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The Books That Influenced Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel

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.

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

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.

Four Essays on Liberty by Sir Isaiah Berlin

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.

Outlines of the Philosophy of the Right by G. W. F. Hegel

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.

Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch

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.

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays by Michael J. Oakeshott

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.”

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

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.

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, and Thomas C. Shelling.