21 October 2016
Michael Sandel makes a gesture during a talk given at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last Friday. Photo: CUHK
Michael Sandel makes a gesture during a talk given at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last Friday. Photo: CUHK

‘What money can’t buy’: A Harvard don makes us ponder

Renowned Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel spoke at the Research Centre for Human Values at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) last Friday.

Sandel’s “Justice” course at Harvard has been the most sought-after class in the last two decades. By the year 2009, it became the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on public television, benefiting hundreds of thousands of people globally.

Now, as the academic came to Hong Kong, I finally got an opportunity to attend a live lecture on “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”, a topic based on his bestselling book of the same name.

Sandel kicked off the lecture by challenging the audience whether kidney trade is acceptable. Over 1,400 people in the hall engaged in the controversial discussion, exploring the concepts of free will, choice, informed consent, and so on.

What if the person who pays for a kidney isn’t really motivated by the desire to save a life but merely to claim a trophy to display on his desk? Would it then strip a human of dignity?

Would you ever “rent” a friend?

Probably not, as you might think money would degrade friendship.

How about promoting reading?

Would you consider paying poor children two dollars for each book they read? Could such means really achieve a noble end of instilling reading habits in children, and/or enhancing their reading abilities?

Well, such cash payments yielded mixed results among different US states.

The problem is market, which is regarded as the most efficient and effective solution in the field of economics, starts to invade every aspect in our daily lives, crowding out virtues and public spirit.

In an experiment exploring the effect of financial incentives on students’ motivation, it was reported that those who were offered 10 percent commission did considerably better than the 1-percent group, but less well than the students who were not paid at all.

It clearly illustrates how money crowds out people’s devotion and incentive. Generosity shouldn’t be treated as a kind of limited resource where money can buy more of it.

Legendary course

Sandel’s legendary course “Justice” has seen over 15,000 students getting enrolled over the years. The online version has been viewed by millions of people around the world, including in China, where China Newsweek named him in 2011 as the “most influential foreign figure of the year.”

His first book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 27 different languages. 

In the book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Sandel takes up some of the biggest ethical questions of our time: isn’t there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale?

If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets? 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 14.

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

(Sandel in Oxford)

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HKEJ columnist; Honorary Professor of Practice at the Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong

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