American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University, Michael J. Sandel is no stranger to Farnam Streeters. He’s argued why we shouldn’t buy presents and the limits of what money can buy.
And now, thanks to The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, we know which books have influenced him the most and why.
These seem to be among the books that can help us reflect on the moral and political conditions of liberal democracy in contemporary America.
Arendt offers the most compelling modern case for the ancient claim that politics is essential to the good life, not merely instrumental to the pursuit of private interests and ends.
Berlin grounds liberalism in the idea that the human good is ultimately plural, that there is no single, overarching value that orders all the rest. To acknowledge the tragic possibility that inheres in moral and political life is to respect above all people’s freedom to pursue their own ends, to negotiate their own moral circumstance.
Hegel contrasts the idea of a civil society, where people cooperate to further their interests, with the idea of a political community as an ethical life that enlarges the self-knowledge of the participants.
Hirsch recasts economics as political economy, and political economy as moral economy. Cost-benefit analysis to the contrary, he shows that the market is not a neutral way of evaluating goods. Not all values can be translated without loss into commodity values, nor does all economic growth produce greater welfare.
Oakeshott’s romantic conservatism contrasts powerfully (and eloquently) with more familiar libertarian versions. Against a philosophy of abstract principles and natural rights, he conceives politics “as the pursuit of intimations.”
Rawls provides the most important philosophical defense of liberalism in our time. Individual rights cannot be overridden by utilitarian considerations, he argues, and the principles of justice that specify our rights do not presuppose any particular conception of the good life.