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Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel discusses the morality of the Market and Philanthropy at the Jockey Club’s Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum
Harvard professor Michael Sandel is probably the most popular political philosopher of this generation.
Indeed, the demand for his intriguing lectures have led him to speak on five continents, packing such iconic venues as London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Sydney Opera House, an open-air theatre in New York’s Central Park, and an outdoor stadium in Seoul—where 14,000 people came to hear him speak. What’s more, his writings have been published in 27 languages.
And this September, Professor Sandel is coming to Hong Kong, where he will be the keynote speaker at the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum. Sandel will be discussing the role of market mechanisms in addressing social problems and philanthropy —with other noted philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and policy makers.
In an exclusive interview with the SCMP, Sandel says: “The most successful philanthropic organisation can only succeed if, in addition in honouring those who support them, they provide educative function for those who donate.
The 65-year-old American academic is a lecture hall legend. His celebrated Harvard course on justice regularly draws more than a thousand students. The famous class has become the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on television, and has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world.
The professor is coming to the city to attend the second edition of the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum. Convened by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, the Forum is the first philanthropy forum of its kind in Asia. The meeting aims to provide a public platform to address pressing metropolitan social issues, a timely response to the accelerating global urbanisation which can create many new opportunities for cities —but can also create many serious challenges for cities as well.
Says Professor Sandel: “I am very much looking forward to participating in this forum. Because it deals with some of the most important metropolitan challenges we face today, in Hong Kong and also around the world.”
This will be the master of life's ‘Big Questions’ third visit to Hong Kong in which he has given crowd-pulling lectures at local universities. He is renowned for leading a kind of Socratic debate when engaging his audiences with difficult ethical dilemmas.
For the coming Forum, Professor Sandel says he will engage his audience the same way, but he is especially looking forward to see how the audience will reflect on the ethical dilemmas this time.
“The responses will come from people who are actually engaged and experienced, who are leaders, who are already working on the ground in very concrete ways to solve social problems. So the opportunity to engage with these philanthropists, with social entrepreneurs, with policy makers, with NGO leaders, I think this will lead to a very rich discussion.”
In his best-selling 2012 book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Professor Sandel proposes that we should push back on the growing pervasiveness and power of the market economy to spill into other aspects of our lives; in particular in social and civic aspects. Philanthropy and tackling social challenges fall exactly into these categories.
Professor Sandel considers not only the amount of funds raised and the social good delivered that matter to a charitable act— but also the motive. In a scenario when someone is running in a charity marathon mainly because he wants to gain the admiration of his friends by posting pictures of himself running on his Social Media page — rather than promoting social good, the professor makes the following comments: “If it is purely a selfish act of gaining celebrity, famed philosopher Kant would say, the action lacks moral worth, even though the money I raised might have good consequences.”
But Professor Sandel himself holds a more moderate interpretation; “Suppose you hope to gain the admiration of your friends. But you also care about the causes you are raising money for, and believe in them. So long as you had the second motivation then your act would have moral worth.”
Professor Sandel also points out that motive is also crucial to a charitable organisation— that it has the moral responsibility to channel a ‘sense of mission’ to the donors and teach them about the importance of the causes they support.
“Unless a philanthropy is able to inspire donors into the intrinsic importance of their work and their contributions” Sandel says, “I don’t think they would get very far simply with honorary awards, dinners and charity functions, publicity and so on.”
“The first goal of philanthropy is to contribute to the common good by mobilising donors to solve social problems. Raising philanthropic support is a means to that end. I think the best philanthropy recognises the importance of the distinction between the ends and means,” he explains.
While in Hong Kong Professor Sandel will engage his audience in thinking together about the questions that matter at the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum which will be held on 20-21 September, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Apart from the acclaimed Harvard-based political philosophy professor, the Forum— like its 2016 first edition, features an all-star guest speakers list, including Nobel laureate Economist Professor James J. Heckman from the University of Chicago, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, best known for pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance — which helped millions of poor mothers in Bangladesh open their own small businesses, to support their families. He is also author of the best-selling book, “Banker to the Poor.”
American “Flying Fish” Michael Phelps and former NBA player Yao Ming will also join the Forum to explore the use of sports as a vehicle for social change. With the growing popularity in sports philanthropy, the two superstars will evaluate various sport initiatives that philanthropists should prioritise and discuss how to put them into different contexts across the world.
Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum
20-21 September 2018
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre