The Public Philosopher

In recent blogs we’ve tried to discuss the centrality of education to all our futures, the purpose of education, the possibility of lifelong learning, and the role of public intellectuals in our society. Should philosophers and intellectuals appear on television more often? Should they be involved in more public debates and lectures? Should they stay in their ivory towers? Do we need more of the Guardian ‘Open Weekends’? Do we need ‘secular temples’ where philosophers can meet with and inspire a wide range of people from every sort of background?

Maybe more of us should make the effort to watch and listen to the TED talks on YouTube, but how do we actually interact with our leading intellectuals and philosophers? Can they be bothered to do it anyway?

The Public Philosopher

This morning on Radio 4 Professor Michael Sandel presented a programme called ‘The Public Philosopher’, which was recorded at the LSE.

You can download a podcast here –

The subject under discussion was, should universities give preference to applicants from poor backgrounds?

Ah – the class issue, and positive discrimination. Regular 3Di blog readers might recall our recent blog about the class issue, and tackling disadvantage.

Prof Sandel called his programme “an experiment in public philosophy”. He would like us to consider the relationship between public life and philosophy. Is philosophy just an abstraction and a intellectual pursuit, or should it become an embedded part of a nation’s life and culture?

This matters because we often raise hard ethical questions even though we don’t articulate them fully. We should be able to argue better about our views in public life.

Prof Sandel moved on to the subject of university admissions – who gets in, and who allocates places?

* How do we ensure that working class students are not deterred by high fees?

* Should universities give preference to applicants to poor backgrounds? (“This audience mainly says yes – but a sturdy minority’ says no.”)

* Should test scores be the main indicator of merit?

* What if there was a ranking list based on much wider criteria than test scores alone?

* Could there be a broader measure of academic promise?

* Should class background also count in a positive sense?

* Is there a suspicion that test scores and exams don’t really capture the meaning of academic promise?

* Is the main premise of this argument still that universities should admit students most likely to excel individually and academically?

* Should we try to get a better measure of who is likely to excel academically?

* Do we need more people of different backgrounds in our universities?

* What really merits someone a place?

* Mainly academic achievements?

* Should it be based on ability to pay?

* Is it wrong to distribute “tickets to the good life” based on parents’ ability to pay for private education, additional tutoring, high university fees, etc?

* Is there a fundamental principle about “moral desert”? – Should admission be a matter of moral desert? Honouring individual merit?

* Should selection criteria include a likelihood of contributing to the common good after university?

* Should admission be based on reward for individual effort, rather than absolute performance in timed tests? [This was also an argument advanced by Peter Hyman in his recent NET lecture.]

* Do we have vastly different ideas about what constitutes a meritocracy?

* Should we be deliberately increasing the diversity of groups in our universities, and increasing the numbers from working class backgrounds – as a good thing in itself?

* Which students will best advance the purposes that universities serve?

* So what are the proper or appropriate grounds for discrimination?

* How do we distinguish legitimate and illigitimate grounds for discrimination?

* Are social mobility and diversity are ‘good things’?

* Should we consider affirmative action very seriously?

* Do we need equality of opportunity at earlier stages of the educational system?

Prof Sandel raised the following issues:
1. Fairness to individuals – in order to allocate ‘tickets to the good life’.
2. What universities are for, and what virtues they should honour, recognise and cultivate.

None of us is really responsible for the traits that enable us to do well in exams.
So where does individual merit come into it?

Therefore should the reward of university admission be for the ability and willingness to contribute to the common good.? [nb We’ve already raised the matter of reward for effort, but this argument goes a step further.]

The meaning of justice and fairness – democratic public debates about these questions need to continue.

Michael Sandel is Professor of Justice at Harvard.

Next programme – Should bankers be paid more than nurses?

There’s a strong argument for basing all education on ‘philosophical enquiry’. We’d be grateful if 3Di readers let us know if they already have ‘philosophy’ within their curriculum, and whether they see it as part of personal, social, emotional and spiritual learning, or whether they use this form of questioning across the whole curriculum. – Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures – A New Citizenship and a New Politics for the Common Good – Fostering New Moral and Spiritual Values

[It’s amazing the BBC retains this material on its superb website after 3 years. You can download a transcript of Lecture 1: Markets and Morals here.]


Here’s a quick summary of Prof Sandel’s first Reith lecture:

New Citizenship

We need to think afresh.

We must foster spiritual values and ask ethical questions – construct a moral system as part of our citizenship.

We need to consider ideas about morality and politics and justice.

We must return to fundamental values – economics doesn’t question these.

We’re in a time of financial crisis and economic crisis – the need is pressing.

A time for civic and moral renewal.

Public outrage at what’s been happening in civic and public life.

We need a politics oriented towards the pursuit of the common good, not individual gain.

We need to ask what it really means to be a citizen.
We need a robust public discourse that engages with moral and spiritual values.

We need to reinvigorate public discourse about the common good.

We need to rethink the role of markets – and the moral limits of markets.
We’re experiencing the economic fallout of a huge financial crisis.
We’re at the end of an era of market fundamentalism and a mania for deregulation.

Markets cannot be the mechanism for achieving the public good.

More than regulation we need to rethink the role of markets.

We need to reconnect markets with values.

Greed and irresponsible risk-taking must be replaced with responsibility, trust & integrity.
We need to return to proper personal values – and think about the effect of markets running amok.
Markets always run on self-interest & greed.

Conservatives have always claimed there’s some sort of moral alchemy of markets. Plainly this is nonsense.
We need the restoration of integrity.
We have to rethink the role of markets and keep them in their place.

Some things money can’t buy.
There are things that money can buy and shouldn’t.

We’ve seen the expansion of markets into spheres governed by non-market norms – education, health, policing, the military.
Some are now advocating paying kids to get good scores on standardised tests and paying kids to read books. Some are even saying we should sell citizenship to those who can best afford to pay.
Markets embody certain norms.
They leave their mark on social norms.
So where do markets belong and where should they be kept at a distance?

Monetary incentives undermine intrinsic incentives.
Market mechanisms become market norms.
There’s a corruption of real incentives.

Consider the issue of fees v fines.
Should we allow countries to pay their way out of reducing greenhouse gasses? Would that be a fine or a fee?
Should we buy and sell the right to pollute?
This is ridiculous. What we need is a new set of attitudes.

Some things in life are corrupted and degraded if they are turned into commodities.
[eg SATs? – cram the kids, do to them “whatever works” to raise test scores, and pay the schools in Level 4s and 5s. Fine those who don’t score high by labeling them failures and forcing them to change their educational philosophy, and even sacking their senior managers.]

We need to bring moral and spiritual norms into public discourse.

“Efficiency” cannot be the only thing we take into account.

We need to cultivate a shared life and a shared citizenship.

Altruism and civic spirit.

Justice – A Journey in Moral Reasoning

This link might take a while to download because it’s a video of Prof Sandel ‘lecturing’ to a vast hall of students at Harvard, and contains clips of students commenting on the impact of the session(s) and his style of ‘delivery’. It’s also a superb example of what great, interactive teaching should be all about:

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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