Few philosophers are compared to rock stars or TV celebrities, but that’s the kind of popularity Michael Sandel enjoys in Japan.
The “Justice” course that Sandel teaches at Harvard University, where he is a professor of political philosophy, delves deep into some hard moral dilemmas we face in our everyday lives. It is said to be one of the most popular classes in the history of the prestigious U.S. academic institution — and it has been televised on the PBS stations.
That course has also inspired many people and sparked a boom in philosophy debate in Japan, thanks to it being broadcast on the NHK Educational channel from April to June.
Helped by the novelty in Japan of his teaching style — which uses the Socratic Method of hard questioning of students in a style named after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates — Sandel has attracted a cultlike following here.
Meanwhile, the translated version of his book “Justice,” published in May, has racked up print runs of 450,000 copies — a third of those within the past month.
The Sandel boom went up a few more notches in late August, when the professor came to Tokyo to give two lectures — one at the University of Tokyo, the other at Academy Hills in Roppongi. At the latter venue, attended by 500 business people and academics, and sponsored by Sandel’s publisher, Hayakawa Publishing Corp., long lines had formed outside almost an hour before the start of the evening event. Tickets, which were free and assigned by lottery in advance, were in such demand that one was reportedly offered for sale on the Web for $500.
Sandel appeared to revel in the frenzy as he appeared on stage to thunderous applause and kicked off the night’s proceedings with the question: “Is scalping moral or not?”
“Let’s begin with markets,” declared the professor, introducing his first theme, which was about the moral limits of markets. He mentioned certain tickets that are hard to get — such as for a World Series game or a Madonna concert.
“Just coming up to this podium . . . I was told there are other people who want your seats tonight,” he said, pacing around the stage. “They are offering a pretty good amount on the Internet.
“Is there anything wrong with that — scalping tickets to a lecture? How many think it’s fine?” Then he cited a case in China where scalpers paid homeless people to line up to get an appointment with a specialist doctor.
“Here is a ticket to Dr. Wang, the famous heart specialist,” he said. “How many find this use of buying and selling morally objectionable? Raise your hands.”
The first audience member to rise to the challenge was a bespectacled young man in a gray suit named Ryosuke, who argued that the scalping in China posed no moral problem.
“My defense is that a scalper takes some risks, such as paying people to line up. If customers find the scalper’s action unjust, they won’t buy the tickets. So the fact that there is a deal means we have a fair commercial transaction here.”
Sandel, who listened to Ryosuke’s reply being translated through an earphone, turned to the audience, asking if anyone wanted to reply. A woman named Kimiko stood up, saying that the deal is unfair to those who cannot afford to buy the ticket. At the professor’s urging, Ryosuke spoke again, saying that he still finds the deal “fair” because it gives people more choices. In response, Kimiko said that the sense of unfairness is greater when it comes to life-and-death matters such as health care, whereas tickets to a baseball game, a concert or even the Sandel lecture would be a less serious concern.
“Kimiko! You consider this a mere entertainment?” the professor exclaimed, grinning. The audience burst into laughter. “Do you think this is like a Madonna concert?”
Sandel then pointed out that Kimiko had raised a new moral concept here, in which the nature of the goods exchanged made a difference to any moral judgment.
Next, he tweaked the debate again, mentioning “concierge medical practices” in the United States — where anyone paying $5,000 a year can get an appointment with a doctor on the same day they call. “Is it all that different from selling of the tickets at the Beijing hospital?” he asked.
Such exchanges continued during the two-hour lecture, in which Sandel was extraordinarily spontaneous and good at drawing responses from the audience.
On education, for example, he asked if it was all right for a private high school to give admission to a student whose parents promised to donate $20 million if their daughter was admitted.
A participant named Dan made a strong case that the deal would benefit everybody because the money could be used to hire more teachers, so enabling the school to admit more students.
A few people voiced objections to that, saying the status of the school would be undermined. Then Sandel asked for more input from the floor.
The hall fell silent. Nobody seemed to be able to outsmart Dan . . . until a young man named Kan finally rose.
“I think there is something very morally incorrect here,” he said. “The parent is saying he will donate $20 million, but by definition, if they are asking for something in return, it’s not a donation. Essentially, he is paying $20 million for a guaranteed admission.”
Kan, pressed further, said that admissions to the school should be based on academic merit only, and giving admission to the children of wealthy parents was unfair because the wealth of a parent is “not something the applicant can control.”
Sandel retorted: “You say admission should not reflect wealth because that’s beyond students’ control. Do you think it’s within students’ control how intelligent he or she is?”
Kan replied that around 50 percent of students’ intelligence can be controlled by themselves. The rest depends on chance and the kind of family they are born into.
As if he had foreseen Kan’s answer, Sandel then brought up a survey in Japan which found that students whose parents are rich — earning ¥12 million to ¥15 million a year — scored 20 percent higher in exams than those whose parents earned less than ¥2 million a year. “What do you make of this finding?” he asked.
At this point, the discussion seemed to have moved from the hypothetical honing of debating skills to a serious consideration of one of the most touchy social issues confronting Japan: the repercussions of its widening income disparity and the moral injustice of it all.
“I don’t deny that the disparity exists, because . . . it’s the result of our society not being purely just,” Kan said. “But one of the reasons for (basing admission just on academic merit) is because you are trying to correct the other 50 percent the child has no control over.”
Then came the last question of the night, in which Sandel asked why parents should not tamper with their children’s genes before birth to make them smarter, taller, more handsome or musical. By then, it was clear to everyone that — even though consensus-based Japanese society hasn’t had much experience of Sandel-style debate on moral issues — people were aching for open and sincere dialogue with others on such themes.
“These topics have been a kind of taboo in Japan, but in reality, people want to talk,” Kan Hayashi — who had spoken against guaranteed admission — said after the lecture. The 32-year-old manager of an IT startup in Tokyo said he has been fascinated by Sandel’s teachings and has listened to his Harvard lectures over and over via YouTube and iTunes.
“We tend to shy away from these debates, worried that we might hurt other people’s feelings. But with the help of a good facilitator, Japanese people, too, can have an active discussion.”
And perhaps the biggest attraction of the “Sandel Theater,” as Hayakawa Publishing President Hiroshi Hayakawa called it, was that the professor demonstrated an exceptional ability to put people at ease, treating everyone equally and with respect — as seen in his policy of calling everyone by their first name.
In fact Kan, who said he found Sandel more inspiring than U.S. President Barack Obama, confessed he was “almost in tears” when Sandel called his name. Kimiko Morinaka, 38, a volunteer counselor from Hokkaido, was likewise thrilled.
“When I saw the NHK program, I felt very strongly that I wanted to participate in such an outstanding course,” Morinaka said. “Coming here tonight was my dream come true. I had long dreamed of being asked, ‘What’s your name?’ “