Michael Sandel in China

On the afternoon of 18 May, 2011, a session of an undergraduate course “Critical Thinking and Moral Reasoning” took place at Tsinghua University, one of China’s elite universities. The session featured Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University, who led a heated discussion with Chinese students on the principles of morality, virtue and justice.

The course is offered by Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management (SEM). It is modelled on Sandel’s course “Justice” at Harvard, one of the most highly attended in Harvard’s history. In the past two decades, over 15,000 students have attended the course to explore questions of justice, morality, democracy and citizenship. It is the first Harvard course to be made available online for students through the Harvard Extension School. An abridged 12-episode series is also available on the Justice with Michael Sandel website, with an accompanying book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, a New York Times bestseller.

Michael Sandel at TED 2010. Image by Flickr user redmaxwell (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Michael Sandel at TED 2010. Image by Flickr user redmaxwell (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In fact, Sandel is finding a huge audience not only in the West, but also in Asia. As Thomas Friedman reported in The New York Times, Sandel is a ‘rock star’ in China, Japan and South Korea. Millions have watched his lectures online and bought his books. Tickets for his lectures are highly sought after. Dean Qian Yingyi of Tsinghua’s SEM explained that Sandel’s method of teaching justice is “both refreshing and relevant in the context of China,” because “the philosophic thinking among the Chinese is mostly instrumentalist and materialistic,” and also because of “the contemporary obsession on economic development in China.”

On the occassion of Sandel’s visit to China, Dai Zhiyong, editor of the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolitan Weekend, together with Liu Yu from Tsinghua University and Zhou Lian from the People’s University of China, conducted an interview with Sandel. They have covered topics as vast as virtue, ethics, citizenship, freedom, Confucianism and markets. These topics have been covered in depth by Sandel’s writings, but how do they relate to contemporary China? Below are translated exerpts from the interview.

The debate on ‘universal values’

刘 瑜:您可能已经听说,在中国,现在有一个关 于“普适价值”的激烈争论。支持这个概念的人主张在中国引入更多自由和民主的因素,但反对这个概念的人认为它是西方文化霸权主义的外衣,那么,您怎么看待 这个问题?您觉得存在超越文化和国家的“普适价值”吗?比如,在您看来,存在普遍的人权吗?

Liu: You may have heard about the debate in China over “universal values”. Those who support this concept think that liberalism and democracy should be introduced to China, while those opposing it think it is just the wrappings of Western cultural imperialism. How do you view this question? Do you think “universal values” above all cultures and countries really exist? For example, is there universal human rights?

桑 德尔:因为你刚才说到这场辩论的政治意义重 大,所以我们应该首先弄清楚“普适价值”这个词的精确含义是什么。我想说两点,或者说存在两个问题,一个是哲学上的“普适主义”和“相对主义”。正义和道 德是否仅仅意味着某时某地碰巧流行的习俗?对这个问题,我的回答是:不是,正义和道德不仅仅是恰好在某时某处盛行的习俗。在这个意义上,我不是一个相对主 义者。

Sandel: Because your question has important political meaning, let us first define precisely what does “universal values” mean. I have two points to make. First, the contrast between “universalism” and “relativism” in philosophy. Are justice and ethics merely the prevailing customs at certain place and time? To this I answer: no, justice and ethics are not merely the prevailing customs at certain place and time. On this, I am not a relativist.


But there is another question in the debate on “universal values”. That is, how do we find the principles of justice and ethics that are not bound by certain space and time? There are different answers to this. Since historical records begin, many philosophers have tried to find these principles that go beyond “customs”.


I think it is a mistake to assume that “universal values” are concepts from a certain political system that are forcibly imposed on others. This mistake would cause people to oppose to “universal values”. If that’s the case, it would be a tremendous loss.

Rousseau and Tocqueville: two republicanisms


Zhou: In your book, you mentioned two types of republicanism: Rousseau and Tocqueville.

