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When students in Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice” filed into Sanders Theatre yesterday, they expected to witness a heated debate.
But the anticipated showdown over markets and ethics between University President Lawrence H. Summers and one of Harvard’s premier philosophers never materialized.
Instead, Michael J. Sandel, Bass professor of government and political philosophy, conducted a relaxed discussion with Summers that touched on issues of conscription, sweatshops and pollution.
“There was a lot of stepping on tiptoe around issues,” said Effie M. Metallidis ’06.
The discussion “sort of evaded the whole sparring of economy and morals,” she added.
Sandel began by asking Summers if certain modes of moral reasoning were tied to economic reasoning.
Summers at first ducked the question and drew laughs from the audience by asking Sandel, “Is it you or Marty Feldstein who is the model for Mr. Burns?”
After a brief digression about “The Simpsons,” Summers turned to the issue at hand and defended economic reasoning as fully compatible with moral reasoning.
“I actually think economics is a mode of analysis that can solve problems that can be harnessed to any ethical theory,” he said.
Sandel questioned the morality of emissions trading, a system of trading entitlement for different nations to emit greenhouse gases.
But Summers countered that the system is not necessarily immoral.
“To suggest that all energy use should be morally stigmatized is to be promiscuous with moral stigmatization,” Summers said.
When Sandel brought up the comparative morality of the Civil War and the Vietnam War drafts, Summers said the system in the Civil War was “much less morally objectionable.”
Sandel pointed out that in both cases, the poor were overrepresented among those who fought and those who died.
But Summers argued that poor people were drafted into the Vietnam War “involuntarily and coercively.”
Sandel asked if economic reasoning would lead to approval of sweatshops, and if so, if there was any rationale for minimum wage laws.
“Minimum wage laws do interfere with exchange,” Summers said. But he added that the positive effects outweigh the inconveniences of the minimum wage.
Sandel concluded with another joke, asking Summers whether Adam Smith’s market system would support the idea that “university professors should be compensated based on the number of people who attend their classes.”
“It’s a powerful idea,” Summers replied.
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