreement, or convergence, on moral and spiritual questions in modern democratic societies, so it’s tempting to seek principles of justice in a framework of rights that can be agreed to without having to argue about people’s particular moral or religious convictions.

It’s an appealing project because it would seem to provide a way of avoiding the contention and the disagreement and the conflict that can arise if people have to base the fundamental framework of their collective lives on one or another particular conception of the good life. It is tempting to seek some such principles, and I think that Rawls has articulated the strongest case for their existence. A Theory of Justice is a magnificent work of philosophy, and one of the finest statements of liberal political philosophy that we have in the English-speaking world, probably since John Stuart Mill. So, there are plenty of good reasons why it should have a wide influence.

I think another reason it has particular appeal in the US and in other market democracies is that the idea of basing justice and law on what individuals freely choose is an idea that’s inspiring in its own right but is also seemingly compatible with the premises of market societies. In many ways, Rawlsian liberalism tries to provide a more egalitarian alternative to laissez-faire, market-oriented versions of liberalism, and yet it’s an alternative that in some ways leaves in place many of the underlying premises of the original. It accepts the idea that justice requires respect for the free choices individuals make and it gives that underlying idea a more egalitarian interpretation by insisting that the free choices we make in markets take place against fair background conditions. But its starting-point is a certain idea of free individual choice that is compatible with many of the deep assumptions of market freedom. And so it seems to offer – and in many ways does offer – a case for a decent welfare state that is nonetheless broadly compatible with the assumptions of a market society.

Despite the extraordinary vitriol that exists in the political debate in America, it seems in a sense to be a family argument between two different kinds of liberalism. What you have been doing, in much of your work is offering a way out of this family battle of different liberalisms by arguing that in a sense they’re both inadequate and we have to recognise not only the fact that total objectivity and neutrality is a myth, but also that true justice demands in some sense that we look at the ends to which human beings should properly aspire.

How hopeful are you? How receptive do you think people are to the idea of justice as virtue? You’ve said several times that there is a massive nervousness about it.

There is a lot of nervousness and I encounter it wherever I go, not only among philosophers but also among reflective people who take up these questions, whether in the US or in the UK – or, for that matter, in other societies, say in East Asia when I’ve travelled in Japan and [South] Korea and China. I had an interesting experience a few years ago giving some lectures at a number of different universities in China. The students that I’ve encountered in China and other parts of East Asia in many ways now are embracing a liberal individualism because they see it as an alternative to what they regard as the heavy hand of convention, conformity and authority associated with their own political system and even, to some degree, their moral and philosophical traditions.

And so the nervousness appears not nervousness there – in the West it may be nervousness, there it’s ‘I call into question something we are just discovering and embracing.’ And that leads to some very interesting discussions. But in most discussions of [my book] Justice there is a real nervousness about bringing conceptions of the good into political deliberation and also anxiety about virtue talk in politics – and great degrees of anxiety about my argument for a more faith-friendly kind of public deliberation. And this is probably the single biggest source of worry, disagreement and resistance to the ideas in the book, for perfectly understandable reasons.

Part of my response to that anxiety is: In many cases, it’s not possible to decide these big questions of policy, law, justice and rights without presupposing some account of the good life or of the goods at stake in particular social practices. So, it’s not as if, I would argue, we have available a safe, risk-free, neutral alternative; the alternative is to decide these questions in a way that does presuppose some answer to big moral questions without acknowledging it, and without subjecting those underlying moral assumptions to critical examination and democratic deliberation. So, part of my argument is: We’re doing this already without acknowledging it, and that breeds resentment and bad faith among those who feel that their convictions are not seriously being addressed.

The second part of my response is: Even where it’s possible to decide a question of justice and rights without entering into underlying moral considerations, it may not be desirable, because the toleration that is achieved by avoidance, may be a thin and fragile kind of toleration. I would argue instead for the kind of toleration that flows from explicit engagement with the competing moral and spiritual convictions that people bring to public life. I think that’s a sturdier basis for a just society, but it’s also a sturdier foundation for the pluralism and the toleration that liberals are aiming at. So, it’s a choice really of avoidance versus engagement as a way to pluralism and mutual respect, and I think it’s a richer, deeper mutual respect that’s based on engaging with, rather than avoiding, the moral and, in some cases, spiritual convictions that people bring to public life.

So it’s a kind of toleration of noise rather than a toleration of silence? It’s a noisy public square in which people are actually invited to bring in their opinions. At one point you used the phrase ‘bringing conceptions of the good into the public square’ when, as you went on to say, they’re already there. It’s often a question of unmasking the presuppositions that are there.

Yes. Acknowledging them and engaging them more deliberately and more reflectively, without any illusion that such engagement will lead to agreement or a consensus. I think it’s a false aspiration to think that any of our arguments about justice and rights, whether or not they make explicit reference to conceptions of the good, will lead to agreement or a consensus. What we should aim for instead is a richer, more morally engaged form of public discourse, recognising that it will be fraught with disagreement, contention and only partially negotiated solutions that should always be open to reconsideration in the light of new arguments, better arguments, reconsideration and so on.

At several points towards the end of your book, Justice, you sound a hopeful note with the arrival of Barack Obama and his awareness of the need to reintroduce moral values, particularly into Democratic rhetoric. How successful has he been? How successful do you think he will be?

I think he was very successful as a candidate making the case for progressives to welcome and engage with moral and spiritual and religious values. He recognised that the religious right and the cultural conservatives had for at least a generation won a monopoly on moral and religious discourse in politics. Liberals, during much of the Eighties and Nineties, had almost an allergy to moral and religious argument in politics; they feared it would lead to coercion and intolerance and disagreement. So, I think Obama was very successful during the campaign at arguing for a more faith-friendly kind of public democratic deliberation.

He himself offered an example and I think that was one of the reasons he was so inspiring. It isn’t just that he was good with words – eloquence and resonance in politics [are] more than being a good wordsmith – it’s that he tapped into a yearning for a public life of larger meaning. Whether he will be able to translate those understandings and aspirations into governance, into the conduct of his presidency, remains an open question. So far, he hasn’t brought to bear in the conduct of his presidency the moral engagement that his campaign stirred and inspired. That may be in part because of the pressures of dealing with the financial crisis, and perhaps he thought it didn’t lend itself to that dimension of his politics; but he is clearly capable of it, he clearly understands this on a deep level and I hope that he will succeed in showing how it is possible to engage with big moral questions in politics.


Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do? by Michael J Sandel

Published in 2009 by Allen Lane.

ISBN: 978-1-846-14213-0

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Posted 11 August 2011


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