桑 德尔:对,我倾向于托克维尔式的,因为卢梭 式的共和主义存在向单一“主权意志”靠近的风险,而那正是我们之前谈到的危险。我之所以偏好托克维尔,是因为他一方面强调自治和分享,另一方面也强调公民 德性和品格的培养,而且他强调社群的丰富与多样。这是我对托克维尔的共和主义的理解。很多自由主义者反对对公民德性和品格的培养,因为他们认为这妨碍了个 体选择自己偏好的德性和品格。这是为什么我坚持区分两种自由主义。

Sandel: Yes, and I am biased towards Tocqueville republicanism. This is because the Rousseau style of republicanism has the risk of being too close to ‘sovereign will’, and this is a danger I have mentioned before. I prefer Tocqueville because he emphasized autonomy and sharing. On the other hand, he also emphasized citizenship ethics and character building, and he stressed the importance of a diverse community. This is how I understand Tocqueville republicanism. Many liberals are opposed to citizenship ethics and character building because they think that this will hinder personal choices of ethics and character. This is why I insist on distinguishing between the two liberalisms.

我 想补充一点,在我与自由主义者的这场辩论 中,一个关键的分歧就是培养公民德性和品格的重要性。我认为对于一个好的社会,这是必不可少的。在一个多元的社会里,公民教育、共同善非常重要,而很多自 由主义者对此持怀疑和警觉的态度。这是西方自由主义内部的一场辩论。我个人倾向于反对那种“过度的个人主义”意义上的自由主义,而同情那种强调公民德性和 共同善的观念传统。但我不希望自己的观念被用来为单一的、排他的“主权意志”辩护,这与我的多元主义观念是不相符的。

In my debate with liberals, one key difference is the importance of the nurturing of citizenship ethics and character. I believe that this is very important for a good society. In a diverse society, citizenship education and the common good are very crucial, but many liberals are suspicious. This is a debate within Western liberalism. I am personally opposed to ‘excessive liberalism’, and am sympathetic to the tradition of citizenship and the common good.

Debating Liberalism: East vs West


Liu: I would like to ask a related question. Just now you mentioned the difference between liberalism and republicanism. In your book, you also emphasize different concepts of justice, including liberalism, utilitarianism and communitarianism. Because you emphasize their differences, I would like to ask if they have anything in common. Do they all assume a common bottom line of freedom?

桑 德尔:它们都关切一定的自由,但它们对自由 的看法不同。最大的不同在于,有人将自由理解为纯粹的个人选择,而有人则将自由理解为最大程度地促进人们实现自己的潜能。后者是共和主义的、托克维尔的、 亚里斯多德的传统,在他们看来,我们的自由并不仅仅是在市场中进行选择的自由;只有当我们能够参与到那种帮助我们实现潜能的公共生活时,我们才是自由的。 这是我所支持的自由观。自由放任主义者和功利主义者则强调“选择的自由”,我称之为“消费者式的自由”,而这种自由观在我看来,忽略了我们作为人类去追求 实现潜能的能力。

Sandel: They are all about freedom, but their views on freedom are different. The biggest difference is that some interpret freedom as purely personal choice, while some see freedom as a way to realize one’s potential. The latter is republicanism, Tocqueville and Aristotelian. From their point of view, our freedom is not merely freedom exercised in the market; only when we can participate in public activities to realize our potential can we be free. This is the freedom I advocate. Laissez-faire and utilitarianism emphasize ‘freedom of choice’, and I call it ‘consumerist freedom’. And this view of freedom neglects the possibility of realizing our potential as human beings.

刘 瑜:我提这个问题的原因是,在西方社会,今 天你们的辩论是相对技术化的,比如,“平权行动”法案是否合理?“福利国家”的尺度何在?你们不再辩论人们是否应该拥有基本的言论自由。但在另一些国家, 人们对这种基本自由的价值还存在争议。在这个前提下,找到不同正义理论的相通之处可能就比强调它们的不同更重要了。

Liu: I raise this question because in today’s Western societies, the debate is relatively technical. For example, is the ‘affirmative action’ policy reasonable? What are the limits of the ‘welfare state’? You no longer debate on whether people should enjoy freedom of speech. But in some other countries, people still debate about whether basic freedom exists. In this context, finding the common ground for different concepts of justice would be more important than emphasizing their differences.

