Past Events



“Should people be free to sell their heart?”

Professor Michael J. Sandel with Asan Academy Fellows

Date / Time: Thursday, December 4, 2014 / 8:40am-9am
Place: The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Gallery

On December 4, 2014, Professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard University visited the Asan Institute for Policy Studies for a discussion with Asan Academy Fellows on the importance of studying the humanities and how questioning the reasons for one’s opinions on ethical and political issues leads to larger philosophical questions. Professor Sandel and Asan Fellows’ debate on whether kidneys should be for sale in the free market led to broader political philosophical considerations of the nature of law and whether law can or should be neutral. Professor Sandel concluded the discussion by sharing his belief in the importance of such questioning, to reflect on one’s settled convictions, and to encourage public debate about moral and civic issues.

Prof. Michael J. Sandel: “It’s great to be back. This is at least my third visit to the Asan Institute, so I feel like I’m coming home. I spoke to an earlier gathering of Asan Fellows one or two years ago. You are in the midst of the program now. I think it is a tremendous opportunity—you know that better than I do—to really have the chance to engage after whatever you studied before with the humanities, with philosophy, with political theory. It is mind altering. It will enable you to grow, and to reflect, and to think critically after working so hard at a particular subject in university. But it will also make you, I think, much more effective leaders with bigger visions. So I think it’s a fantastic opportunity. What I would like to do today is really to open the floor to you to raise any questions or points of discussion that you would like to raise.”

Dr. Hahm Chaibong mentioned as we were coming in that you saw the video of the discussion that we did with students from China, Japan, and South Korea. You saw that the South Korean group came from the Asan Institute fellows group. They did a terrific job. We discussed some very hard and controversial contemporary political issues. But also we got onto some of the broader philosophical themes and debates that those concrete questions raised, about collective responsibility, about whether moral responsibility can reach across generations or whether it is an individual notion. You may want to talk about that. You may have questions on other subjects. I really want to make this your session and open the floor to whatever questions you would like to raise. Who would like to begin?

Asan Academy Fellow #1: “I have an interest in your argument about the distinctions between market economies and market societies. You mentioned how certain non-market values, once money comes into play, you view the values becoming distorted. I personally feel that when it comes to values being distorted by money there is not really a clear cut argument. There are things that do get distorted, whereas there are values that also can be efficiently maximized by the use of monetary values.”

Prof. Sandel: “Can you give an example to illustrate the first and the second?”

Asan Academy Fellow #1: For example, I’ve seen a lot of your videos. On the example of education you mentioned using incentives to make kids study more by giving them financial returns. While this may distort the value of education in the first place, there are also possibilities where the children get to know better what education really means after being incentivized and then they would get interested in studying, and so on.

Prof. Sandel: “Just so that everyone knows the example being referred to, in some schools they are doing an experiment where they are paying students to get good grades, good test scores, or in one case paying a certain amount of money for each book that young children read to encourage more reading. You are saying this could have a good or bad effect if it leads the child to read more books, maybe for the wrong reasons, but then to fall in love with reading and continue to read books for the right reason?”

Fellow #1: “I think that is the case with other non-market values. In the videos that I have seen with your debates, one of the examples was whether you can sell organs in the market. I think for some people, this may distort the value of organ transplantation, but for other people this may not be an issue of morality but efficient maximization, the allocation of resources.”

Prof. Sandel: “If it were up to you, if you were to have a vote in the National Assembly deciding this policy, would you allow a free market in organs for transplantation or would you prohibit it? Currently in Korea, the law prohibits this. Would you vote to change that law?”

Fellow #1: “I think I would because for a government to create laws it needs to be free of values because once the government promotes values in its laws it may have negative side effects, where there are things that are being prohibited for being about moral values that may not apply universally to other people.”

Prof. Sandel: “So you think that, where possible, law should be independent of moral values because you worry that to bring moral values into law risks imposing moral judgments on some people who may not share them.

You have all just heard a good argument in favor of selling organs in the market. It actually raises a broader question in political philosophy, which is whether law should be neutral on moral judgments. Who disagrees? Who thinks there should not be a free market in organs and what would you say to this very powerful argument in favor? Those of you who are against, why are you against?”

Fellow #2: “I would say that if law does not have judgments on some moral values, then why does law exist? Also, in the case of whether there should be a free market in organs, people who really need organs might not be able to pay for organs, which means they may die. We would be stealing their chance to live by letting organs be in the free market. How can we protect people from these cases?”

Prof. Sandel: “So you are saying some people who are poor may need an organ but may not be able to afford one. The reply to that could be that if allowing a free market in organs increases the supply of organs, at least there would be more available that there are currently. Though you might make your argument about poverty and inequality by worrying that those who would sell their organs might feel forced to do so out of desperate poverty. You might worry about that as well. You have brought in the question of whether this would be fair to the poor. Is there someone else who would like to enter this discussion on either side?”

