No Wrong Questions

Last night I went to a lecture on the moral limits of a market economy presented by Michael Sandel, which was part of the Hay Festival in Cartagena.

Professor Sandel teaches one of the most popular courses at Harvard University. It’s called “Justice” and it’s about how to decide what is right and what is wrong when everyone everywhere has a different notion of “good” and “bad.”

Sandel’s lectures are so popular because he employs the Socratic method, whereby students learn through dialogue with their teacher, forcing them to answer questions on a truly personal level.

He applied this same strategy last night to a very varied auditorium. His first question was “is it morally right to pay to be first in line for a concert?”

Here, people stood along a fairly clear 50/50 divide.

Then the professor asked if we thought it was right if people paid to be first in line in an emergency room. Here, most people agreed that it was morally wrong.

I am still torn as to what I think. On the one hand I have a firm belief that human morality is varied, unpredictable and fuzzy. And this is in reference to a single person’s morality. Put millions of people together and drawing a clear conclusion on wrong vs. right is impossible.

So upon what sort of input can we expect our lawmakers to base their policies? Upon what I think is right? Or upon what you think is right? Or, should we let more objective economic forces decide?

Out of the three I prefer the economy. But then the real problem becomes equal access to the economy, equal access to the pursuit of happiness.

Many Americans will disagree with me, but if economic opportunity is close to existing anywhere, it is in the United States. In my home country of Colombia, the possibility of economic mobility is centuries away from where it is in the U.S.

Nevertheless, access to the economy is far from perfect even in fabled America. So questions like Sandel’s need to be asked.

Market inefficiencies exist. Otherwise Wall Street wouldn’t have bets to make. And, until they do, moral questions will remain as to the accuracy of basing policy on faceless forces like supply and demand.

The difficulty then is in making sure that, somehow, these questions get asked, and answered, in the “right” way.


  1. The Drugstore Notebook

    No place is perfect, which is why the questions must be asked. But some places are indeed better. And even countries need role models. What country would you propose Colombia looks to?

    Thank you for reading and commenting!!

  2. grapeling

    Ana, ‘fabled America’ is exactly that. Economic mobility is less here (if I read this Brookings article correctly – it’s a PDF) than in many other developed nations, and is tied fairly closely to parental earnings – i.e., what your father earns, you will. I like the Socratic method, and employ it with my own sons – and yes, the questions must be raised ~ M

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