桑 德尔:我知道你的意思,我同意同一个辩论在 不同的国家可能有不同的内涵。在我们的国家被视为根本对立的辩论,在另一个国家可能会被视为同一个立场里的小分歧而已。从远处看别国的政治和哲学辩论,经 常会有这种感受。我觉得能在另一个背景下———比如在中国———和你们这样的学者或者中国学生讨论我的理论,是件非常有趣的事情。也许我的理论对于理解思 考中国有点小小的帮助,但是显然,通过了解你们的辩论框架,我能学到的比能教导的要多。这是一个学习的过程。

I understand what you mean. I agree that a debate would take on different meanings in different countries. In some countries, the debate may be fundamental differences; in others, it may only be a minor point of contention within the same ideology. I feel that to debate about my theories with scholars and students from another background, like China, is very stimulating. Perhaps my theories would offer some help to thinking about China, but it is apparent that I can learn more by knowing your framework of debate. This is a process of learning.

Aristotle and Confucius: a comparison


Zhou: Four years ago, I attended your seminar at Tsinghua. There you talked about the concept of “shielding relatives from punishment” in ancient Confucius law. From your point of view, do Confucian traditions have any relevance in contemporary China? Could Confucian traditions enjoy vitality like Aristotelian traditions in the West?

桑 德尔:我希望我能够对儒家传统所知更多,但 我并不了解,所以我不够格回答这个问题。不过,据我所知,儒家传统有关于“德性政治”的丰富洞见。我的书是在西方的亚里斯多德传统中倡导德性伦理,我不能 判断现代中国需要什么样的德性,但我的确认为,西方社会中复兴亚里斯多德德性伦理的努力,和中国社会中某些学者企图复兴儒家德性伦理的努力,两者之间有种 有趣的关联。对他们的相似和不同之处,我很有兴趣进一步了解。为实现这一点,途径之一就是研究西方亚里斯多德传统的学者和研究儒家传统的学者一起阅读彼此 的一些理论经典,共同讨论,相互学习。

Sandel: I wish I know more about Confucian traditions, but I am not qualified to answer this question. As far as I know, Confucianism contains rich insights about the “politics of virtue”. My books advocate virtue and ethics in the Aristotelian traditions. I cannot judge what kind of ethics is needed in today’s China. But I believe there is a kind of connection between efforts to revive Aristotelian ethics in the West and Confucian ethics in China. I am interested to know more about their similarities and differences. One way to do so is for scholars from the Aristotelian and Confucian traditions to learn from and discuss with each other.

The market and ethics


Zhou: In a lecture in 1998, you discussed the question of “what money cannot buy” and the limits of the market. You may have realized that China is a highly commercialized society. Do you have any suggestions on this situation?

桑 德尔:我的建议和我对美国社会的建议一样, 因为美国也是一个高度商业化和市场化的社会。我的看法是,市场对于组织生产、制造繁荣是一个宝贵的工具,在中国,过去几十年市场也非常有效地促进了社会繁 荣,但市场不是生活的全部,因为存在着“市场价值”将“非市场价值”挤出我们的视野的危险,这些“非市场价值”包括正义、公正、平等、社区感以及人与人之 间的相互责任感。美国存在这种危险,欧洲有些人也担心这种危险,在中国,当我得知市场的势头时,我也有同样的担忧。所以我的建议是,市场是促进繁荣、组织 创造性生产的工具,而且是宝贵的工具,但它不是目的,一些更重要的、道德的目标不应该被遗失或者遗忘。事实上我现在正在写的书,书名就叫《钱不能买到什 么:市场的道德局限》。

Sandel: My suggestion to China is the same as that to the US, since the US is also a highly commercialized and marketized society. My view is that the market is an invaluable tool to organize production and create wealth. In the past few decades, the market has also effectively created prosperity in China. But market is not the whole of life. This is because there exists the danger of the displacement of “non-market values” by “market values”. These “non-market values” include justice, fairness, equality, community spirits and sense of responsibility between individuals. I worry about this danger in America and Europe. When I hear about the development trends in China, I also have the same worry. Therefore, myview  is that the market is an invaluable tool for enhancing prosperity and organizing production. But this is not the goal. Some more significant ethical goals should not be forgotten. In fact, I am writing a book – its name is What Money Cannot Buy: The Ethical Limits of Markets.


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