Column on Sandel Says Rumor Is False

Sandel Says Rumor is False

Tibor R. Machan

A while ago a rumor was circulating about Michael Sandel, the Harvard University political theorist who is an avid advocate of egalitarianism. He supposedly refused to allow his children to play competitive sports because these instill the wrong, anti-egalitarian values in them.

I mentioned this in a column, saying “Michael Sandel reportedly refused to let his own child play sports because that would teach them the idea that some people are better athletes than others and that this matters somewhat in one’s life.” Then I went on to criticize the policy and the philosophy behind it.

The column appears to have just recently come to Sandel’s attention, so he sent me an email saying that “this [the report] is false.” I am, in turn, reporting what he said so as to let others know that he despite the report. If I mislead anyone, I apologize. (My hedge, “reported,” may not have been sufficient to warn people that this was just a rumor.)

As to the substance of the issue, an egalitarian would quite naturally object to competitive sports which emphasize differences among people, not their similarities. (They would prefer being a member of a choir, one may assume.) Whatever competitive sport one might consider, in the end some turn out to have outdone the rest, proven themselves better than their competitors. The idea that eliminating such sports might contribute to the elimination of the meritocratic aspects of one’s society is certainly very plausible.

Egalitarians like Sandel’s former colleague, the late John Rawls, explicitly reject the idea that people could deserve their advantages in life. Rawls has written, in his very famous A Theory of Justice, that “The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is … problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim now credit.” (104) This surely implies, also, that any attribute one has that leads one to win in a competitive sport is also “in large part” a matter of fortunate circumstance and thus permitting children to believe that they have earned their victories in such sports would be to foster a seriously mistaken social point of view. (This is why the rumor about how the egalitarian political theorist Sandel’ rears his children appeared quite plausible to me.)

Nonetheless, I didn’t check out the rumor. Given that I was writing an opinion column and not a scholarly paper, I figured it is the substance that matters, not the veracity of the story. But I can appreciate that Sandel would not agree, so I want to make sure that his denial gets at least some circulation. It does bear mentioning, however, that Sandel himself has characterized libertarianism in seriously misleading ways, suggesting, on his TV program “Justice,” that for libertarians there are no moral responsibilities apart from ones that one agrees to shoulder.

Yet, of course, libertarians hold that at the minimum everyone is obligated not to violate the rights of others. Furthermore, libertarians are political and not moral theorists so they do not spell out any specific moral position that we ought to abide by. They do agree, on the whole, that whatever moral responsibilities one has need to be carried out voluntarily even if they do bind one to act in certain ways. Any kind of coerced conduct loses moral significance, which is another reason for insisting on the regime of individual liberty and on rejecting Sandel’s enforced egalitarianism.

So never mind Sandel, just mind his egalitarianism, which he is well positioned, at Harvard University and on PBS-TV, to promulgate. So it is worth pointing out the flaws of Sandel’s position, including their misguided implications for public policy. We can accept Sandel’s denial of what he was rumored to do concerning his children’s playing competitive sports; yet the idea that this follows from his philosophy is worth pointing out.

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