Michael Sandel on what money can’t buy

It was a real treat to see Harvard Professor Michael Sandel at the Royal Institution last night delivering his lecture on The Moral Limits of Markets. Although the audience in the packed auditorium may have been slightly reticent to get involved at first, they quickly warmed up, enlivened by Professor Sandel’s questions on the morals of money in relation to NHS health bribes and offering children cash to read books.

Interestingly, as Professor Sandel pointed out, in some cases, introducing money into a situation can dissolve or displace people’s sense of obligation instead of enhancing it. One example he gave was of a nursery in Israel where, due to some parents being late to pick up their children at the end of the day, it began a system of fining latecomers. But instead of reducing the number of parents who turned up late, it had the opposite effect. It was as if the parents felt they were now paying for the extra hours so felt no compulsion to turn up on time, whereas before they had felt guilty about being late so did try to be on time.

Such was the engaging nature of Professor Sandel and his subject, one can understand why his course on Justice is considered to be the most popular at Harvard.

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