This week's big questions: Should the US intervene in Syria? Don’t the richest sports teams always win?

This week's big questions are answered by "the public philosopher" Michael Sandel


As the “Public Philosopher”, what’s the most important contribution you can make to people’s general well-being?

Philosophy is disquieting. At its best, it makes us uncomfortable, by challenging us to reflect on our habits and settled way of doing things. So if public philosophy contributes to people’s well-being, it does so indirectly. There is, I think, a great hunger for discussion of big questions in public life. Most people are frustrated with the terms of public discourse today. There’s too much shouting past one another, and too little listening. So the most important contribution of public philosophy is to invite and encourage people to reason together about big questions that matter – not because we will also agree, but because engaging with questions of justice and the common good make us better democratic citizens.

Is the UK destined to part company with the EU?

No, not necessarily. I don’t know what the voters of the UK will ultimately decide about the EU. But as an outside observer, I’ve always thought that the EU was primarily a political project, not merely an economic one. In recent times, the economic aspects of the EU have predominated, and have been seen as ends in themselves. And so I wonder what has become of the more idealistic vision of Europe – as a common democratic project – that emerged after the Second World War.

Should the US intervene militarily in Syria?

After ill-advised ventures into Iraq and Afghanistan, the US should exercise great caution about intervening militarily in Syria. We should, however, do what we can to alleviate the devastating human suffering that the Assad regime and the civil war have brought about.

Is working a four-day week – as Facebook’s new vice-president does – better for business and for people?

I don’t know. I imagine it varies from one company to the next. More leisure is a good thing, provided we find worthwhile ways to fill it. But it’s worth remembering that for most workers, a four-day working week is a realistic option only for the relatively few people at the top who can organise their work as they please.

What does your experience at the LSE tell you about the differences between university education in Britain and university education in America?

I’ve had the privilege of speaking at a number of UK universities recently, including the LSE, UCL, Oxford, Cambridge and Newcastle. All of them are teeming with bright, enthusiastic students, eager to engage in debates about moral and political philosophy. The main difference between the British and American systems is the degree of specialisation. In the UK, students choose a specialised course of studies for their first degree; in the US, students have a primary field of concentration, but do a large number of courses outside that field. The hope is that this encourages a broad, liberal arts education. Another significant difference is in funding. Many private American universities charge high tuition fees (about $50,000 annually) but subsidise those students who are admitted but unable to pay the fees. It is, therefore, a kind of privately administered welfare state.

As public services are cut and pension funds dwindle, are we all going to have to do more to look after each other as private individuals? Is that sustainable?

Recent years have brought a steady shift of risk from companies and communities to individuals. This can be seen, for example, in the shift from pensions with set benefit levels to schemes that require the individual worker to decide how, and how much, to invest for his or her retirement. It’s not clear that we are, as individuals, up to the task. I certainly don’t know enough about investing to feel qualified to sort this all out on my own. I imagine many others feel the same way. But the bigger question is what we owe one another as fellow citizens. Private charities cannot by themselves bear the entire burden of helping those who are in need. We should also bear in mind that public services such as the NHS, public transport and public service broadcasting do more than simply provide access to importance services; they cultivate a sense of community, and remind us that we are all in this together.

People are heaping praise on Sir Alex Ferguson this week. But isn’t it the case that the richest sports teams will always win out?

The richest sports teams often prevail, but not always. My baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, had one of the highest team payrolls last year, but did miserably. They now have a new manager, and a smaller payroll, and are doing much better. (May it continue.) But as I describe in my book What Money Can’t Buy, sport is increasingly dominated by commercialism. Most stadiums are named for corporations. So are the player shirts. The autographs of sports stars are now commodities. When I was a child, I thrilled to collecting autographs from my favorite players. Today, companies pay players to autograph massive amounts of memorabilia, which they then sell. But bought memorabilia is a pale, even corrupt version of the real thing – the free, if fleeting, encounter between a young fan and his or her sports hero.

Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard. His book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ is published in paperback from Penguin

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