Harvard prof. to challenge moral assumptions

Michael Sandel, a prominent Harvard political philosophy professor, will on Wednesday ask Tufts students, “What’s the right thing to do?”

Sandel, who will deliver this semester’s Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture, has asked this question to over 14,000 students in his course “Justice,” which stands as one of the most popular classes ever offered at Harvard.

“Professor Sandel is perhaps the most prominent advocate of a challenge to classic liberal political thought,” Philosophy Lecturer Mitchell Silver said. “He thinks we need a more robust conception of the good — shared values beyond ‘You do what you want, and I’ll do what I want.'”

Among a number of accomplishments, Sandel is perhaps best known for his views in support of communitarianism, a belief that individual liberties should be augmented with communal obligations.

His views contradict classical liberalism, which Silver said has historically been the dominant ideology in many American institutions. Classical liberals strive for nearly complete individual liberty, believing that governments may impose limits only when one individual’s pursuits interfere with those of someone else.

“He has been contending that this liberal conception needs to be … augmented, supplemented by other values we share as communities,” Silver said. “[Communitarianism] says that there are communal obligations that ought to restrict us in various ways beyond the restrictions that liberalism imposes.”

The Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture series aims to bring to campus prominent thinkers who challenge conventional wisdom and take on “sacred cows,” according to Dean of Academic Affairs James Glaser.

The series began in 2004 through a donation from Richard E. Snyder (A ’55) and has brought a number of well-known speakers to campus.

Former speakers include former President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers, renowned physicist and global warming skeptic Freeman Dyson and professor and journalist Michael Pollan, known for his often-provocative views on the meat industry and industrialized agriculture.

Glaser said Sandel is a perfect candidate to continue the lecture series.

“Professor Sandel takes on all controversial issues and applies … great lessons to the great philosophers,” Glaser said. “We thought he was an ideal person to bring in for the series.”

Sandel has taught at Harvard for three decades. His courses on political philosophy have linked moral issues with a wide range of topics, including biotechnology, financial markets and globalization. He also lectures on contemporary moral dilemmas, including same-sex marriage and affirmative action.

“He’s talking about abortion, torture, stem cells — all kinds of stuff that people don’t agree on — and will shed some light on those things,” Glaser said.

Sandel takes on such issues in his course “Justice,” the first course Harvard has made available in its entirety online. A co-production of public broadcaster WGBH Boston and Harvard, the website, JusticeHarvard.com, features 12 one-hour episodes, each including two separate lectures by Sandel.

Episode topics include “The Case for Cannibalism,” “The Moral Side of Murder” and “For Sale: Motherhood,” in which Sandel discusses reproductive rights.

Karen Kaletka, coordinator of undergraduate studies in Harvard’s Department of Government, said that around 1,000 students typically enroll for the course every term. She said Sandel has taught “Justice” for over a decade and it remains one of the largest classes offered at Harvard.

“I think he’s an extremely gifted teacher and lecturer,” Kaletka told the Daily. “He really engages with the students and makes them think about these issues.”

Silver agreed that Sandel is an eloquent speaker, in spite of the complexity of his studies.

“He’s an articulate, thoughtful person that manages to convey his thoughts in a way that is accessible to a broad swath of the educated public,” he said. “And that’s certainly his reputation at Harvard.”

Glaser was confident that Tufts students will find the lecture stimulating.

“There’s something about this professor that is particularly compelling and exciting,” he said.

The lecture is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday in the Cabot Intercultural Center ASEAN Auditorium. Tickets are free and available in Dowling Hall prior to the event.