Campus & Community

What would Kant do?:

6 min read

Students in Sandel’s ‘Justice’ course apply the great political philosophies to contemporary problems

Michael Sandel in
Michael Sandel’s ‘Justice’ course regularly attracts between 700 and 900 undergraduates, a gathering so large that lectures are held in Sanders Theatre. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Justice prevails.

No, not in the world at large, where, as everyone knows, bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, but in the Harvard Core Curriculum.

“Justice,” or “Moral Reasoning 22,” is a course taught by Michael Sandel, recently named the first Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor. Since Sandel began teaching it in 1981, “Justice” has had a cumulative enrollment of 10,600 students, the largest alumni group of any Core course taught by a single professor.

The course regularly attracts between 700 and 900 undergraduates, a gathering so large that lectures are held in Sanders auditorium. But despite its size, it is not the sort of course in which the teacher imparts knowledge to a silent and passive audience. This audience gets to talk back, to challenge and be challenged in return.

This is how it works: The class reads selections from the great political philosophers – Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls – and hears Sandel lecture on these figures.

But this introduction to the history of political thought is just the beginning. Throughout the semester, students are asked to apply the ideas of these seminal thinkers to the controversial issues of our own day – affirmative action, free speech versus hate speech, same-sex marriage, surrogate motherhood, inequalities of income distribution.

“The course becomes a journey of exploration,” Sandel says. “We read the great political philosophers not as artifacts in the history of ideas, but as episodes in an argument in which we’re still engaged. We’re not just reading Aristotle and Kant, but engaging with them in a continuing debate.”

As a result of this process, students learn that thinkers who grappled with issues of justice 200 or 2,500 years ago may have something important to say about the moral and political issues of the 21st century. But they also learn something else.

“The real point of the course, it seems to me, is to show that it is possible to engage moral controversy through reason and argumentation,” says Associate Professor of Government Russell Muirhead.

Muirhead should be able to distill the essence of the course if anyone can. He took “Justice” as a freshman in 1984, returned to teach sections of the course as a graduate teaching fellow between 1990 and 1996, and now serves as Sandel’s colleague in the Government Department.

Learning to apply reason and argument to moral controversies is important, Muirhead explains, because such an approach does not come naturally. Without training, students tend toward one of two extremes. Either they react with a sort of laissez faire shrug, or they assert their opinion with implacable religious zeal.

“The course teaches that between those two extremes there is a lot of space for reasoned argumentation,” Muirhead says. “It extends and deepens the students’ capacity to reason and argue for themselves. That’s the main achievement of the course, and Michael is brilliant at it.”

There is broad agreement on Sandel’s ability to facilitate class discussion, an ability that is all the more remarkable because of the class’ size. These are not a dozen students sitting around a seminar table, remember, but a veritable ocean of undergraduates, each with his or her own thoughts, opinions, and insights.

“He was a master teacher from the first,” says Kathleen Sullivan, now dean of the Law School at Stanford University and one of Sandel’s first teaching fellows when she was a student at Harvard Law School.

“He was able to captivate and mesmerize large roomfuls of students with a combination of abstract principles and gripping hypotheticals. He also was able to conduct remarkably effective dialogues in those large classes, like a conductor picking out a wind here, a brass there. He posed moral dilemmas so acute one could escape the agony only by thinking.”

Another of Sandel’s former teaching fellows, Jed Rubenfeld, now a professor at Yale Law School, agrees with Sullivan’s assessment.

“He is the greatest teacher I have ever seen. He was able, without visible effort, to make a lecture to some 800 students seem like an intimate, Socratic dialogue. I will never understand how he did this, nor can I ever hope to reproduce it.”

In action, Sandel’s method seems like simplicity itself. He is never flamboyant, never obscure or convoluted in his explanations. Speaking slowly, carefully, but with quiet intensity, he seems to thread his way through the steps in an argument with all the care and seriousness of a man leading the way through a minefield. Participants on this journey of discovery know that their guide will not abandon them or lead them astray.

Certainly Sandel is a master teacher, but, remarkably, his teaching style evolved out of weakness rather than strength. He admits that as an undergraduate he found political philosophy a difficult subject, one that did not immediately captivate him.

“The first political philosophy courses I took as an undergraduate I didn’t really like or understand. I didn’t become interested in the subject until graduate school. So as a young professor, I tried to remember what finally excited me about political philosophy, and I tried to incorporate that into the course.”

Sandel found that to truly involve students in political philosophy he had to engage them on the level of their own concerns and beliefs.

“The contemporary issues we discuss are ones on which students have strong views, so this becomes a way of drawing them into the debate. They find that to defend their view they must develop an argument about rights, justice, equality, political obligations. Before they know it, they’re doing political philosophy.”

What of Sandel’s own beliefs – do they play a part in this process? Not at first. In his lectures on the great political philosophies, Sandel tries to present each in its most attractive and compelling light, and then brings out the most powerful objections to that view. Only toward the end of the term does he begin to speak out of his own convictions and opinions.

“By then the students are well equipped with competing perspectives and are in the strongest position to accept or reject the arguments I present in my own voice. And they do respond. They’re not shy about arguing back or pointing out the weaknesses of my arguments.”

Nor is Sandel shy about facing an auditorium full of students primed to turn his own teachings and argumentative strategies against him. In fact, he welcomes it. And he welcomes the sheer volume of opinions and ideas that his students pour forth. That volume, he believes, is one of the strengths of the course, one of the reasons it has become such an institution.

“There are so many students taking the course,” Sandel says, “that the discussions spill out beyond Sanders into the dorm rooms, the houses, the dining halls. It becomes a shared intellectual experience, with all these students wrestling with the same texts, the same issues. I tell my teaching fellows, if we do our job well, the students will be arguing about these issues long after class has ended.”