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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Harvard prof. asks ‘What is justice?’

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: News

Harvard professor and Brandeis alumnus Michael Sandel said that intense political debates should encourage, not neglect, the incorporation of moral arguments at an interactive forum with students on Monday evening.

Sandel ’75, a Rhodes Scholar and former Brandeis trustee, engaged the students in Rappaport Treasure Hall by asking complex questions about justice and equality. Sandel’s lecture was based on his new book “Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do” and his popular course at Harvard called “Justice.”

“What we need, I think, is a public life that engages directly with big moral questions and questions of justice,” Sandel said.

After admitting he struggled with understanding the works of Aristotle in his first year at Brandeis, Sandel said, “When it came to teaching political philosophy, I tried to design a course that would have interested me back when I was a freshman.”

A Professor of Government who teaches political philosophy, Sandel addressed the importance of bringing concepts from political philosophy into major contemporary issues.

“According to Aristotle, justice means giving people what they deserve,” he said.

Referring to debates about same-sex marriage, Sandel said “lurking just beneath the surface are arguments about justice.”

Sandel listened to arguments in support and and against same-sex marriage before commenting that one of the underlying questions is “what virtues and what forms of family union should the community honor and recognize?”

“To decide rights, we have to think through or debate the social practice in question,” Sandel said.

He explained that many political debates are left unresolved because politicians believe they must disregard their moral values when defending policies. The solution, Sandel said, was to address these moral issues of justice.

Admitting that “democratic politics is messy,” Sandel said that we need to have “a deeper kind of respect [for] the repeating conceptions of the good life.”

In a film clip shown as an introduction to his online Justice course, students praised Sandel for his thought-provoking questions and the discussions and debates he encouraged.

Sandel then discussed the case of Casey Martin, a professional golfer with an injured leg, who was allowed to use a golf cart on the course after the Supreme Court ruled that it did not provide an unfair advantage. Their ruling, rested in large part, on the rights of disabled from the Americans Disabilities Act.

“He [Sandel] seems very comfortable and confident in his approach to politics,” Irami Osei-Frimpong, a graduate student in Philosophy said.

Sandel’s talk was co-sponsored by Gen Ed Now, the History of Ideas Program, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Politics, the Philosophy UDRs and the Office of Communications.

Sandel’s Justice course is available to the public online at