Fellow #3: “I am against there being a free market in organs. It was mentioned that law should be neutral of moral issues, but I think law is based on moral consensus or society’s identity. It is a kind of social custom. I think it is impossible to distance law from the moral consensus of society. Also, I think organs should not be a matter of free market distribution or economic efficiency because this is about human lives, which should not be dependent on financial status or the market economy.”

Prof. Sandel: “So you would say that matters of life and death should not be governed by markets but by other values? You have two arguments. That is one. The other argument, at the level of principle, is that law cannot or should not be neutral on moral questions.”

Fellow #1: “It’s my personal view that law has to be neutral because once we start seeing values being contained within the law what we see is the government making judgments on behalf of all people, that these are certain values that need to be respected. Once the government starts promoting those moral ideas in law and implementing them universally within the state, I think there is a danger of individuals within the state being ignored or neglected in terms of what they value.”

Prof Sandel: “You also invoked efficiency, and I suppose you also think that people should be free to choose for themselves whether to donate or sell organs. Would you say those are moral values? If efficiency—maximizing the number of organs—and freedom—letting people decide whether to sell organs—if those are the reasons you think organ sales should be legal, doesn’t the law depend on those values, those moral judgments?”

Fellow #1: “My personal view is that the only thing law has to protect is the freedom of individuals. Laws made in a way that impose moral values other than protecting the freedom of individuals need to be prohibited.”

Prof. Sandel: “That is an interesting position. But what would you say to the challenge that if you are putting freedom as the highest moral value, you do think that law should express moral value, but a particular one, namely freedom of individual choice above all other values. Someone might ask, “Is that really neutral?” or “Is that simply saying that the value of freedom of choice of individuals should override all other values that people might want embodied in law?”

Fellow #1: “I think it’s a bit different, because once law promotes the idea of freedom of choice, people can change laws with the freedom that they have. When freedom is not the highest value of law what happens is you cannot reverse a situation where freedom is not being respected.”

Prof. Sandel: “May I ask a follow up question to test that idea? We have been talking about a free market in kidneys. Should the law permit people, if they are offered enough money, and if it is worth it to them, to sell their heart? You cannot live without your heart. You can live without a kidney. You cannot live without a heart. So, essentially, should people be free to sell their heart if they want money, to leave to their family, and die?”

Fellow #1: “I think if that is what the individual wants to do then yes.”

Prof. Sandel: “This has been a very short but interesting debate because it began with questions of buying and selling and reached this bigger question of political philosophy whether law should be neutral to morality, whether that is possible, and if so whether it is desirable. We have only just begun that debate, but it is one of the big questions of political philosophy that you will be reading about and thinking about in some of the classes that you take here. We have time for one more question on another topic. People may have had other topics in mind or a question you would like to ask. Who has a question before we finish on another topic?”

Fellow #4: “When you wrote the book justice you presented many questions. Your book is basically full of questions. I was wondering whether you had personal answers or personal opinions to these questions or are you just raising the questions without any personal answers or personal opinions.”

Prof. Sandel: “What do you think?”

Fellow #5: “I don’t think you would have answers, for example, on torture. Would you say that it is morally right to put many peoples’ lives at risk to save one person?”

Prof. Sandel: “Well, we do that sometimes. It would depend on a lot of other factors. We sometimes do that in rescue operations or in wartime. That question would depend on other considerations. It is a little bit different from the torture case, on whether you should torture a terrorist suspect to get the information you need to find a bomb.”

On your general question, I do ask a lot of questions, that is true, when I teach and also in my books. I do have views about them. But the main reason for asking those questions is to illustrate the big philosophical principles and traditions that offer not only different answers to the questions, but different ways of thinking about those questions, about different ways of thinking about justice. The reason there are so many questions is I think that is one of the best ways of engaging people in thinking about ethics and political philosophy. We all have opinions about whether to torture a terrorist to find out where the bomb is hidden, or whether it is right to buy and sell kidneys. We all have opinions about all of these questions, like whether it is right to lie to protect a friend or a family member. We have opinions. But we are not always challenged to give the reasons for our opinions and that means we are not always invited to reflect on the moral basis of those opinions. So, doing political philosophy, I think, begins with questions where we have opinions and then it invites us to reflect on those opinions, to see if someone disagrees and if so whether their reason is persuasive, in which case we may want to change our mind—perhaps about kidneys or about torture, or whatever the case may be—and that may lead us to change the framework, the principles that we bring to these questions. My main goal is to generate that kind of critical reflection about what we believe and why and also to encourage public debate about these big moral and civic questions.

You have now the opportunity here for some months to study philosophy, to study political theory, to study humanities. That is one way of doing it, and that is one of the great joys of doing it. It is a challenge because sometimes your settled convictions may suddenly come into question but that is part of the challenge and the risk, but also the exhilaration and the excitement of studying the humanities as you are doing here.

So, good luck to you. It is a tremendous opportunity.

Thank you for having me here and thank you all very much.



Michael J. Sandel is an American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for the Harvard course “Justice”, which is available to view online, and for his critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002.