Harvard Philosopher Asks Students, ‘Has the Market Gone Too Far?’

Richard W. Blackburn Lecture challenges students to consider civility and integrity in a market society.

Photo Credit: Scavone Photography
January 26, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

In a world where money determines access to food, housing, education and everything in between, Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, has one question: Should we be worried?

“We’ve witnessed a quiet revolution, where we’ve drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society,” Dr. Sandel said. "So the question becomes: ‘Should we worry about becoming a market society?”

For the George Washington University School of Business’ second annual Richard W. Blackburn Endowed Lecture on Civility and Integrity on Thursday evening, Dr. Sandel engaged freshman students in a lively debate on the issues that arise when market values are applied to all aspects of life.

School of Business Dean Linda A. Livingstone, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Program Isabelle Bajeaux-Besnainou, Dr. Sandel, Trustee Richard W. Blackburn, J.D. ’67, and his wife Nancy Page Blackburn, and George Washington President Steven Knapp. Photo Credit: Scavone Photography

GW Trustee Richard W. Blackburn, J.D. ’67, endowed the event in 2013 to introduce first year GWSB students to an ethical approach to business and to life.

“If we use civility as a building block of trust, we can build a community that is going to be able to do a lot more than we can do as individuals,” Mr. Blackburn said. “That is why I think this event is so important, and I am delighted to have this speaker here tonight.”

George Washington President Steven Knapp said that Mr. Blackburn is a model of the values that the university attempts to instill in the student body and the wider GW community.

“In 2013, our Board of Trustees unanimously approved a new strategic plan entitled Vision 2021…and one of the core elements of the plan is to foster citizenship and leadership,” Dr. Knapp said. “The annual Blackburn Lecture is the perfect opportunity to reflect on that charge.”

GWSB First Year Development program students were led in a recitation of the honor oath written by GWSB freshman Dino Nzanga. Photo Credit: Scavone Photography 

Students exercised critical thinking during the lecture and considered how to use civility and integrity in their daily decision-making. Dr. Sandel posed questions to the audience and asked them to debate whether it was ethical to apply market values to certain nonmarket situations.

For example, in one scenario, students considered whether the government in Namibia should auction off the killing of one endangered black rhino each year to raise money for wildlife preservation.

Though one student agreed that it was an effective method for raising money and saving the species, another student underscored how the authorized killing negated the message that Namibia wanted to send about the sanctity or value of the endangered animal’s life.

Dr. Sandel met with students after the lecture to sign copies of his book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Photo Credit Scavone Photography

Dr. Sandel used this debate and others to underscore his final point—that yes, we should be worried about the corrosive effect of market values on other values.

“Sometimes market values have a crowding out effect and what they crowd out are moral or civic values that matter,” Dr. Sandel said. “I think one of the reasons citizens are so frustrated with public discourse is that it’s empty of ethical, moral and spiritual questions.

“We need to revive the lost art of democratic discourse and revive the art of engaging in public as we’ve done today,” he added.